A John Waters Christmas
by Larry Murray
Some think only a heathen would make a pilgrimage to Baltimore to see the ultimate Pope of Trash on the cusp of Christmas Eve. Well, that’s me. John Waters had just returned from a month on the road, beguiling audiences with his version of the holidays. On December 21, 2011 he arrived at his last stop, the new Modell Performing Arts Center in downtown Baltimore which was packed to the rafters with Mary Land‘s most ironic citizens. They were quite a diverse cross section of society, which must have pleased Waters immensely. He hates separatism and this audience was as colorful as the performer on stage, filled with both plain folks and others who looked freshly arrived from a film set.
The instant Waters strode into the spotlight the place went wild. Unruffled, he thanked the audience again and again until they calmed down and began, as he always does, with his wish that Johnny Mathis was there on the stage with him, Mathis to tell the tales, and Waters to sing the songs. (Waters does indeed have a CD of his favorite Christmas songs, with the lyrics slightly altered to offend those with annoying good taste.)
Waters trademark skinny mustache was delicately perched on the very edge of his lip, though he admitted he actually has to use a pencil to make it dark enough (“That’s why they call it a pencil mustache” hereminded us). His spartan hair has continued to gray as the years go on.
In love with film since he was a schoolboy, Waters has made 17 films to date, the last being A Dirty Shame in 2004. His best known include Hairspray, Cry Baby, Pink Flamingos and Serial Mom. I met him shortly after he made Pecker in 1998. He was as kind as a doting uncle, though like all of us, I hear he has bad days too. Usually he doesn’t let it show.
He knows how many people endure the holidays with dread, so he describes Xmas with John Waters as “a self-help show to get any creative neurotic through the Christmas holidays.”
“Preholiday activities are the foreplay of Christmas. Naturally, Christmas cards are your first duty and you must send one (with a personal, handwritten message) to every single person you ever met, no matter how briefly. If this common courtesy is not reciprocated, never speak to the person again. Keep computerized records of violators and hold the grudge forever; don’t even attend their funeral.” – John Waters
Nothing perks him up like the Christmas season, which seems odd for a filmmaker whose most famous scene is the actor Divine swallowing some dog poop. This alone makes him a persona non grata in proper social circles.
Making films is still on his list for Santa. “Right now, every studio is looking for the John Waters that made people nervous. They’re looking for kids who’ve shot a film on their cell phone for $30,000 that they spent on credit cards that they’re going to buy for $100,000, and spend $900,000 fixing it up and buying music rights,” said Waters.
“That’s great for kids, but I don’t want to go backwards.”
He has been frustrated in his quest to finance his next film which he has dubbed Fruitcake, and it is entirely possible that his one-man show is simply a prelude and lure to find the means to finance this movie about Christmas.
His fixation on Christmas is a lifelong addiction. Both in his book Why I Love Christmas and on stage, he explains how he starts worrying about its arrival even as the last of the fireworks are filling the July 4 sky. “Only 174 days left until Christmas,” he exclaims.
“By December I’m deep in Xmas psychosis,” he recounts, “and only then do I allow myself the luxury of daydreaming my favourite childhood memory: dashing through the snow, laughing all the way (ha-ha-ha) to Grandma’s house to find the fully decorated tree has fallen over and pinned her underneath,” he says as the audience gasps with pleasure.
Waters admits that “My candy-coloured memories have run through the projector of my mind so many times that they are almost in 3-D. That awful pause before my parents rushed to free her, my own stunned silence as I dared not ask if Granny’s gifts to us had been damaged, and the wondrous, glorious sight of the now semi-crooked tree, with balls broken, being begrudgingly hoisted back to its proper position of adoration. “O Christmas tree! O Christmas tree!” I started shrieking at the top of my lungs in an insane fit of childhood hyperventilation before being silenced by a glare from my parents that could have stopped a train.”
Waters ninety minutes on stage pass as swiftly as Santa’s hurried stops on Christmas Eve, the structure of his one man show totally different from other monologuists such as Spalding Gray and Mike Daisey. Their tales are more literary, leisurely undulating in long complex phrases which waft to ones ears rather than rushing. With Waters, the ideas come tumbling out like spilled marbles on a glass floor . When combined with the perversity of many of his topics, the effect is totally absorbing. John Waters delivers his words straight from his furiously firing brain, a refreshingly different sort of holiday happening.
His delivery reflects his life as a film maker. There is a distinctive film-like rapid cross cutting, fortissimo-pianissimo pacing that never allows the audience to relax. If we didn’t quite understand his references to Peyton Place and Grace Metalious, it’s but a few seconds before he switches gears and is tattling on Elvis Presley. He hurtles from past to present to future, in what seems no more than the twinkling of an eye. (Don’t you just love Christmas metaphors?)
Or Justin Bieber. It seems that Justin Bieber’s weird drawn-on mustache was the result of a shared gig with filmmaker John Waters on a British talk show. For the whole time the two were together, Waters recalls, “the pop singer kept staring at my mustache. Finally when it was Bieber’s turn to talk he blurted out: “Your ‘stache is the jam.”
Of course he is an expert on all things gay, but admitted that keeping up with the latest jargon is not easy. “Recently someone used a new term, describing someone as a blouse. So of course I asked what that meant. “Oh, it’s a feminine top, of course,” they explained.
Waters spends summers in Provincetown, and when I lived there would run into him all the time, as he bicycled up and down Commercial Street, where he is just another one of the boys albeit a little more famous. Every year there is a gathering of bears there, and Waters suggested that Santa Claus would probably be the top choice among the gay “Polar” Bears.
After an hour of nonstop talk about Christmas, the sexual life of Santa Claus, his penchant for hitchhiking all over Baltimore, and meeting the most interesting local people that way, he opened the floor to questions. The audience peppered him with smart, perceptive queries, one of which asked him if he ever had trouble “coming up with new jokes”.
“I hope it doesn’t come across as mere jokes,” he replied, “I prefer to think of it as wit.”
Exactly. Next year, Waters will no doubt hit the road again to share the holiday with others. How we would adore him in the Berkshires. (hint, hint)
John Waters surely loves this holiday with its giant inflated Santas and garish light displays more than any other. Bad taste is fun. And Christmas has more of it than any other time of the year.