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Filthy: The Weird World of John Waters
Robrt L. Pela
Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2002.
$15.95, £10.99, 209 pages, ISBN 1-55583-625-9

Nicolas Magenham

In the second chapter of this biography of John Waters, Robrt Pela recounts his short stay in Baltimore—the director's hometown and the setting for all his films—and admits to a feeling of disappointment, as the natives did not look like Waters characters: "No snaggle-toothed punk has accosted me, demanding money at knifepoint. Even in the worst part of town—the filthy inner city, where I wandered among decaying row houses in search of angry reprobates—people were shockingly ordinary, even kind" [10]. He noticed that the only people worthy of the title "filthiest people alive" are Waters's fans—who do not necessarily live in Baltimore by the way. Nevertheless, Pela's purpose in this book is not to demonstrate that Waters's films are a mere product of his frenzied imagination and that his cinema has nothing to do with the circles in which Waters moves. Around the end of the book, Pela brings out the visionary aspect of his films regarding American society. With its trash talk shows on TV and its discussions of a semen-stained dress and a badly placed cigar, the society of the turn of the century looks like a Waters film, Pela rightly points out. He goes so far as to imagine Bill Clinton "playing the Divine role in a real-life Watersian comedy" [139].

It is not really surprising to read that when the nonconformist director was a child and a teenager, one thing mattered to him: to escape from the tediousness and the moral rigidity of his environment. As a child, he was fond of marvelous tales and wild children's television programs which allowed him to flee from his "suburban hell", and as a teenager, he often went to New York in order to watch independent films by Andy Warhol or the Kuchar brothers. During his teenage years, he also met people like Mary Vivian Pearce whose influence on his works is tremendous. Waters recounts how the nuns at his Catholic School greatly influenced him too, as they sparked his interest in "forbidden films"! "I thank God for pointing me toward my vocation so early in life", Waters states [8]. This quotation shows that this chapter is not only very instructive about the origins of Waters's trademark as a filmmaker, but it is also one of the most hilarious parts of the book. Anecdotes about Waters's taste for gruesome situations and fantasies about car accidents when he was a kid are particularly juicy. In fact, Filthy is full of quotations by Waters—generally taken from Shock Values, his autobiographical essays—which reminds the reader of the fact that he is not only a brilliant filmmaker, but also a brilliant writer and commentator of his own films. For instance, every Waters fan remembers this scene from Pink Flamingos (1972) in which a chicken is squashed between two characters who make love. Waters's remark to justify this disturbing scene is worth the price of the book itself: "[n]ot only did the chicken get fucked, so to speak, […] it also got famous in a movie to boot. We actually made this chicken's life better" [76].

In Chapter 3, Pela narrates how Waters met his future collaborators: David Lochary, Pat Moran and Maelcum Soul—whose "radical makeup and outrageous thrift-store chic had an enormous impact on the look of the young filmmaker's earliest characters" [21]. Maelcum Soul's appearance makes one regret that there are no photos of Waters's friends and/or collaborators in the book, the small drawings by Paul Wilson which pepper Filthy being a frustrating compensation. Of course, Pela also relates in detail the relationship between Waters and his protégé, the drag queen Divine. For instance, he refers to the famous "dog-shit scene", in Pink Flamingos, but instead of lingering over its transgressive aspect, he focuses on the strong link between the director and his star: Divine is so grateful to Waters for making him famous that he goes so far as to accept to eat faeces in front of his camera. Divine's gratefulness is even highlighted by the fact that during the shooting of the scene, the poodle was fussier than the actor, since it took it a long time to defecate.

Following the example of Waters's films, Filthy contains unusual elements like an amusing posthumous interview of Divine or a chapter entirely made up of quotations relating to the "dog-shit scene". Unfortunately, even though they are intrinsically appealing, some of these unexpected chapters are sometimes detrimental to the book's unity. For instance, when Robrt Pela examines John Waters as an object of cult, it may represent an interesting sociological study of fans, but it detracts from the real subject of the book, that is, John Waters. Pela also offers a "bluffer's guide to recurring imagery and motifs in John Waters films". While it is often funny, this guide is generally superficial; Pela contents himself with paraphrasing the films (except in his study of the religious themes). Anyway, according to Pela himself, the real purpose of this chapter is more to "impress your date with insights into Waters references to Luis Bunuel and the Catholic Church" [111] than to be a highbrow study. Besides, Pela never really delves into "serious" subjects, even in other parts of the book—which is quite fortunate, in view of this rather disappointing guide. For instance the engagé aspect of Waters's cinema such as his pro-choice position is treated in a very sporadic way.

Even though Pela never really deals with political or sociological issues, he nevertheless strives to bring out the paradoxes inherent to the Waters persona, such as his adoration for both Warhol and Disney, or the fact that he worked both as a radical, independent director and as the employee of a Major. Reading the first pages of this biography is enough to realize that Waters's father may be the origin of this contradictory personality; although he was very Republican, Waters senior always supported John's nonconformist cinematic activities. For instance, for the short film Eat Your Makeup (1968), Mr. Waters helped his son build a dope vending machine! "I actually look back in awe that he did that", John Waters tells about his father [33].

To conclude, although Pela is not really worthy of the title of "the filthiest biographer alive", his book is nevertheless enjoyable and his tongue-in-cheek style will no doubt please John Waters himself. For Waters aficionados Filthy: The Weird World of John Waters is a must.


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