When cult filmmaker John Waters first started performing in front of live audiences, he took a much different approach than he does with his current bit of performance art, a 75-minute monologue he dubs This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier.
"I would come out dressed as a hippie pimp with shirts with tarantulas or shrunken heads all over it and with hair that looked like bacon and my mustache would be smeared on my face," says Waters, who appears at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. "I would talk about nudist camps and things that no one praised at that time. I would say, 'Here is the most beautiful woman in the world.' [Male actor] Divine would come out — much like in Female Trouble — and throw fish at the audience and rip phone books in half. If we were in a big city or had more of a budget, we would hire some friends to impersonate policemen and they would rush the stage and pretend to arrest us. Divine would strangle the cops and the hippies would cheer and the show would begin. That was our vaudeville act. I always said I just needed a nude juggler with an erection. I still am doing that in a way."
His current show, however, is "completely written and rehearsed." While Waters might be best known for campy, trashy films such as Polyester, Hairspray and Female Trouble, he's "trying to evoke the highest acts" with his monologue.
"There are a lot of people who have great spoken-word acts," he says, referencing Oscar Wilde and Spalding Gray. "I aim high and low."
Despite his unabashed love for low culture, Waters has become so well respected that the Film Society of Lincoln Center recently recognized him with the retrospective Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take? It turns out, the public can take a lot of Waters. Does that surprise the man?
"Audiences are much more attuned to marginal stuff," he says. "I used to say that 'outsider' was a dirty word and nobody wanted to be on the outside. Now, Obama wants to be an outsider. It's a badge of honor. I'm proud to be an insider now. I always go against the grain of what everybody is thinking. I think it's possible to be filthy and respectable."
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