Forget shrinking icecaps — for filmmaker-raconteur John Waters, the clear and present danger facing America is the loss of its precious heritage of trash culture, thanks to the rule of irony.
“Everything’s been infected by irony,” he complains in a phone interview from Provincetown, Massachusetts. “Real trash doesn’t have irony. The best Russ Meyer films were the ones he took seriously. And [Paul] Verhoeven made Showgirls seriously, no matter what he says now.”
However, Waters, who is talking up the forthcoming DVD release of his ’Til Death Do Us Part TV show, must bear partial responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. After all, his 1972 trash classic, Pink Flamingos, single-handedly revived production of the eponymous trailer-park lawn icon and created a generation born with one eyebrow permanently arched.
’Til Death Do Us Part, an independently produced re-enactment program that appeared for one season on TruTV (née Court TV), may be revived next year, though negotiations prevent Waters from discussing details. The show is based on real-life crime cases involving married couples, who eventually turned on one another, resulting in murder.
“I think [’Til Death Do Us Part] saved lives,” Waters says, “because couples would watch the show together and think, ‘It’s really hard to kill someone and get away with it — the spouse is always the first suspect.’”
Waters is an old crime hand who, before he became too recognizable in public, held season tickets to many trials. “When I went to the McMartin trial,” he says of the infamous child-molestation case gone wild, “Aljean Harmetz from TheNew York Times went with me, because she was doing a feature on me. The day we went, it was Children’s Asshole Day, with big blowup photos of children’s assholes! And I’m thinking, ‘She thinks I know this is what they’re doing today, and that’s why I’m here.’”
Waters didn’t write anything for ’Til Death Do Us Part, but he appears as a narrator, named the Groom Reaper, who first appears at the couples’ weddings and delivers pithy Crypt Keeper/Alfred Hitchcock–type wrap-ups at each segment’s end. He’s easily the best thing about the show.
“It was a great luxury,” Waters says of working on the program, “to not have to go to a set and be asked a million questions. I liked all the dialogue they wrote, and I picked my own clothes.”
The show reflects television’s shifting definition of reality — or, at least, of programming. Strictly speaking, the scripted ’Til Death Do Us Part is not a reality show, since actors are used to play characters whose names have been changed or whose personalities may have been combined and spiced up. It’s no Cops, nor even a tongue-in-cheeker like the shows about Denise Richards and Lindsay Lohan’s family,and may be a little difficult to justify under the rechristened TruTV’s mandate to present “not reality [but] actuality.”
Still, Waters’ name is now synonymous with this show, as though erasing all the film work he’s done.
“To this day,” he says, “if I’m on the subway, that’s how most people who don’t know me as a director now recognize me.”
Waters sounds a little amazed by this fact, and somewhat pensive in general, as though trying to make sense of our ironic republic. His father recently passed away, but the auteur seems happy enough, knowing, he says, that his father had enjoyed a good life and marriage.
With his appearance on TruTV being scripted by another writer, and with two Broadway musicals — Hairspray and Cry-Baby — being staged without his creative participation, I wonder if Waters isn’t concerned that he’s turning into a brand name. “I hope so!” he says enthusiastically. “Especially when I heard Alan Cumming has a perfume line out called Cumming.”
In a recent interview with Gary Indiana, Waters surprised his interrogator by admitting that he always votes in elections, a point he elaborates on with me. “I think people who don’t vote should feel guilty,” he says. At these words, one imagines Kathleen Turner’s Serial Mom character scowling at the civic slackerdom surrounding her.
Yet Waters soon discloses another side to his attraction to polling booths. “I love to cruise when I vote,” he says. “People dress terribly, and some stand outside the polling place with signs — I mean, who doesn’t know who you’re going to vote for? Do these people holding the signs really think people show up to a polling place wondering, ‘Who am I going to vote for? Hey, there’s someone with a sign — I’ll vote for that candidate!’”
At the heart of Waters’ electoral diligence lies a rather dark self-interest. “I don’t want to get the death penalty,” he says. “Every time you vote for someone, it eventually affects, in some small way, whether or not the death penalty comes in. And I might do something on a bad night that will get me the death penalty.”
Hoping to move the conversation back to cheerier ground, I ask who Waters thinks should be Barack Obama’s running mate. It’s the one time Waters is stumped. “Shirley Chisholm?” he ventures after a moment. “From beyond the grave?”
Talk inevitably bumps up against California’s recent legalization of same-sex marriage, and, again, uncertainty creeps into Waters’ voice. “I’m for anyone getting married,” he says, “but it’s not for me, because I wouldn’t want to have to pay alimony. Gay divorce and tattoo removal are the two biggest moneymakers. I’m more of a radical feminist than I’m a good homosexual.”
Like many people with an eye to the near future, Waters questions the timing of California’s gay-marriage love fest. “I wished it had happened after we got a Democratic president in,” Waters says. “Then no one could do anything about it. The time to do something like this is when an election is already over, then you can go, ‘Ha! Ha!’
“We’ve got to learn to stop giving Republicans red-meat issues before an election,” he adds.
For years, Waters has been a fixture on a kind of trash lecture circuit, where his one-man evenings offer glimpses into his obsessions, peeves and reminiscences. He plans to soon leave the dunes of Provincetown for the damp of Dublin and the heat of Europe, with his latest show. Repackaging my Obama VP question, I ask Waters if he’s ever thought of teaming up with a second person, Abbott and Costello–style, along the lines of the Timothy Leary–G. Gordon Liddy pairing of the 1980s, or the more recent Christopher Hitchens–Martin Amis double-hitter. “I don’t want to share the fee — no one does!” he says, quite sensibly. “Who would I pick? Who is my opposite — some Christian, I guess, but I don’t want to give them attention.”
Once more, Waters must reach into the grave for a running mate. “I guess,” he says, “David Lean would be a choice, because I could insult his insufferable good taste. Or Katharine Hepburn — she always got on my nerves and had no sense of humor.”