Well aware he’s gone from moral threat to American icon, John Waters brings “Devil’s Advocate” back to Vancouver

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      Because outraging, well, everyone is harder than it once was, it’s not surprising John Waters sagely sees himself as squarely middle of the road in the world of mainstream pop culture. In some ways, that’s where he’s always wanted to be, even when he was masterfully exploding the boundaries of good taste with films Pink Flamingos (in which iconic drag queen Divine happily eats freshly-delivered dog shit) and Polyester (where audiences received scratch-and-sniff cards, highlights including airplane glue, gasoline, and farts).

      “I was never doing what I consider outsider art because I wasn’t naive,” Waters says, speaking from his hometown of Baltimore. “I knew the exact critics in New York that would like me. I knew which distributors to approach. I first got Variety when I was 14, so that’s not ‘outsider.’”

      Just getting warmed up, he continues with: “Pecker, the movie I made about an artist, was outsider. But I was calculated. Because I always wanted to be a success. And we always had an audience—even when we were doing shows in churches and basements, they were always sold out. They were crazy people, but still I had an audience. It wasn’t like we were ever playing to an empty theatre. That came later when I had giant Hollywood movies.”

      Hang in there long enough, and you sometimes go from a moral threat to a beloved treasure, with that proven by everyone from Little Richard and Elvis Presley to Johnny Rotten and Eminem.

      Waters’ early DIY guerilla works—Eat Your Makeup, Female Trouble, Desperate Living—earned him titles like the Pope of Trash, Prince of Puke, Duke of Dirt, and his personal favourite The Anal Ambassador. Today, the 78-year-old has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, has seen his work turned into Broadway smashes (Hairspray!), and has had has career celebrated by the Academy of Motion Pictures (the ongoing LA exhibit John Waters: Pope of Trash) even though he’s been nominated for exactly zero Oscars.

      He’s also reaching new generations with his travelling one-man roadshow, Devil’s Advocate, which is heading back to Vancouver at the Rio after it played here last fall.

      Other than confirming it’s a primer on how to “reinvent the movie business, embrace stupidity in an intellectual way, and even go beyond the limits of sexual transgression,” Waters doesn’t want to reveal too much about the show, which is constantly being revamped. One thing he can promise is that it requires him to be quick on his feet—something that he also proves to be in his interview with the Straight.

      Bring up America’s favourite Mango Mussolini, and the bizarreness of Donald J. Trump being in court for allegations he paid hush money to former porn star Stormy Daniels, and Waters is quick with his take.

      “They are going to get into some really heavy stuff, and he’s going to have to be there every day,” he says with a laugh. “Stormy—she didn’t make that up, wouldn’t have gone that far. She said she wouldn’t talk, and if I was him I guess I’d be pissed off about that. But even the National Enquirer turned against him, so you have to wonder. I say in my show something really dirty about this, but you have to pay to hear it. I will say, though, ‘What is his type?’ He told the prosecutor, who was a woman, in his rape trial, unasked, that she wasn’t his type. I would have like to see his lawyers’ faces when they heard that. It’s like, ‘Please. Shut up.’”

      That leads him immediately to the rise of right-wing American nationalist groups like the Proud Boys.

      “We did worst extremes,” Waters drily notes. “I think about the Proud Boys, and that we bombed the Capitol when I was young, although I’m not saying that I’d do that now. Although I did get laid at riots. And Antifa is kind of cute. They’ve got good outfits, and their trash-can lids and black duct tape have a certain panache to them.”

      He offers a perfect fix for American Republicans, many of whom have an image problem with everyone in the country who isn’t, well, insane. First, he applauds them for doing an effective job of button pushing—something that he’s an expert on as a filmmaker, author, and comedian.

      “The Trump people love how pissed off they make us,” he marvels. “They love how mad they make us, and I get that. But it seems to me the right is also really stupid, because if they picked a middle-of-the-road Black Republican, they’d win. Don’t they know that?”

      Even if he didn’t see himself as making outsider art before going Hollywood with Hairspray, Cry-Baby, and Serial Mom, the director will acknowledge that, back in the ’70s, his work was invaluable in moving the counterculture needle in a positive way. To discover a fellow weirdo who knew about grindhouse screenings of Multiple Maniacs, Mondo Trasho, or Pink Flamingos was to instantly bond with someone who thought, gloriously, different from 99 per cent of the people in the straight world.

      Speaking volumes about Waters’ journey is 1972’s Pink Flamingos, initially reviewed in Variety as “one of the most vile, stupid, and repulsive films ever made.”

      Described in an elevator pitch as “A bizarre fat woman (Divine) and her misfit family compete with a Baltimore couple (David Lochary, Mink Stole) to be named the filthiest people alive,” the movie was originally banned in Switzerland, Australia, and parts of Canada. Today it’s now in the United States National Film Registry, honoured by the Library of Congress in 2021 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

      Given Waters’ exalted ascension in the mainstream, the question becomes: “What’s changed over the years?” That, he will argue, is complicated.

      Suggest to him that America is currently a place where the right seems to have a new level of disdain and hatred for everyone on the left, and Waters suggests that’s not necessarily new, even if the MAGA hats are.

      “You couldn’t fly your freak flag in the ’60s,” he argues. “If you drove across the country with long hair, you got the shit beaten out of you. Now if you drive across the country with a medical mask on, you get beat up. But it’s a different thing. The censorship now comes from the left now, and my show is about that. That’s why I’m a middle-of-the-road maniac—tired of the self-righteousness of the left, and the close-mindedness of the right.”

      There has been progress, though, even if half the subcategories on PornHub make you want to stop the world so you can get off—and not in the way most people go to PornHub to get off.

      “It’s much more easy to be young,” Waters offers. “My god—the trans movement was accepted in one year by young people. Gay rights took two centuries. I see all sorts of parents now going, ‘Can’t you just be gay?’ And that makes me chuckle, so the show is about that, too. The sexual revolution is here, and I’m just some leftover loser from the first one.”

      Leftover loser? Sometimes one has to exaggerate for comedic effect. Push him a bit, and Waters will allow that he’s, entirely by design, aware of his status as a beloved American icon—instantly recognizable for his pencil-line moustache and impeccably tailored retro-chic fashion sense. And Waters is recognized whenever he’s out in public, which is something that he’s thrilled by—proof that sometimes flying one’s freak flag pays off in the most inspirational of ways.

      “I don’t understand why people who are in the public eye go, ‘It’s such a pain.’ Like, why did you go into show business? Isn’t that the point—to become so famous that you can’t leave your house? It’s a high-class problem for a producer of trash, as I used to say all the time. There are many more things you can be uptight about than someone asking you for an autograph or a selfie.”

      John Waters is at the Rio on Thursday (April 25) for a live-director commentary for Cry-Baby, and Friday (April 26) for Devil’s Advocate.