- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

John Waters grew up homosexual in the 1950s chafing under conservative sexual norms. And as those norms disappeared, so, too, did the shock value of John Waters’ movies.

Shrewdly, the bawdy bard of Baltimore, who started out screening gonzo sex movies like “Mondo Trasho” in church basements in the ‘60s, reinvented himself for mainstream acceptance.

In place of gutter-revelers such as 1972’s “Pink Flamingos” — no one who saw it has forgotten that thing with the canine fecal matter — came tamer satires such as 1994’s “Serial Mom,” which starred Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston.

The move paid off. Mr. Waters has only grown in stature. The Broadway musical based on his 1988 movie “Hairspray,” for instance, was a big winner at the Tonys last year and is still running with a new cast.

Mr. Waters, 58, still lives in Baltimore part time and keeps offices there. (He also has homes in New York and Provincetown, Mass., a Cape Cod enclave popular among wealthy homosexuals.)

And every time he visits a college campus to give a talk or a video store to sign copies of his movies, he finds a new crop of young fans.

“They’re as enthusiastic as audiences were for ‘Pink Flamingos,’” Mr. Waters says in a recent conversation at the Four Seasons in Georgetown.

“I’m not gonna say [I’m still relevant]. You have to ask others that. But I think I’ve kept up.”

With the flap over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl striptease and the ongoing debate about indecency on the airwaves, it could be that the times, by retrogressing, have kept up with him.

And there, like a stonewall — a stonewall with a pornographic mural — stands John Waters, with visions of a post-moral society where nontraditional sexuality is not just tolerated but seen as irrelevant.

His latest movie is “A Dirty Shame,” a farce about sexual fetishists taking over a Baltimore neighborhood. It mocks intolerant “neuters” and half-jokingly raises the specter of a public”decency rally.”

It earned an NC-17 rating — the equivalent of yesteryear’s X — from the Motion Picture Association of America, whose ratings board quit taking notes halfway through the movie.

It told Mr. Waters not even to waste time making cuts for an R-rated version.

For once, the filmmaker himself was shocked. “It’s an insane movie,” Mr. Waters concedes. “I’m not saying that I don’t understand how eyebrows would be raised. But this wasn’t conscious. I didn’t purposely think, ‘I want to make an NC-17 movie.’ I should have realized it, but I didn’t.”

Mr. Waters feels the early reaction to the movie is part of a wider clampdown on sexual expression. “A Dirty Shame,” he says, shows no actual sex on camera and includes few four-letter words. “You can’t even talk about sex anymore,” he says.

“Decency rallies, I promise you, could happen again soon. It’s not so far-fetched,” he adds.

“A Dirty Shame” was wrapped and in the editing room by the time of the Super Bowl halftime controversy last February. Any parallels between the movie and Nipplegate were a happy accident.

“To me, I thought how silly it was — another reason for Europeans to hate us,” Mr. Waters says of the controversy. “I thought we were supposed to ogle cheerleaders at halftime. Isn’t that what cheerleaders are — breasts to ogle — at sporting events for drunken men?”

I offer that it was the beaming of the event into millions of family living rooms that upset people most. He replies, “Well, what else is on TV? Porn’s on TV. Television has much filthier things than Janet Jackson’s nipple.”

His only complaint was that Miss Jackson’s male dance partner, Justin Timberlake, didn’t reciprocate with an exposure of his own.

The old guy treasures his thrills, after all, and he says recruiters for underground sex clubs — the kind, once rampant in the District, that ask you to check your clothes at the door — have stopped approaching him on the streets.

Not that he would have accepted the offer even as a young man.

An unapologetic trench-fighter of the sexual revolution (“I’m not sorry; I’m glad I went through that period of my life,” he says), Mr. Waters is nonetheless shy of utter hedonism.

He recognizes the destructive side of promiscuity, which is one of the reasons he wanted to make a movie about fetishists: Their behavior, bizarre as it is, might be a safe sexual alternative.

“In some ways, I guess I’m slightly more conservative than people might think,” he figures. “In the old days, people would see my movies and think they were documentaries. They thought that I lived in the trailer with transvestites.

“I used to go to colleges and they’d show up and give me drugs, and I’d be terrified we were gonna get busted.”

But Mr. Waters has a reputation, and it’s a reputation he, as much as anyone, has cultivated. He says he takes care to warn mainstream actors such as “A Dirty Shame’s” Tracey Ullman and Chris Isaak about what they’re getting into.

In his view, “If they want to make a John Waters movie, they’re gonna go for it. They can’t chicken out.”

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