Sunday, July 24, 2011

Nothing's Shocking

At the end of Role Models, John Waters' talky, self-involved, and still somehow entertaining memoir about the people who have inspired him over the years, Waters gives a pretty good description of what art needs to be for it to be successful:  "purposely homely, haughtily failed, and passively confrontational."  He uses Cy Twombley, the Swiss duo Fischli/Weiss, and Mike Kelley as prime examples of winners of this aesthetic taste test, and it's a fascinating bit of art criticism, a full-on ironic monologue that also praises these artists while pointing out the limits of their worth.  Twombley's scribbles, Kelley's dirty stuffed animals, and Fischli/Weiss' hyper-banal photographs of airports all become examples not just of contemporary art, but also metaphors for the way Waters sees the world.  He positions himself as a cherisher of the uncherished, a snob among snobs, with a heart as big as a sweaty, low-rent circus tent, and just as sad and cheap.

Waters is one of my role models, but as I read Role Models I felt like I was on the phone with a loquacious and very drunk best friend.  A lot of the time I wanted to hang up on him and go to bed.  In the book, Waters' voice is chatty to the point of annoyance:  he seems almost too eager to please, as if he is trying to reinvent the past so he can shock people all over again.  In his early movies, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living, Waters' excitement and chutzpah in spotlighting the demented perversions of his cast of misfit talents (Divine chief among them) was bubbly and somehow innocent -- a dreamy catalog of raunchy dramas and activities.  The clothes, props, and sets were the objective correlatives of Waters' meanspirited rainbow frenzy:  whore/clown make-up, thrift-store S&M, flabby flesh inside a dirty pink playpen, a trailer set on fire, an Xmas tree falling on a sour housecoated old lady.  And so on.  He was inventing a way to focus his attention on grotesque freaks by beatifying them, pickling them in their own horrible juices.  All those early movies fit Waters' "homely/failed/confrontational" matrix.  They are even better examples than the examples he sites in Role Models.

I guess the problem is that once you burn down a trailer, push an Xmas tree onto your sadsack mother, and eat dog poop, what else can you do but feel nostalgic?  That's the tone of Role Models, but the tone doesn't fit the subject matter.  Waters seems hellbent on being "shocking" so he can relive what "shocking" used to be.  But there's no shock left now, so his chatty, gossipy takes on Johnny Matthis, Little Richard, Zorro the Infamous Lesbian Baltimore Stripper, and all the rest come off like longwinded but usually entertaining stories about The Glory Days.

The only chapters that broke out of this nostalgia were the one I mentioned about Twombley, et. al., and the chapter about Leslie Van Houten, ex-Manson-Girl.  Waters in this part of the book deconstructs his "love" for the Manson Murders, and gets serious about how being a fan of murderers like Van Houten is a pretty complex position to take.  But he's not trying to shock or lead us into temptation here:  he's writing about personal responsibility and guilt.  It's a sober chapter, and yet it seems more energetic and alive than all the other chapters before and following it.  He comes off like a true friend to Van Houten, a friend who knows all the horrible things she's done and yet he still stands by her.   He stops name-dropping and starts questioning his own life in a lot of ways, as well as trying to figure out his art:  "I [like Van Houten] am guilty too.  Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims' families."

You start to appreciate Waters in this part of the book.  Not as a shock-art auteur, but as a human being coming to terms with his past and how that past intersects with who he is now.  I am one of his biggest fans.  His movies  and persona have been so inspirational to me.  For the majority of Role Models, though, Waters seems dead set on being who he used to be.  He has a strange, vociferous need to please us by shocking us with stuff that doesn't really shock us anymore.