Friday, September 15, 2006


(Real To Reel)
(USA, 2006, 86 minutes)
Written by: John Waters
Directed by: Jeff Garlin
Cast: John Waters

In the mid-80s, when I was a film student here in repressed "Toronto The Good", the Ontario Film Review Board, under the leadership of the notorious Mary Brown (who was so severe she banned the anti-porn documentary "Not A Love Story" on the basis of obscenity), the film "Desperate Living" was granted a special one-time screening at a decrepit rep house, with armed guards stationed at the theatre doors in case all those naked pogo stick afficionados and the spectacle of George Stover crushed by his overweight housekeeper turned us into orgiastic maniacs.

Flash forward to 2006: that same film's director gets a standing ovation at the world's second largest film festival (in what would be his fourth appearance, at least), while the motion picture adaptation of his Broadway hit shoots across town starring the lead from "Saturday Night Fever" (which was released the same year as "Desperate Living" and was likely 1,000,000 times the hit)... to paraphrase the butler Heintz from "Polyester": it saddens me that bad taste has become so common!

(but only just a bit...)

Jeff Garlin of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" directs this concert film (of sorts) capturing John Waters’ self-described "vaudeville show" to a college crowd in New York. Long-time afficionados of the Baltimore-based provocateur will be familiar with much of the material--his love of gimmick pioneer William Castle, the yes-Divine-really-did-eat-dogsh*t account, his obsession with criminal trials--but there are some new bits here, and not all of 'em tasty--for example, I'm forever scarred having been told what the 21st definition of a "blossom" is...

Waters’ act begins with his emergence from a confessional booth, from which he steps onto a trash-hewn stage (Waters’ mere presence was once enough to generate the proper seedy aura, although he is one scary lookin’ dude in HD) to engage in some autobiographical ditties about his Baltimore childhood and his fledging years as a self-financed cinema rebel.

He makes no apologies for his early career as a shoplifter (from which he smuggled vinyl records in a special coat)—considering he’s had to pay as much as $25,000 to put some of those songs into his mainstream films, “they got their money back.”

As a youngster, he was enchanted by Cyril Ritchard’s portrayal of Barrie’s “Captain Hook” (who is part of Waters’ own “Holy Trinity”, along with the Wicked Witch Of The West and Patty McCormack’s “The Bad Seed”) and would tape his father’s neckties to his head to mimic the pirate’s characteristic locks, with the “hook” fashioned from scotch tape and a coat hanger. Initially inspired by the gimmick films of Castle (“Percepto” and “Emergo” anecdotes for those few who have no idea what he’s talking about), he discovered the homoerotic underground films of the Kuchars, Warhol, Jack Smith (“Flaming Creatures”), and Kenneth Anger (“Scorpio Rising”, “Kustom Kar Kommandos”) before teaming up with a certain corpulent transvestite in 1964 (at the age of 18) for his debut opus “Hag In A Black Leather Jacket”, in which a black man and a white ballerina are married by a Klansman, hereby setting the tone for the bulk of his creative career.

He’d go on to create what he called the “instant movie” with ripped-from-the-then-headlines “The Diane Linkletter Story”, based upon the sordid life and suicide of Art “Kids Say The Darnedest Things” Linkletter’s daughter. 1967’s “Eat Your Makeup” had Divine imagining him/herself as Jackie Kennedy in a parody of the Zapruder film, less than 4 years after the JFK assassination.

These anecdotes, certainly familiar to anyone who’s read “Shock Value”, “Crackpot” or caught any of Waters’ Letterman appearances, are a reminder of how easy it was to outrage once upon a time (providing you had willing participants and a knack for skirting obscenity laws), and how hard it is today (witness the indifference to Waters’ cuddly ode to perversion “A Dirty Shame”) when the average “South Park” installment makes the lobster rape from “Female Trouble” look tame.

Waters admits that at this stage of his life and career he’s all out of anger, and is blissfully happy. Eschewing transgression (not for long, we can hope), he spins affectionate yarns about his rep company, chiefly the late great Divine, of course, but also charter members like the better-known Johnny Depp, Traci Lords, and Patricia Hearst. That being said, his Michael-Jackson-visiting-a-burn-ward bit is so deliriously profane you can forgive that making fun of Bahrain resident Wacko Jacko seems as obvious as a Kenny Bania "ovaltine" joke.

Waters’ performance was filmed over two nights at Manhattan’s Harry De Jur Playhouse. Garlin’s direction is purely the stuff of career college Broadcast Arts 101, but it’s to his credit that he lets his engaging subject carry the show, even if he does indulge in some reverie-killing audience cutaways (IMHO, there’s nothing less funny than watching other people laugh…). It certainly ain’t much of a movie, but for fans it's a chance to experience Waters at his best.