The persistence of filth: John Waters’ Mr. Know-It-All

‘Aging gracefully is the toughest thing for a rebel,’ writes the renegade filmmaker John Waters in his new memoir, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder. Notorious for pushing the limits of bad taste in his 60s and 70s midnight movies, Waters has increasingly turned to life-writing and public speaking. (In October, he embarks on a tour of Australia with his one-man show ‘Make Trouble’.) His latest book finds him reflecting on his reputation as an elder statesman for the cultural dissidents who ‘can’t even fit in with their own minorities’.

Much of the humour in the book derives from the eminent position in trash culture that Waters occupies. ‘I’ve signed asses, dicks, tits, stomachs, backs, even tongues,’ he gleefully confides. ‘For a while there I had a run of transgender men asking me to autograph their mastectomy scars.’ Waters goes on to cite a letter from a fan who credits him with saving her life after his public musings on anilingus led her to discover and treat her anal cancer. It is a fitting anecdote for a memoir so committed to the shocking ribaldry that has become its author’s signature.

Waters is well aware of the challenges that attend the preservation of his camp/punk aesthetic. To begin with, his acquisition of wealth and fame inevitably distances him from the underground element from which he emerged. He is also careful to register the decimation of the independent film industry that led to his success: ‘There used to be ten or fifteen companies I could pitch my movies to, but now there are about three. Art houses are not grossing what they once did. Get used to it.’ Finally, he must reckon with the passage of time, and come up with new ways to present his iconoclastic persona before it becomes routine.

Can Waters still ignite the incendiary spark of his humour? On the evidence of this book, the lustre has not yet dimmed. Admittedly, there are lapses in his ability to keep pace with the zeitgeist. (I cringed at the passage where he describes an experimental New York restaurant as ‘Cooler than Coolio’.) But more often than not, he proves himself adept at confounding expectations. When Waters chronicles his misadventures in first-class air travel, for instance, I was prepared to roll my eyes at the grievances of the privileged elite. However, I was soon disarmed by the arch self-regard he brings to the scenario, particularly when he proposes to ban fellow passengers from ‘laughing out loud at whatever bad, unfunny Hollywood comedy they’re showing… Can’t you see I’m writing a sonnet?’ It also becomes clear that Waters has lost none of his edge. At one point, he ponders what films were scheduled to be shown on the ill-fated flights of September 11, only to express dismay at the findings of his research: A Knight’s Tale and Dr. Dolittle. Even the shadow of historical catastrophe will not restrain him from deploring the banalities of popular entertainment.

Waters’ irreverence is especially striking in light of recent anxieties that surround the socio-political implications of humour for minorities. We see such concerns take centre-stage in Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette, wherein the comedian repudiates her own self-deprecation as a form of internalized shame. Mr Know-It-All issues a timely reminder that queers can also draw upon humour to reinvigorate their sense of pride. Waters most explicitly raises this possibility when he imagines the formation of a ‘volatile army’ that aims to ‘abolish antigay bigotry through the warfare of wit,’ and ‘lay waste to worldwide homophobia with fashion aggression.’ If we took play more seriously, he suggests, we might realise its potential as a radical assertion of identity.

To be sure, the philosophy that Waters espouses comes loaded with moral complications. It is hard to deny that his constant search for audacity leads him to moments of cheap exploitation. In fact, this is the danger he has flirted with for his entire career. In his earlier memoir Role Models, he repents for the glib treatment his early films gave to the real-life horror of the Manson family murders. The latest instalment includes another allusion to that tragedy, but here the effect is to lend irony to his complaint about the lack of intersectionality in his generation’s counter-culture. ‘Was I the only gay activist in the world who felt discriminated against when I realized there were no homos inside the Manson family?’ he wonders. This time around, he is quick to include a resolute condemnation of the cult in a direct address to Manson: ‘I’m glad you’re dead,’ he sneers. ‘You were the piggie.’

If you can forgive his insensitivities, there is something to admire in Waters’ perennial insolence. The most impressive feature of the book is the author’s show of strong nerves, his readiness to confront brutal facts and come up smiling. True to form, he is less than subtle when he literally dedicates his ‘final chapter’ to the whimsical prognostication of his own death. But there is a smaller moment, tucked away in ruminations on trips to the beach, that stands out for its surprising poignance. The narration begins as a reverie of idle pleasure, but suddenly shifts gears by announcing the looming threat of sharks. ‘Last year one attacked a bather in the same spot I swim every day, but it didn’t scare me away,’ he shamelessly boasts. ‘It made the beach seem much more glamorous to me.’ He then shares that he experiences ‘complete bliss’ every time a violent wave knocks him down. It is this fantastic image, with its strange combination of serenity and grit, that best captures his spirit.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Sebastian Sharp is a recent PhD graduate in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. His thesis dealt with 21st century representations of camp. He has written for the Sydney Review of Books, The Conversation and Limina.

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