'I'm not a sadist, I did it one take,' John Waters says about the notorious climatic action of Pink Flamingos, his breakthrough underground assault of bourgeois refine and social taste whose debauchery ends with Divine, the 300-pound transvestite, ingesting dog faeces. Jean Renoir famously said in The Rules Of The Game everybody has his reasons. In Waters' twisted, informed, hilariously off-kilter world view, expressed repeatedly in this concert documentary, The Filthy World, 'Everybody has limits.'
Filmed over two nights at a theatre on New York's Lower East Side, the work is a record of Waters' late night vaudeville, at times screamingly funny interpretation of performance art that he has developed with a machine tool precision.
It is not a radical piece of work, like Richard Pryor's legendary concert films of the 1970s. His familiarity with the material at times blunts the comic edge. It is remarkably similar to a performance this critic saw Waters deliver 16 years ago; the only difference is the updating of his career resume, one that now includes a creator of the smash, Tony award-winning Broadway musical, Hairspray.
This documentary is playing a limited national US theatrical engagement via Red Envelope, the specialised theatrical division of the internet DVD subscription service Netflix in advance of its June DVD rollout. Waters is a cultural brand, and he has recognition throughout North America and Europe. The Filthy World is well directed by Waters's associate Jeff Garlin, who resists the urge to open up the material. The piece is a natural title for ancillary markets and various home market platforms.
With his slightly surreal physical features, the elongated neck, the ramrod military bearing, the razor thin moustache, Waters by his own admission resembles a classic child molester. His willingness to make fun of himself makes him an exceptionally appealing figure.
The subject is Waters' life and art, explicating how the poet laureate of Baltimore went from a maker of technically crude, socially obnoxious movies to a middle-class purveyor of respectability.
Waters has been perfecting for the last two decades on the lecture and college campus circuit. He is very funny, a droll, observant and clever debunker and satirist. The work is strongest in the opening hour, largely because Waters' early films retain their power to offend and provoke.
From the moment of his listing the holy trinity of his earliest movie influences, the Wicked Witch of the West from Wizard of Oz, Rhonda Penmark, the young killer from The Bad Seed, and Captain Hook, Waters admits his early identification with the psychotic, the deformed, and how it shaped his world.
His humour is lascerating and deadpan. As a teenager he imagined he become the next Luchino Visconti. Instead, he frets, he has become Paul Lyne, that is the drunk sodden lecherous queer.
The one-liners are fast and furious. Upset that a Florida family, upon being subjected to a DVD of Pink Flamingos, informs the local police, Waters wonders why they just don't turn it off. 'That's what I did when Forrest Gump started running,' he says. He also proves an excellent critic of his own work, correctly declaring Female Trouble his most important and impressive work.
Since his 1990 juvenile delinquent musical Cry-Baby, Waters has become less confrontational, and his work has become less assaultive and interesting. The Filthy World unfortunately never quite reveals how its creator feels to have made the transformation from outlaw artist to middle-class satirist.
It is a deliberately surface work, funny, clever, but never terribly deep or provocative, and the energy and pace drag in the final hour: that said, Rob Naylor's editing of the two separate performances is sharp and fluid. Vince Peranio's production design makes inventive use of the dark toned, macabre set.
Waters recounts his 89-year-old father's response to one of his movies, 'It was pretty funny - I hope I never see it again.' In The Filthy World, like much of John Waters's outre ouevre, laughter is the fitting response.
Red Envelope Entertainment Production