People are talking about John Waters; Review: In the documentary 'In Bad Taste,' Steve Yeager's interviews with the film family of Baltimore's bad boy director expand our understanding of the man and his works.


It is not supposed to be this way. Part two is never supposed to be as good as part one, especially when part one is a lifetime's labor of love that wins the 1998 Filmmaker's Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival for Best Documentary.

But Baltimore filmmaker Steve Yeager has made a sequel to "Divine Trash," his award-winning documentary on the early career of John Waters, that is every bit its equal. "In Bad Taste," which covers Waters' career from "Female Trouble" to "Pecker," premieres tonight on cable's Independent Film Channel as part of an IFC salute to Waters that includes a showing of his classic "Polyester."

As worthy as Waters is, it is Yeager, his Boswell, who should be saluted -- in this case, for his mastery of big-screen biography and documentary. Like the best of Waters' own work, "In Bad Taste" is wise, funny, raunchy, revealing and touching.

Yeager marshals a mountain of film clips, interviews and analyses into a concoction that is as easy and pleasurable to consume as a hot fudge sundae under a mountain of whipped cream. But, when it's finished, instead of feeling guilty, you feel as if you learned something. You have come to understand one of our more important artists in a way you probably couldn't have understood on your own.

The interviews alone are enough to recommend "In Bad Taste." Yeager has on-camera conversations about Waters with such actors as Ricki Lake, Patricia Hearst, Deborah Harry, Steve Buscemi, Mink Stole, Kathleen Turner, Johnny Depp and Sam Waterston. And all of them get down; there isn't a blah-blah-blah interview in the bunch.

Lake is an especially pleasant surprise as she talks about her life on the set of "Hairspray," as a teen actor taken into Waters' filmmaking "family." Pat Moran, the casting director who won an Emmy last year for her work on "Homicide: Life on the Street," became Lake's "surrogate mom." Divine, sweating under all that makeup and never complaining as they filmed during the hot and "nasty" days of Baltimore in the summer of 1987, taught her about "being a professional," Lake said.

Moran, Vince Peranio and all the other long-time members of the family are also interviewed by Yeager. And, no surprise, they are terrific.

Peranio, the production designer who today is largely responsible for the distinctive look of "Homicide," explains how art imitated life in the early Waters' films. As we see a clip from "Female Trouble" featuring a huge metal birdcage, Peranio says: "There's a lot of metalwork in "Female Trouble," because my brothers and I had started a metal company. That was what was available at the moment. And then, once I got out of the business, there's not much metal in John's movies."

Christine Mason, the hairdresser, talks about the tools of her trade, "a rat-tail comb and a can of hairspray," as she describes the look she helped create for hair in Waters' films: "big and wide and, ah, big and wide."

But the best interview of all is with Waters himself. The presence of the young Waters -- in pilot's jacket, long hair and a cigarette at his lips -- hovers at the edges of the documentary thanks to limited use of the fabulous footage Yeager shot some 30 years ago and featured in "Divine Trash." But it is the mature Waters of today who is front and center of "In Bad Taste."

"All my movies were vehicles for Divine. My movies were vehicles for Divine's beauty and my mental illness. My words were written for Divine and spoken through him. I think he knew that," Waters says, as Yeager starts moving the film toward a truly touching moment of homage to Waters' friend and greatest star, the late Harris Glen Milstead, known to most filmgoers as Divine.

The interview, which runs throughout the documentary, showcases Waters' first-rate mind and capacity for cultural criticism. When asked about the concept of "white trash," as it applies to his movies, Waters says, "I would never ever say the term, 'white trash.' I think it's the last politically correct, racist term. It's a condescending term that means you think you are better. I know what you mean, but I don't think of it as white trash in my movies. I think of it as extreme white people."

He explains "good bad taste" by saying, "It's taking bad taste and turning it around -- putting it in a different context through humor and, hopefully, wit."

And all of the smart words and splendid images in the film play against an exquisitely spare musical score by Don Barto, featuring a snaky saxophone, a guitar set on tremolo and a snare drum in search of a strip-tease act.

In the end, ironically, it is Sam Waterston who leads us to one of the great and easy-to-overlook truths of Waters and his work. I say ironically, because Waterston, who co-starred with Kathleen Turner in "Serial Mom," is clearly the one person in the documentary who seems least comfortable with the Waters oeuvre.

"He's a perfect gentleman. And his movies -- the ones I've seen anyway -- reflect this," Waterston says. "They're outrageous, and his interests are perverse and odd and all that stuff. But there's no meanness about him. He wants to shock you without disturbing you or outrage you without offending you. There's a kindliness about his work, and I think it's in his personality."

"He has an incredibly kind heart," Turner agrees. "He takes these very bizarre characters, who aren't necessarily very attractive either physically or emotionally, and he makes you care about them."

The bad news about "In Bad Taste" is that unless you have a satellite dish or the TCI digital cable package, you are not going to be able to see it tonight.

But let me end on a happier note. Tom Kiefaber, of the Senator Theatre, loves Yeager's work as much as I do and says he is negotiating to show "Divine Trash" and "In Bad Taste" in the very near future. In fact, he thinks he could be offering a run of "Divine Trash" within two or three weeks.

I love it on TV, but I can't wait to see it on that big Senator screen.

'In Bad Taste'

When: 8 to 9: 15 tonight

Where: Independent Film Channel (seen locally only on TCI Digital Cable or via satellite dish) Pub Date: 1/29/99

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