When John Waters gives a public performance of his one-man show at the Annenberg Center’s Zellerbach Theater on Tuesday, admission is free, but expect college students in the audience to pay a small price.
The iconoclastic filmmaker, author, and self-described “people’s pervert” — his performance, now sold out, is called “This Filthy Life, an Evening with John Waters” — will spend a minute or two chiding collegians for getting schooled in campus activism by a bunch of high school kids from Parkland, Fla.
“I just think it’s so neat what they’re doing,” said Waters, a proud college dropout and lifelong advocate for learning by doing. He sees the latter in the accomplishments of the Parkland students who, after a gunman killed classmates and faculty and shot up their school, used social media tools to create and administer a fruitful political movement.
It’s an example of what can happen when you “stop studying and leave the classroom,” said Waters. It’s ironic that Waters’ appearance commemorates the creation of the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation at Penn, with a hub at the Annenberg, funded by a $15 million commitment from Keith L. and Katherine Sachs, longtime supporters of arts in the region.
Of course, when Waters tells people to stop studying, he does not imply they should stop learning. Waters is a passionate reader (six print newspapers a day, God bless him) and doggedly productive writer (several hours a day, longhand, starting at dawn) who learned about life by soaking up the bohemian culture of his native Baltimore in the 1960s.
He preferred those lessons to the curriculum offered at the high schools — all three of them — he attended in the Baltimore area.
When you leave the classroom, he said, “you start living. And that’s where the real learning starts,” he said. An obsession with “getting on the honor roll” might get you into a prestigious school, but achievement, in his view, can also be seen in the fact that the Parkland kids have actually accomplished the passage of new gun control laws in conservative Florida.
Waters attended NYU very briefly before leaving in the midst of a pot-smoking scandal. He learned the craft of movies by watching and making them, including his 1972 bad-taste breakthrough, Pink Flamingos.
“Philadelphia was one of the first cities where it caught on and helped pave the way for success in other cities,” Waters said of Flamingos, about a competition to crown the “filthiest person alive” and known for its infamous dog-poop sequence.
Forewarned is forearmed.
“My whole show is a trigger warning,” said Waters, aware he may be speaking to students accustomed to safe spaces. That’s never been his zip code. “I thought you went to college to be challenged. That’s the point of leaving your home, your comfort zone, and learning new things.”
Certainly it’s worked for Waters, who made a series of independent and willfully disreputable movies starting in the 1970s — Polyester, Hairspray, Female Trouble, 19 in all — and though he hasn’t made a movie in several years (not for want of trying) he hasn’t faded into obscurity. Instead, he’s found — gasp! — respectability, despite a lifetime of trying to avoid it. He’s now working on a book about “how to avoid respectability if you accidentally get it.”
It may be too late for Waters. Hairspray became a Broadway hit, and Waters’ has become, to his surprise, a beloved figure — honored, even. Sought out for speaking engagements by fancy schools, honored by venerable groups — he received the Writer’s Guild award in 2017 for lifetime achievement, presented by fellow bard-of-Baltimore David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire.
“It’s a little like being at our own funeral, listening to people line up to say nice things about you. But I’m proud of it,” said Waters, who has described writing as the only part of filmmaking he truly loves. “I’ve always been a writer. It’s really how I make my living.”
And Waters is far from dead, professionally or otherwise. He’s been writing screenplays diligently and has sold a few in recent years, though none have gotten a studio green light.
That’s a bit strange, because as Waters’ movie projects sit in Hollywood limbo, his aesthetic seems more popular on screen than ever. Certainly he made the commercial world safe for the gross-out comedy — his fingerprints are on the current comedy Blockers, about girls trying to lose their virginity on prom night, featuring wrestler John Cena doing something unspeakable with beer and a funnel. It’s an act that Waters regular Divine might have done in the old days without batting a false eyelash.
Have the movies caught up to him?
“I think it’s more like they’ve come down to me,” Waters said.
Or they’ve all met in a happy middle. Certainly what Blockers and the Broadway version of Hairspray understand is that underneath all the “filth,” Waters was trying to embrace humanity in all its forms, or to gather everyone under humanity’s biggest tent (as he says, “I was never a separatist”). His movies are a cocktail (dirty martini?) of race, class, sexuality, gender fluidity.
“I generally don’t think [my movies] have ever been mean. I think with me, audiences want to be surprised and taken someplace where they don’t feel safe, and you can do that without being cruel. There’s a line there, and I’ve been searching for that line my whole career — what you can get away with and still be funny. I actually think I’m weirdly politically correct, as much as I make fun of that whole concept,” he said.
Waters was also a DIY guy before that was a thing. If it comes to it, would he scrounge money for another independent film?
Waters said he’s way too old for Kickstarter. He likes budgets.
“When I make a movie, I want to be able to pay people.”
Besides, he’s writing nonstop. He’s written nine books (his latest, Make Trouble, based on his 2015 Rhode Island School of Design commencement speech, will be on sale at the Zellerbach), and is working on another collection of essays, Mr. Know It All. He’s writing and touring with shows like “This Filthy World,” and will continue with his annual Christmas performance, already booked for more than a dozen cities (including Philadelphia).
As our conversation concluded, he was preparing to jet off for an appearance in Buenos Aires. It’s a hectic life, and he loves it.
“If I stopped,” he said “I’d probably die.”