John Waters: “This Filthy World”

He may have a bad-boy reputation, but dig deep enough and even John Waters has a soft side

John Waters used to teach in prisons. A good chunk of his pupils were convicted murderers, and when he showed a class one of his best known and controversial films, 1972’s Pink Flamingos, the students told him, flatly, “You are so fucked up.” Was it because of the scene with the lip-synching anus? Or the one where the transvestite protagonist eats dog feces? Waters’s reputation thrives on this type of rank notoriety. William Burroughs once deemed him “the Pope of Trash,” and, in another bit of badboy mythology, the filmmaker was allegedly reported to the police by a family who disgustedly suffered through the first half of Pink Flamingos.

But to write him off as a shock monger is unfair. Deep down, the sleazily mustachioed, nattily dressed Waters is a sweetheart. You can’t watch Hairspray or Pecker without picking up on a warm, garbage-stained compassion for humanity—and not just the freaks and misfits, but the everyday Joes just slogging it through. Even when he advocates for unfettered homosexual expression, he’s just so nice about it. “Please don’t tell your parents you’re a bear,” he advises the gay scene’s burly, hirsute subculture. “That’s just cruel and unusual punishment.”

That line, as well as the above Pink Flamingos anecdotes, are part of Waters’s evolving spoken-word performance, This Filthy World, which comes to Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater tomorrow night. The routine—part monologue, part stand-up, part reeling cultural studies lecture—was originally filmed in 2006. But Waters has been adding to it ever since, and 2011’s rendition evidently is up-to-date enough to include deviant observations on the rise of Justin Bieber. Expect, too, a skewering of the contemporary art world; the performance happens on the eve of Waters’s stint as a guest curator for the Walker’s permanent collection.

This Filthy World
Friday, June 10
7:30 p.m.
Walker Art Center McGuire Theater