John Waters and June Books

On Film / The Daily — Jun 3, 2019
Divine in John Waters’s Hairspray (1988)

John Waters has a new book out, his seventh, and two major papers have gotten creative with their review assignments. The New York Times has turned to Alan Cumming, star of stage and screen and a director in his own right, who finds that Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder “shows a vulnerability and an honesty and an almost frantic desire to impart to us, before he can no longer, his manic mantras, his obsessive treatises, and his biting and blisteringly honest bons mots that are actually really enlightening life lessons. Watersian palimpsests, if you will!” In the Los Angeles Times, Henry Rollins, the former Black Flag frontman who currently hosts his own radio show on KCRW, notes that “it would seem that success has been his biggest challenge.”

The Paris Review has posted an excerpt from the book that addresses that very challenge. “Somehow I became respectable,” Waters laments. “I used to be despised, but now I’m asked to give commencement addresses at prestigious colleges, attend career retrospectives at both the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the British Film Institute, and I even got a medal from the French government for ‘furthering the arts in France.’ This cockeyed maturity is driving me crazy! Suddenly the worst thing that can happen to a creative person has happened to me. I am accepted . . . Good Lord, I’m seventy-three years old and my dreams have come true. Couldn’t you just puke?”

Waters’s 1988 film Hairspray was the turning point. A modest hit when it was released, Hairspray’s reputation and audience steadily grew throughout the heyday of VHS. In 2002, it was adapted as a Broadway musical that went on to pick up eight Tonys, and in 2007, a movie based on the musical starring John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer brought in over 200 million dollars worldwide. As Katie Rife notes at the A.V. Club, Waters devotes chapters of Mr. Know-It-All to Polyester (1981), Cry-Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1994), Pecker (1998), Cecil B. Demented (2000), A Dirty Shame (2004), and of course, Hairspray. Rollins picks out a passage in which Waters calls his biggest hit a Trojan horse. “It had the power to sneak into middle-class homes and espouse gay marriage and teenage race mixing without anybody noticing,” writes Waters. “We were soon to find out that the test results were wrong. Even racists loved Hairspray!”

For W, Stephanie Eckardt talks with Waters about going on book tours and dropping in on all his favorite book shops. “I signed a thousand books or something today,” he says, “and I felt like Jackie Susann, who wrote Valley of the Dolls—she was the first to go to the warehouses and pose with all the books.” As for who he’s reading these days, the first name to come up is Clarice Lispector. “I love her because she writes whole novels where not one thing happens—she describes the air.” Waters, it turns out, is writing a novel himself, but as the NYT’s Melena Ryzik discovered while admiring the art he’s collected in his New York apartment, the next book is “the one thing he wouldn’t discuss: ‘It’s bad luck to talk about something before you do it.’”

Behind the Scenes

Irwin Winkler, who has produced over fifty films, including They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Rocky, The Right Stuff, Goodfellas, and Creed, has a new memoir out, A Life in Movies: Stories from 50 Years in Hollywood. In an excerpt posted at the Metrograph’s site, Winkler looks back on the many obstacles that he and his producing partner Robert Chartoff overcame in realizing Robert De Niro’s dream of turning boxer Jake LaMotta’s autobiography Raging Bull: My Story into a film directed by Martin Scorsese. The studio was dead set against it, but the executives’ attention was soon enough drawn to a different production that was getting out of hand: Heaven’s Gate. Raging Bull proceeded—in black and white and with all the screenplay’s blood and tears intact. “No film out of a major Hollywood studio allowed for the language that was exchanged,” writes Winkler. “No one at UA saw our dailies, so no one complained, and once again, the filmmakers enjoyed a tremendous amount of freedom. Was our good luck based on United Artists’ preoccupation with Heaven’s Gate, or did they simply trust Bob Chartoff and me because of the success of Rocky? I don’t know to this day.”

For Bookforum, A. S. Hamrah reviews The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film by Texan poet W. K. Stratton. Hamrah suggests that if a film were made today the way this groundbreaking 1969 western was, “and if people found out, members of the cast and crew would be facing time in jail. The history of the film’s production fascinates because it was all so wrong. What happened encompasses many vices and several crimes, including manslaughter and statutory rape. It is an often repellent tale, a stew of toxic masculinity feeding a movie designed to dismantle the very myths about heroic cowboys, gun violence, and la frontera that it succumbed to as a production.” Details follow.

Reviewing Picture, Lillian Ross’s now-classic account of the making of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage (1951), the New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that the book is “more than a deeply reported view of the power struggles of Hollywood filmmaking; it’s a fine-grained study in one very idiosyncratic set of personalities whose blend was toxic—who reinforced one another’s weaknesses and muddied one another’s motives. But Ross also sees exceptional and forward-looking individuals who put their livelihoods on the line, even in a losing battle, for their confidence in personal creation.”

In Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama, and the Screenplay, J. J. Murphy “proposes that we think of improvisation in a systematic way,” writes David Bordwell. From the 1950s through to the present, we’ve seen a range of approaches to improvisation. In much of the work of Andy Warhol, for example, we often see the actors “just make it up as they go.” Shooting Tangerine on an iPhone in 2015 and working from a seven-page treatment, Sean Baker, on the other hand, knew where he was going. And John Cassavetes worked with his casts to develop characters and situations before the cameras rolled. “Where does psychodrama come in?” asks Bordwell. “J. J. shows that any of the three points on the improvisation spectrum–pure, planned, and rehearsed–can yield performances that are based in the actual mental states and personal histories of the players.”

Turning Points

Writing for Film Comment, Christina Svendsen revisits Siegfried Kracauer’s recently rereleased landmark study From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Written from exile in New York and released in 1947, the book lays out the argument that movies “have the potential to reveal collective preoccupations, because they are collaborative productions, made for what Kracauer called ‘the anonymous multitude.’” What strikes Svendsen as she rereads Kracauer now on films such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and Otto Rippert’s six-part serial Homunculus (1916) is that “Weimar superheroes contain the potential for good and evil—like the massed crowds they confront and represent. Twenty-first century superheroes in America, by contrast, seem to be all good or all bad” and “our obsessive interest in them indicates a sense of powerlessness that seeks fulfillment in transcendent power, and a sublimated pleasure in smashing and destroying civilized order, like the Weimar Germans.”

For the NYT, David Friend reviews Brian Raftery’s Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, which “focuses on a bumper crop of breakthrough, subversive, auteur-driven movies—virtually all of which were released theatrically in 1999—quoting the actor Edward Norton (of 1999’s Fight Club), who is hard pressed to name any other 12-month span ‘that had more really original young filmmakers tapping into the zeitgeist.’ Raftery makes a persuasive, entertaining case for the enduring impact of a passel of classics, from American Beauty to American Movie to American Pie.” There are also chapters on The Matrix, Office Space, Election, The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, The Virgin Suicides, Boys Don’t Cry, Magnolia, and so on. Writing for North Shore Movies, Sean Burns finds that the “macro-focus is wobbly, probably because Raftery’s dealing with too many damn movies from too many different distribution models. He’s much better with the granular reporting than big-picture analysis. Still, you read the book wistfully, marveling that there was so recently a time when Disney would give Michael Mann a massive budget to make an almost three-hour, R-rated movie comprised mainly of men over fifty delivering depositions and arguing over journalistic ethics.” That, of course, would be The Insider.

Geographies

For Film International, Thomas Puhr reviews The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art Cinema, a collection edited by Marco Abel and Jaimey Fisher that maps stylistic and thematic connections between the work of filmmakers usually associated with the group—Christian Petzold, Maren Ade, and Angela Schanelec, for example—with films by “such far-flung auteurs” as Derek Cianfrance, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Lucrecia Martel. “While it is sometimes difficult to find a logical progression among the articles’ order (the collection, somewhat like the movement itself, is hard to classify and sort of all over the place), some of the adjoining pieces complement one another in interesting ways,” writes Puhr. Several essays “focus on gender norms and inequalities,” two “address figures of resistance,” and others take on “blandness” and “worldlessness” as strategies aimed at “a radical rewiring of how audiences define (and consume) the moving image.”

Flavorwire has posted a passage from Mark Asch’s guidebook New York Movies that pairs two films centering on boys going it alone in the big city. In The Window (1949), directed by Ted Tetzlaff, a cinematographer known for his work on Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), the boy is played by Bobby Driscoll, a child star whose winning streak with Disney—Song of the South (1946), Treasure Island (1950)—petered out when he hit puberty (and he died alone in 1968 in an abandoned building just weeks after his thirty-first birthday). Driscoll’s Tommy spies a murder and Tetzlaff “sets the noir-ish scene with the rumbling tracks and chiaroscuro shadows cast by the Third Avenue elevated train, and shoots the surrounding cross streets through fire escapes and jungle canopies of backyard clotheslines.” In Chris Columbus’s Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin asks for directions from a future president.

Personalities

Andrey Tarkovsky, Life and Work: Film by Film, Stills, Polaroids & Writings is a “volume of atmospheric elements” that has been “arranged by Andrey Tarkovsky Jr., Hans-Joachim Schlegel, and Lothar Schirmer into an uncluttered tableau vivant,” writes Howard Hampton for Bookforum. “It’s more imagistic gospel than catalogue, more consecrated poetry than academic contextualization.”

Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick tells the forgotten story of the uncredited designer of the swamp monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The NYT’s J. D. Biersdorfer wishes there were more than “small nuggets” of the actual life story in the book, but she doesn’t object to the “occasional dashes of gossipy Hollywood history, seething rage over the way women are still treated in the industry, moviemaker tidbits, and thoughtful observations on the cultural importance of horror films.” Also in the NYT, Dave Itzkoff reviews Patrick McGilligan’s Funny Man: Mel Brooks. “Despite its overstuffed nature,” writes Itzkoff, “the book nonetheless paints a portrait of Brooks as a wildly talented—emphasis, occasionally, on wild—artist whose intensity both advanced and impeded him.”

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