Film Features

At The Academy Museum, The Enduring Defiance of John Waters Is On Full Display


There’s a case to be made that Southern California is the epicenter of the renewed anti-queer zealotry that has swept through this rotten empire almost as relentlessly as COVID-19. Afterall, Chaiya Raichik, LibsofTikTok herself, the queen bee of the transphobic goon squad, somehow exists in the same county as WeHo. The Leave Our Kids Alone movement roams from school district to school district across SoCal, asserting that any queer person teaching or working in schools must be a pedophile and therefore must be eradicated from existence. Violent hate crimes against people for simply displaying pride flags are becoming commonplace. I grew up in Colorado Springs, CO, just a couple miles away from Focus on the Family, but I have to say this feels like the most virulent hatred of queer people I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. 

This is all precisely why the new John Waters exhibit at Los Angeles’ Academy Museum feels like such a joyful revelation. John Waters: The Pope of Trash took four years to prepare; at the outset, there is no way Waters or the curators could have known that anti-LGBTQ sentiment would reach the fever pitch we’re currently experiencing, and yet, here it is, gloriously presenting Waters’ sacrilegious vigor directly in opposition to the queer hatred shrieking all around us. Here is a man who has reveled in decades of disdain and disgust, who has been shut out and rejected by just about every “serious” film institution, only to finally get the last laugh in an expensive, elaborate celebration of all his perversions in the very temple of mainstream cinema.

Academy Museum John Waters  - Divine

When guests enter the sprawling exhibit celebrating Waters’ excesses and eccentricities, they are immediately greeted with a stain-glass portrait of the man, accompanied by his most iconic collaborator, Divine. “The pope of trash” is an honorific bestowed on Waters by fellow freak William S. Burroughs. Waters may be a degenerate, but as you pass by his visage in rapturous glow, it’s impossible not to think about how he could never be responsible for the same levels of child abuse as the actual pope. Throughout the exhibit, it becomes impossible not to appreciate the strange wholesome side of Waters; despite his ardent commitment to filth and degeneracy, he is a man who loves Americana and the artifice of straight society almost as much as he loves tearing it down. That contrast, and all the contradictions that come with it, are precisely what make his work so compelling and it’s perfectly reflected in Pope of Trash. 

The Academy Museum is remarkable in how it celebrates the minute details that go into making a film. Pope of Trash is no exception, with everything from production drawings to costumes to script pages on display. The costumes are a particular marvel; Waters’ decades-long collaborations with Van Smith become a theme of their own throughout the exhibit. All of Waters’ infamous collaborators get their due: Divine is obviously lauded, but so are Mink Stole and Ricki Lake. It’s impossible not to be struck by how fiercely loyal the Dreamlanders were to Waters, the ethos of filmmaking as a living breathing community could never be better expressed than in this exhibit. In a Q&A preceding a screening of SERIAL MOM, Waters said his personal favorite moment in the exhibit is a display of receipts detailing the expenses that have gone into the making of his films, including a receipt for $18 he had to pay the MPAA for the pleasure of cutting 40 seconds of oral sex out of one of his films. 

Academy Museum John Waters

That’s the other thing about Pope of Trash, it makes you realize how long Waters has been truly transgressing and pushing the envelope. In a time when internet edgelord culture has convinced itself that TradLife is the best way to push people’s buttons, it is astoundingly refreshing to be reminded that Waters was transgressing well beyond the imaginations of the dankest depths of SomethingAwful before the internet ever existed. Even if you don’t love all of Waters’ films, seeing his work laid out over a massive space forces you to respect his dedication to his perverted craft. It makes you appreciate that his real genius as a queer artist was to always stand in fierce opposition to straight society; rather than beg for acceptance, he laughs at your revulsion. 

And damn does he make you laugh. 

The exhibit does a remarkable job of squeezing one out of you just like his films do. A clip of him maniacally directing the prop master on A DIRTY SHAME to shake a penis-shaped shrub more vigorously had me howling. There’s a sample of the script from SERIAL MOM in the iconic scene where Kathleen Turner murders her neighbor with a leg of lamb juxtaposed with the dress Turner wore in the scene and a recreation of the lamb prop. The absurdity of the whole thing, of this austere museum dedicated to high art celebrating such a self-consciously lowbrow artist, becomes hilarious in and of itself. Just like all of Waters’ work, you can’t believe he got away with this. 

Academy Museum John Waters

At the aforementioned Q&A, it’s pretty obvious that Waters also can’t believe this is happening to him. He was interviewed by Peaches Christ, a drag performer and filmmaker who’s been deeply inspired by his work. She received personal guidance from him as she was making her first film, ALL ABOUT EVIL, and it’s apparent in their rapport that Waters has been an astute and generous mentor for years. He’s as hilarious and sharp as ever, but his gratitude at getting to experience such a retrospective while he’s still alive is equally palpable. Sitting in The Academy’s David Geffen Theater, surrounded by his most steadfast fans, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that this whole event is remarkable—remarkable that in a country that hates queer people so deeply, this pope of the sick freaks has managed to reach such heights before he died tragically or in obscurity. If there is ever a glimmer of progress being made, however small, this is it.

There is an infinite world of degeneracy that doesn’t hurt anyone. There is a universe of pleasure out there for adults to enjoy together without shame or legal infringement. Shock and provocation are combative, but they also identify the true weirdos who were really meant to love you all along. Be a pervert, watch fucked up movies with your friends. Find new ways to derive pleasure out of this heinous world we’re all forced to endure. Aspire to be as free as John Waters.

You can check out all the great programming at the Academy Museum here

Carter Moon
Carter Moon grew up raised on Star Wars and Toy Story: there was almost no way to avoid falling headfirst into a love for the art of filmmaking and screenwriting. Born to parents who insisted on well-reasoned dinner conversations, Carter was writing arguments defending his opinions from an early age. His critical affection for pop culture drives his writing and podcasts every week.

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