Friday, August 20, 2010

High Waters

By Chip Schrader
Book Review Editor

Many people might assume the book “Role Models” would be film maker John Waters’ attempt to enter high culture. But, those who are familiar with Waters’ celluloid schlock and guffaw antics know better. Ironically, Waters’ trademark cinema of “bad taste” has been elevated to high culture in many circles.
Waters begins his iconography with meeting the inimitable Johnny Mathis. There are many parallels that Waters draws between himself and Mathis, and many stark differences. While Mathis is only rumored to be a homosexual, Waters has been out for decades. They seem to have an appreciation for art, music, and literature. However, Waters admits he’d be embarrassed to have Mathis look at the books on his bookshelf, or the subject matter of the paintings and photographs he hangs on his walls, and feels his liking of Provincetown might be seen as distasteful to the more discrete Mathis, but then again, maybe not. The contrasts of these two men bring a sense of irony to their meeting for this book.
Tennessee Williams is another off-center icon that Waters has followed. In contrast to Mathis, Waters knows that Williams would be more at home with his sensibilities for the profane and the obscure, but perhaps Waters’ most shocking connection is with former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten.
Waters once had a morbid fanfare for the court trials of the Manson family, and had attended some of the trials. He eventually wrote a letter to Van Houten, and as time came along they became friends. Waters’ moves into the murky territories of innocence and guilt, childhood naiveté and morality with criminal justice. Neither Waters, nor the latter day Van Houten are forgiving or condoning of the murders, nor is there much slack given for her participation. But, Waters pointedly mentions Nazi war criminals had served less time than she, and the brainwashing and fearful environment didn’t seem too different from the Manson commune. To say the least he gets readers thinking in directions we are reluctant to go.
This book seems to have all of the ingredients that Waters tends to combine. Stereotypical people who beautifully fit their stereotypes, filth, wealth, poverty, and people who break every stereotype for their demographic. An example of an anti-stereotype, Waters tells the story of a lesbian burlesque dancer who collected welfare, used drugs and was a registered Republican. Waters loves contradiction just as much as he does simplicity, and it all fits together so well in his work.
As we learn the origin of his pencil mustache, his ill-fitted clothing, his LSD consumption, and his love of oddities and campy kitsch, Baltimore and Hollywood are both three ring circuses and John Waters is the ringmaster, and makes no apologies. As far as his movies go, “Pink Flamingos” is only suitable for the most daring movie goers with its many perverse juxtapositions of humanity while “Serial Mom,” “Hairspray,” “Cecil B. Demented,” and “Pecker” are gems that any filmgoer with an eye for the offbeat would happily devour.
With “Role Models,” John Waters acts as equal parts sociologist, tabloid writer, and peeping Tom without a strain or awkward leap. Like his many films, “Role Models” is a guilty pleasure worthy of a million cringes. Highly Recommended!
Photo caption: The cover of John Waters’ “Role Models” ( image)