“I don’t like rules of any kind,” John Waters once said. “And I seek people who break rules with happiness.”
It’s a tidy summation of the eccentric director’s outlandish career, an unadulterated collection of outrage, filth, and the tipping of sacred cows. As a gawky, talky beanpole of a boy growing up in gritty Baltimore, he tapped into his identity as a social outcast by making outrageous and, at times, incoherent films meant to shock and awe. And, perhaps most important, provide safe harbor for weirdos like himself who had no cultural home to call their own.
A lot of filmmakers are described with the adjective “groundbreaking,” but Waters may be the only one to earn such a sobriquet by presenting cinema so relentlessly foul that barf bags were passed out at screenings. Polyester, the film that catapulted him into the mainstream consciousness of American moviegoers in 1981, starred the preposterous drag queen Divine and former teen idol Tab Hunter and featured cannibalism, incest, castration, chickens having sex, anal stretching and, perhaps most notably, the consumption of dog feces. At screenings, audience goers received scratch-and-sniff cards from which, at selected moments, one could inhale the turbid odors being exhibited on screen.
A retrospective celebrating filmed filth would seem a tough sell, but Waters’ role as the Pied Piper of the repulsive has now begat a retrospective at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Fittingly titled John Waters: Pope of Trash and featuring more than 400 objects, it aims to both contextualize and lionize. Presented in three sections—Waters’ emergence as an auteur of the outlandish, the influence of music in his work, and the cult of devotees that followed—the show declares its mission as tracing “the grotesque, daring, deliberately tacky, hilarious, and salacious elements that recur throughout Waters’s sixty-year career.” The director calls it “the trashcan of my memories.”
The exhibition opens in an ersatz church, complete with stained glass images of Waters (pictured haloed and in clerical attire) and other peculiar stalwarts of his creative ecosystem. We’re treated not to choral music but a sizzle reel of clips spotlighting Waters’s outrageousness. The room sets the tone for what follows, from his scripts, handwritten on yellow legal pads in perfect Catholic school cursive, to early rudimentary movie posters done in black marker. There’s an ode to Dorothy, the Kansas City Pothead, a project he never finished, and an exploration of his first short film, 1969’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket; the electric chair featured in Female Trouble (1971); even those legendary barf bags. (Walking through, one is reminded of just how deft Waters was in kooky casting, mixing the likes of Johnny Depp, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kathleen Turner with Sonny Bono, Suzanne Somers, Pia Zadora, and Patty Hearst.)
Accompanying gimmicks keep the absurdity meter turned up, from a gallery where visitors can dance along with Hairspray characters via footsteps projected onto the floor to a QR code that turns you into a facsimile of Divine and other oddballs from the Waters stable. It’s not quite enough to allay the disappointment in the costumes display, where an entire wall is taken up by Kathleen Turner’s bland Lands’ End wardrobe from 1994’s Serial Mom, while Divine’s signature skin-tight, lipstick-red dress with tulle fishtail from 1972’s Pink Flamingos is glaringly absent. Or the randomness of the show’s conclusion, which is littered with fan art. How amazing it might have been instead to have plumbed some of the director’s influences, such as the midcentury melodramas of Douglas Sirk. But there is none of that here.
With its modish peppermint walls and golden lighting, an exhibit meant to explore one man’s crusade to shock and gross out America feels oddly sanitized, like a Disney theme park ride. It’s a good crash course for those unfamiliar with Waters’s merry subversions, but by mounting his rebellious sensibility in a manner digestible by the general public, what ends up missing is the sense of outrage, discomfort, and boundary pushing that made Waters both famous and infamous. He has forged a career on not caring what anyone, least of all Hollywood, thought of him, letting his arrows—at “traditional” values, dogmatic Catholicism, the legal system, the nuclear family—fly and hoisting his freak flag as high as it would go. You should feel a little squeamish, a tad uncomfortable, viewing Waters’s work; here, one only feels bemused. By tidily packaging his career into a pleasantly visual Wikipedia entry, the show mutes the sheer outrageousness of its subject; the only buttons being pushed are those taking you in the elevator to the gift shop.