When I was still an adolescent, I was given a copy of the Movies Unlimited catalog, a thick, small-fonted, glossy-paged piece of junk mail that left me instantly captivated. It seemed as though every movie that had ever been made was available for order from its pages, thousands upon thousands of DVDs and VHS tapes, all arranged haphazardly in a layout that now seems almost anarchic. But I loved movies, even at that age, and I pored over every colored column or shaded insert, beginning with the films and directors I knew--Hitchcock, The Wild Bunch, Tim Burton, Jurassic Park, anything with John Wayne or Vincent Price--and moving on to ones I didn't, until I came to Pink Flamingos, a solitary film whose very description defied my comprehension:
The landmark "exercise in poor taste"....that still fascinates and repels moviegoers. From a trailer hideout near Baltimore, "filthiest person alive" Divine and her demented family defend her title from would-be usurpers David Lochary and Mink Stole, and the results include rape, incest, cannibalism, cruelty to chickens, and the most famous film ending since "King Kong." With Mary Vivian Pearce, Danny Mills, and Edith Massey as Edie the Egg Lady. 108 min.What's more, the catalog publishers included a photograph of the VHS cover: an obese drag queen wrapped in tight pink fabric, her blond hair drawn back behind an ocean of bald scalp, and a cosmetic-counter's worth of make-up painting her face up like a clown's. She held a gun in one hand while the other sat cocked on her hip--the very personification of grit and defiance. I didn't know what to think of the film and its description, though I imagined a poorly-done melodrama in trailer-park CinemaScope, but I knew I had to see the film. I would never get the courage to ask my parents to purchase it for me--it was rated NC17--and it would take me at least another decade to track down a copy on my own, but in that moment on the floor of our living room, a ten-year-old was suddenly introduced to John Waters.
In the years since, I've grown to love John Waters, not just for his ability to bask in all things controversial without any hint of irony--an unconditional love of sorts--but for his belief that people should be unabashedly themselves, especially in a world that demands conformity. In turn, the Baltimore filmmaker, once an infamous director of censor-worthy "smut," is now an American cultural institution, something even he would have never predicted all those years ago. He has appeared in guest roles on television, most notably as himself on The Simpsons, where his animated character challenged Homer's homophobia; hosted a true-crime show on CourtTV; had a supporting role in one of the Chucky horror films; has been interviewed on late-night TV multiple times by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, and Craig Ferguson; had his books published by a renowned publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; had one of his films, Hairspray, turned into a Tony-winning Broadway musical; and had his traveling monologue filmed and given a wide release on DVD and Netflix Instant. In a way, the world in which John Waters basked so beautifully all those decades ago has become the America we now know, where filth, fetish, and brazen individuality have gone mainstream, if not actually become the norm.
Which, it turns out, can be a problem, even for John Waters. Now that he is an elder statesmen of sorts, he is surrounded by men and women--writers, filmmakers, artists--who have pushed boundaries even further, and what was once filthy is by modern standards almost dull. Which means the first two-thirds of his newest book, Carsick, don't quite have the desired effect as they would have had twenty years ago. Imagining the best possible hitchhiking journey across the continental United States, Waters populates his fantasy with attractive young men, a kidnapped pro-lifer stuffed in the trunk of a stolen car, a sideshow where his lack of tattoos makes him the main attraction, and demolition-derby sex reminiscent of something J.G. Ballard wrote about in the 70s. The stories are cheeky and fun, though it's almost impossible not to bemoan how innocent it all seems. Waters has given himself 100 pages to imagine the most hedonistic, indulgent, and pleasurable road trip he can, and his delivers a dozen rides that are underwhelming.
The next hundred pages, in which Waters imagines the worst that could possibly happen, are substantially better in terms of the depravity and feculence--both figurative and literal--that Waters inflicts on himself: a suicidal drunk-driver who has removed seat-belts from his car; an ecoterrorist fighting for "garbage diversity"; an animal-rights activist infested with tapeworms; a real-life killer resurrected from the dead; an entire small town in Kansas where homophobia reigns supreme; unstoppable public diarrhea; and so on. It almost becomes a game of sorts, to see how Waters will take the misery that has been visited on him by a highway of disturbed Americans and feed it so that it grows exponentially worse, and always for himself. Essentially, these thirteen rides are the embodiment of John Waters, in which unrestrained liberal thinking and thoughtless conservative ideals collide to form a world in which everyone is disgusting while also being disgusted at each other.
The final third of the book is the impetus behind the preceding 200 fantasy-borne pages: Waters has decided to hitchhike across America, from Baltimore to San Francisco, all through the power of his personality, the wagging of a thumb, and a wonderfully simple series of cardboard signs. He worries that no one will pick him up, and he wonders if the good/bad scenarios he's already written will be the last words he ever writes before disappearing along Highway 70--a strange, foreboding artifact of an unfinished and unusual life. But what Waters discovers is a country of people who are kind, considerate, and accepting, regardless of race, age, class, politics, orientation, or location. He is given rides from, among others, a minister's wife, a small-town mayor, a coal-miner, a cop, an indie rock band, a judge and his activist wife, and--twice--a young Republican from Maryland who keeps driving, despite his parents' concern that he's been kidnapped by a madman. By the time Waters' journey ends, he's cut a path across the entire country, stood outside in extreme weather for hours, almost given up, and found himself happily surprised by the people who will open their vehicles to a random stranger. It is as far from a John Waters film as you can get: no filth, no outrage, no melodramatic emotions, no kitsch, just average Americans trying to do right by each other in the only way some of them know how.
And even though Waters' fame sometimes makes getting rides easier, most of the people who pick him up don't know who he is, and a few even scoff at the idea that he is a filmmaker. There's a temptation to look at the final third of Carsick and make an overreaching statement about America now being so open-minded that uneventful rides are now the norm--that Waters' trip is shocking because of its ordinariness, and most hitchhiking trips are joyrides of danger and debauchery--but such impulses are ridiculous, even when they fit in nicely with Waters' pop-culture acceptance. Instead, through Waters we see an America that moves as one, in spite of the million individual differences radiating just beneath the surface. It is the validation of something John Waters has known and celebrated for decades--that we are a nation constantly pushing out at the boundaries keeping us in, if only to be the people we have always told ourselves we are.