A John Waters Roundtable
With Stanford's Jon Davies and Michael Kinney
John Waters has been called The Sultan of Sleaze, The Prince of Puke, and The King of Schlock—all titles he wears proudly. In advance of his appearance at with Stanford Live, we invited two aficionados of the iconic Baltimore-born filmmaker to share their insights. Jon Davies, a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History, wrote an M.A. thesis called “Trash Is Truth” on queer performance in American underground film with a chapter on Waters and his longtime collaborator Divine. Michael Kinney, a Ph.D. student in musicology at Stanford, has presented papers on Waters' use of music in developing an aesthetic of disgust.
What makes John Waters a distinctly American filmmaker?
MK: In a way, the people around John Waters all had these relatively tame upbringings but also these extreme personalities that were maybe only the product of having lived in suburban areas. How do you reconcile this other personality or identity within that very cookie-cutter environment?
JD: Yeah, and that seems to get taken up in the way John Waters talks about his past and Divine as well. There’s that book by Divine’s mother and the joy of it is seeing Divine through her eyes and just that idea that Divine could emerge from the most banal circumstances.
MK: And have a very “normal” upbringing as kind of the epitome of this stereotypical queer kid in 1960s America then flourishing after he finds other like-minded people. That’s an interesting part about the Dreamlanders [Waters’ cast and crew of regulars] and John Waters, that they all kind of found each other through, or despite, those normalized American environments.
What role does nostalgia play in the worlds that John Waters creates?
MK: For me, Nostalgia is connected to his ability to stand back and say, you know, this whole ideal of the American Dream is very strange. I think that the nostalgic worlds he creates critique his upbringing and the normalcy that is often associated with mid-century suburban domesticity.
JD: I think there is a nostalgia for queer identity as something monstrous and criminal. The Life magazine exposé on homosexuality in America came out in 1964, which was when Waters was making his first short films. There was the beginning of a sea change. I think he understood that being seen as a problem or perversion has a lot of power to it. His films always seemed to be looking back on a model of queer identity that was prior to “liberation.”
How does music contribute to his subversive cinematic aesthetic?
MK: In Waters’ early films, he uses a mix of many different genres to enhance his aesthetic of trash. But he also uses songs that are often the B-sides of records. Like in Pink Flamingos you have this early proto-punk, surfer rock B-sides that no one’s ever heard of and I think that kind of adds that grittiness. But also in Pink Flamingos, you also have songs like Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” that are used as musical backing for Divine walking through downtown Baltimore. And it’s very clear that they’re appropriating this Jayne Mansfield image for Divine in this very ironic way. Irony is key to how music is used in Waters’ films.
JD: It seems to me a very distinctly queer cultural practice to be reading those pop objects against the grain. Also, I think it’s important that he was so plugged into the experimental film world in New York and seeing what people like Kenneth Anger (in L.A.) were doing. Anger’s soundtrack for Scorpio Rising consists entirely pop songs that are kind of turned against themselves and it was quite early to do that in this avant-garde realm.
Where and in what ways do you see the influence of John Waters in popular culture today?
JD: Something that I’m just so delighted by every day when I wake up is that he’s become this kind of public intellectual and a widely celebrated figure. He’s in so many documentaries that he’s become iconic for a much greater audience than I think many of us ever imagined.
MK: I always think it’s funny seeing him on talk shows. Everyone’s just so uneasy around him and I think that’s a good thing. He’s someone that forces you to check your values and your judgements at all times.
JD: I definitely think of Oscar Wilde a lot.
MK: That’s true. I hadn’t thought about that, but they’re analogous. I think he’s present every time we feel the right to laugh at stuff that pushes boundaries. I think he’s also there in how we respond to irony, especially in film. And in terms of what we find shocking but also what we have the tolerance for.
JD: I think that’s such a good point that so much of what makes up mainstream culture is so degraded now and should be shocking to us, but we’re just kind of immune to it. But then what I think make his films so enduring is there’s always this extremely strong wit and intelligence behind the shock.
Related Event: Apr 18
Bing Concert Hall
John Waters In Conversation