One day in the fall of 2008, I was huffing and puffing up Jones Street when I saw a diminutive, vaguely seedy fellow with a shopping bag and a pencil-thin mustache cross in front of me, heading west on California. I’d heard John Waters had bought an apartment in a nearby high-rise, so I wasn’t particularly surprised to see him in my neighborhood. Nonetheless, it wasn’t an everyday occurrence, so I hurried around the corner to catch up to him. “Mr. Waters,” I called out as I approached from behind, out of breath and provoking a fleeting look of concern, discomfort and distaste. I could read his mind: “A certified lunatic? Nah. An obsessive admirer? Nope. But not someone I especially want to chat with, either. Do I look like I’m dressed for a social engagement?”
Waters sightings in San Francisco have been frequent recently, beginning with his jaunty presentation of the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting to James Schamus at the San Francisco Film Society’s glittery Awards Night. The 64-year-old godfather of cult cinema was in the audience two nights later for the world premiere of All About Evil at SFIFF, earning a shout-out from director Joshua Grannell (as Peaches Christ) from the Castro stage. Waters turned up two weeks ago for the full hour on KQED-FM’s “Forum,” a warm-up of sorts for that night’s City Arts & Lectures conversation with Kevin Berger at the Herbst.
This flurry of appearances was occasioned by the opening of Waters’ latest solo exhibition of photographs and sculptures at the Rena Bransten Gallery (through July 10), and even more so by last week’s publication of Role Models (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), a collection of candid and wittily self-indulgent essays. The delicious opener, “Johnny and Me,” a digressive set of observations occasioned by his meeting the smoothly iconic Johnny Mathis, sets the tone with its unremitting though consistently entertaining name-dropping and philosophical musings on celebrityhood, gossip, adolescent influences and the importance of art in one’s daily life.
“I’m obsessed with taking public transportation in San Francisco so I can feel like a real local,” Waters writes in Role Models (in the essay saluting his favorite designer, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons).
It’s to be expected that Waters finds San Francisco so simpatico, given that ours was the first city outside of Baltimore where his films found an enthusiastic audience, long before New York. One intriguing question that arises is whether he’d he be sufficiently moved to shoot a movie here. Baltimore is his muse and inspiration, of course, and his films contain countless scenes shot in and around hometown bars, houses, alleys and corners that were landmarks of his formative years. Waters doesn’t have the same history and relationship with San Francisco locations, and that may ultimately be more of a factor in deciding to make a film here than story, characters, budget or aesthetic values.
“Aesthetic value,” as it was assessed back then, was not the prime selling point of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Yet in the ensuing 35 years Waters has made it to Broadway, Hollywood and, of course, Cannes, where he sat on the jury in 1995 with the likes of Jeanne Moreau and Gianni Amelio. His acerbic, sardonic commentary as host of the Independent Spirit Awards was pure pleasure, and he turns up as an insightful presence in a shelf of documentaries (The Cockettes, This Film Is Not Yet Rated and It Came From Kuchar, to name a few).
It should be noted that “San Francisco” are no longer the two scariest words in America, which might be another indication that we need him to shoot a film here–to blaspheme Fisherman’s Wharf, send fireworks shooting from Coit Tower’s nozzle and scare the hell out of prospective tourists in the other 49 states.
Waters has succeeded, wholly unexpectedly, in bridging the underground and the mainstream, gay and straight, the dangerous and the cuddly, pop culture and real culture (if that last distinction hasn’t been erased altogether in this country). Then again, if your circle of close friends included Divine, Patricia Hearst and Leslie Van Houten, you might still be considered too outr‚ for “The View.” (“We need pornographers,” Waters told Michael Krasny on “Forum.” “They’re our friends” because their lawsuits have resulted in 1st Amendment rulings that protect serious artists who explore sexuality. Try saying that on national TV these days.)
The week before I shanghaied Waters atop of Nob Hill, he’d performed his ever-evolving autobiographical monologue, “This Filthy World–Dirtier & Filthier,” at the Castro in a benefit for Frameline. I had written an advance blurb for SF Weekly’s “Night+Day” section, and I quickly mentioned it to put him at ease that I wasn’t a complete crackpot. Frankly, it was also a shameless (shameful?) effort to establish my bona fides, all for a one-block conversation.
“Oh, yes, I cut out that clipping for my files,” he replied. Now it was my turn to be surprised. Doesn’t he have assistants doing that drudge work for him? Isn’t he somehow above it?
I got my answer only a few days ago. In the acknowledgements in the back of Role Models, Waters thanks a certain Joan Miller at the Wesleyan Cinema Archives, who “is quite adept at locating obscure news articles I’ve clipped and shipped off to my collection there.” He’s referring, I think, to mentions of peripheral or forgotten cultural figures and true-crime cases. But I have to assume that’s also where every review or reference to his work is preserved for posterity. Posterity can have my little critic’s pick; I got to kibitz with John Waters, all to myself, for three minutes.
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