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John Waters Brings His Filthy World to New London

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John Waters — This Filthy World

7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London. (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org

 

A discussion with John Waters is that rarest of celebrity things: an actual discussion.

He's happy to reel off a list of his latest projects, including a forthcoming book about how he hitchhiked cross-country from his beloved Baltimore home to his San Francisco apartment. "It took 21 rides," he explained in a phone interview last week. Did any of his benefactors recognize him? "Mostly, they thought I was homeless."

But he's not a huckster or a hustler, selling you his latest product. Waters is just passionate. He's a gifted conversationalist and a good listener. And he's listened respectfully to everyone from sanctimonious bible freaks to serial killers. He's been afforded a similar respect himself for his confrontational movies, from Pink Flamingos to Polyester to Serial Mom to Cecil B. DeMented. "They respect my opinions," he says of audiences for his one-man show "This Filthy World," which he performs Nov. 9 at the Garde Arts Center as a benefit for Alliance for Living, the support organization for AIDS/HIV-affected people in New London County.

Asked for memories of previous visits to New London, he mentions the time that he was enticed to visit a gay bar in the city after a show and "all my suitcases were stolen out of my car."

Waters praises the good works of Alliance for Living and is appalled that "there are kids in their 20s now with HIV." He scolds them lightly — "You haven't heard?" — and warns that despite the medical advances made in fighting HIV/AIDS, living with it can be a pharmaceutical nightmare.

Later in the conversation, he chides the present-day gay community for becoming so "nice." "Why do gay people have to be good now?" A lifelong advocate of gay rights, he personally has no interest in ever getting married ("I'm a happy man being alone") and doesn't enjoy gay bars ("Me, I like the three gay people in the hipster bar.")

Waters' refreshing open-minded, unflappable attitude hasn't changed in decades. When asked if a more "mainstream" John Waters has emerged since the international success of the Broadway musical based on his film Hairspray, he quickly mentions the NC-17 rating he got for his sex-crazed 2004 flick A Dirty Shame.

John Waters' Bedside Books

John Waters has immaculate taste and insatiable curiosity. Here's what he's been reading lately.

Dear Dawn: The Letters of Aileen Wuornos. Correspondence of a serial killer.

Mainly on Directing by Arthur Laurents. The second volume of the catty West Side Story writer's memoirs.

Summer of Hate by Chris Kraus. Unnerving novel from the author of Aliens & Anorexia and I Love Dick.

The Barefoot Bandit: The True Tale of Colton Harris-Moore, New American Outlaw. Bob Friel's biography of the celebrated burglar.

Life After Death. The memoir of Damien Echols, who was falsely convicted, then released from death row, in the killing of three young boys in Tennessee. Waters contrasts the book with Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption, journalist Nancy Mullane's accounts of convicted murderers who have a chance at parole.

May We Be Forgiven, the latest from dark contemporary novelist A.M. Homes, who often deals in themes of sex, death and family.

Waters calls Hairspray's massive success — whether the original 1988 film (with longtime Waters diva Divine as Edna Turnbladd, Ricki Lake as her dance-happy daughter Tracy and Michael St. Gerard as her boyfriend Link Larkin), the Broadway music developed from it (with Harvey Fierstein as Edna, Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy and Matthew Morrison as Link), and the second film based on that musical (John Travolta, Nikki Blonsky, Zac Efron) — "the only subversive thing I ever did in my life." Known for his embrace of subjects that in some circles are considered to be in exceeding bad taste or unspeakably crude — the subject of his everchanging lecture event "This Filthy World" — the director is delighted by how Hairspray has messed with the status quo. Now that the show has trickled down to school and community productions, he's enjoying how fits of Political Correctness is affecting his story of an overweight white girl who wants to dance to '60s R&B "race music" and whose best friend defies her racist mother by becoming a "checkerboard chick."

He's quoted in the New York Times as saying that Hairspray would allow "fat kids" and queens the chance to star in the school show, but in reality, the productions often chicken out or go too far. "I have seen Hairspray done with a skinny black girl as Tracy," he marvels.

Waters penned the introduction for the recent autobiography of Ricki Lake, which contains laments about her weight problems, a turn-around for an actress who once declared pride in her plumpness. "Oh, that," he sniffs. "I always tell her, 'Oh, you looked good fat, too.'"

If anything shocks John Waters, it might be that his audiences seem so unshockable. At his "This Filthy World" talks (which include extensive question-and-answer segments), "no one ever gets mad — except in San Francisco, when I say that the public transportation is good there."

John Waters remains a hallowed icon in his native Baltimore, where in January he'll narrate a "Hairspray in Concert" presentation by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and where he's been part of city Christmas tree lightings as the guest of former Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley. In this election year, has Waters endorsed or campaigned for any candidates? (O'Malley, now governor of the state, was himself in a tight race.)

"No. I never come out publicly for candidates," he says, justifying his reticence by evincing a distaste for wealthy donors who contribute to both sides of a race, "hedging their bets. They shouldn't be allowed to."

On the other hand, Waters continues, "everything I do is political, because everything I do asks people not to judge other people. I don't care if you're a religious fanatic, I just don't want you to make me have to be one. I don't make you have to watch Irreversible."

Pop-culture references such as that — Irreversible is a controversial 2002 French film about two men savagely seeking vengeance for the rape of a female friend — are a big part of John Waters' charm. He eschews the obvious, and enlightens instead. He can be starstruck, but doesn't let that blind him from appreciating lesser-knowns, underdogs and ordinary folks. His 2010 book Role Models idolizes Johnny Mathis, but also just friends he grew up with. The soundtracks for his movies, and the extraordinary Christmas and Valentine's Day CDs he compiled, celebrate records that were regional hits in Baltimore or elsewhere but not nationwide sensations. Thanks to Waters, many of these artists have gotten more recognition late in life than they did when their records were first made.

That's John Waters all over — drawing attention to also-rans and the chronically misunderstood. And he's doing it in hit movies and musicals, bestselling books and charity-benefit appearances in luxurious theaters.

Gushing over the grandeur of venues like the Garde, he exults: "I play in the most beautiful theaters — like Johnny Mathis!"


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