I had the distinct honor of being asked to give my union’s award for lifetime achievement to fellow Baltimorean and film legend John Waters. These were my remarks, or those that were in the teleprompter, anyway. I may have veered at points:
John Waters, who began an improbable career of deep cultural relevance with the equally improbable notion that people from Baltimore should be allowed to put stories on film, is perhaps one of the most influential voices we have.
He is laughing at this. I know he is. I am going to look over there to where he is sitting now and see that he is laughing — yes, there he is — laughing at what I just claimed for him.
I know that he is laughing because John is perhaps the great modern master of self-effacement and self-mockery. He has gone to lengths to characterize his entire career as a storyteller and filmmaker in terms that purport to show him standing on the outside of the joke, looking in: “Pink Flamingos,” he writes in his wondrous autobiography, “was billed as ‘an exercise in poor taste.’ And I like the understatement.”
That right there is a man who
One. Knows exactly what he is doing and why.
Two. Knows how to write.
I will pause right here, early in these Writers Guild of America remarks to express how much I admire John Waters for not just his film career, but for his prose work. If you’ve read “Shock Value,” or “Car Sick” or “Role Models,” then all the dogshit swallowed by all the actors ever cannot convince you that John Waters is farce, or fraud, or Barnum. Again, this man knows not only who he is and what he has to say, but who we are, and why we need to hear it.
In all earnest, this man has a writing voice to envy, though again, that voice is carefully cultivated so as to dismiss any such notion. Discussing the early years of his filmic journey, he concludes that it is all so very thoughtless and playful:
“Thanks so much for letting me get away with it,” he tells readers os his autobiography.
Good line. Charming line.
But tonight, I’m calling bullshit.
I first encountered John’s films as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, when a viewing of “Pink Flamingos” at the local theater on Route 1 had the staid, plaid-sports-coat-wearing Prince George’s County political cohort good and affronted. And while theater owners and the student body and the nascent crowd of John Waters fans were having enormous fun using a celluloid provocation to challenge the suburban mores of a county where blue-haired councilwomen talked ill of school integration, and where 16-year-old black kids were routinely beaten inside police stations, John himself was up in Baltimore, running circles around the state’s film censor — yes, you heard that right, the Maryland state film censor — a deeply Catholic spirit named Mary Avara.
It was the late 1970s, which is so long ago that we forget where we were on the continuum of permissible speech, and dissent, and any art that affronts or disturbs or otherwise fails to capture an immediate majority.
John made the the fight in Maryland fun, even at some points, delightfully ridiculous. But it was, in fact, a fight. A frontier in the same war in which Nabakov or Kerouac, Kinsey or Burroughs or Lenny Bruce found themselves drafted. John made an absurd cartoon out of Mary Avara. You couldn’t watch that bedeviled and angry woman vent about John without ever again seeing the ethic of government censorship as anything but abomination.
So I knew what John represented in my state before I ever met him. When we did meet, I humiliated myself, I’m pretty sure.
I was a young newspaper reporter sent at the last minute to a memorial gathering for one of John’s great local character actresses — Edith “The Egg Lady” Massey — and I knew enough of Edith’s oeuvre to be stupidly flippant about the tastelessness of some of her screen personas. And this at a time when John was grieving at the loss.
Walking up to him in a crowd inside Edie’s gift shop, I led not with any human sense of Ms. Massey or her connection to John and the others in the room. I wanted to shape the life lost around the outrageousness of what I’d seen onscreen. The look on John Waters’ face as he used his answer to address the reality shamed me. I never got a second quote from him that day. I was too embarrassed.
But my third and lasting encounter with John was the best and most enduring. By then, John’s art and narrative force had traveled beyond shock value, beyond even the provocations of a censorious culture. By then, “Hairspray” and “Cry Baby” and “Pecker” were demonstrating how much John Waters actually had to say about the world.
Beginning with “Homicide” and journeying through “The Corner” and “The Wire,” I shared a crew with John and learned to love and admire the same colleagues and collaborators. And I came to realize just how much Baltimore and its film community owed to John as a pathfinder and civic presence.
But more than that, by then I’d seen enough of John’s to learn an essential lesson about life and people and society. And this brings me back to my first claim — the one at which John was laughing, the one that is nonetheless the real gift to us from a great storyteller. And it’s this:
There is no normal. Normal is a lie. Normal is a locked gate, a wall, a prison. Normal is a fascistic sentiment, and one that prevailed within the American experiment for far too long. Indeed, today in this country, we are witnessing a last, retrograde and reactionary assertion for whatever normal is supposed to be.
John’s filmmaking and storytelling — from the guerrilla effrontery of “Pink Flamingos” to the sweet civic affirmations of “Hairspray” — are among the most eloquent arguments against standardized modes of being ever lensed.
None of us are normal. Black, white, brown, Jew, Gentile, Muslim, atheist, Satanist, gay, straight, bi, transgendered, whatever…the more you honestly assess all the varied allegiances, motivations and impulses that cause human beings to get up in the morning and face the world and each other, the more you know that none of us is close to normal.
Conjure even the known secrets of yourself, your family, your friends, your neighbors and realize how ridiculous the very idea of normal is. Hell, if you find anyone with political and social opinions that soothe, someone without racial or religious idiosyncrasy, without sexuality that veers froma strict heterogeneous application of the lights-off missionary position, someone with 2.1 kids and two-car garage and unrusted lawn furniture on the manicured patio of theisr split-level rancher, I will argue that nothing is more fucking abnormal than that. We are — all of us — at least two standard deviations from the mean. And if you think you are not, you are either lying to yourself or worse, it may be time to reflect on the grievous possibility of an unlived life.
Other writers and filmmakers and social voices have argued this very thing in their work. But pound for pound, I think you will be hard pressed to find a greater and more influential enemy of normal — and the lie that normal forces upon human lives — than John Waters. It’s a legacy of which any storyteller would be proud and one that honors the 2017 WGAE Ian McLellan Hunter Award for Career Achievement.
It’s my honor to bring to the stage, John Waters.
February 19, 2017
New York, N.Y.