Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review: ROLE MODELS, by John Waters

Role Models, by John Waters. Published 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Nonfiction. Essays.

I've never seen a John Waters film so I guess you'd say I'm a fan of the idea of John Waters' films rather than of his work itself.  That's okay. I don't plan to see his films. But he is a cultural icon, not only a notorious purveyor of filth but an advocate for the marginalized, the outcast, the people who don't quite fit in. And that's what I find so appealing.

His book Role Models is an appreciation of the people he admires for all kinds of reasons. He starts off with Johnny Mathis, the reclusive legend who keeps a low Hollywood profile and a very private personal life. From there he moves on to some figures famous, notorious and obscure, from a Manson family killer still in prison to fashion designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons to high society artist Cy Twombly and marginalized pornographers who captured Waters' imagination with their depictions of gay male sexuality at a formative time in Waters' life.

Overall I enjoyed the book a lot, mostly owing to Waters' charming and engaging voice. Reading the book is like listening to him talk, enthusiastically and at length, about the people and things he loves and appreciates. He shows the same love and respect for the everyday people he talks about as for the celebrities, and while I don't always share his admiration for some of his subjects, he comes across like a genuinely nice and caring person. He's also funny, raw, obscene and everything else you'd think, so if you do read this don't go in expecting him to be someone else. There were some parts of the book that I found I could not really read, either because they crossed a line with me in terms of being very explicit or because they were just over my head. I love his appreciation, for example, of artist Twombly but knowing nothing about modern art, much less graffiti painting, I'm not in much of a position to share it. But I do love his sense of humor.

On the subject of celebrity perfumes:
Or better yet, maybe you could be the first on your block to sell a perfume I'm planning on marketing with my attached...Whenever I say my name in Paris, the French laugh because to them it means "toilet waters." So my perfume would have to smell like, what? The humorous absence of God mixed with the odor of a piece of 16 mm film getting caught in the projector gate and burning?
 Elsewhere, on the subject of moral dilemmas:
If someone was racist and really cute, could you still have sex with him? I had to admit the answer is yes. I have. You just change the subject or shout, "La la la la la la la," covering your ears when he speaks his nonsense. If all else fails, stick something in his mouth to shut him up.
As someone with a number of friends who, though I love them dearly, have political views that make me want to duck and run for cover, I can say the "la la la" approach works well. And these are but two examples of his philosophy of life. In one chapter he discusses a number of books that he loves or that influenced him; several are books that I've either wanted to read or tried to read, but I was sad to find that we had no favorites in common. The chapter "Baltimore Heroes" talks about the ordinary people in his life whom he admires and the final chapter, "Cult Leader" is about his own legacy.

But who's this book for? Film buffs, Waters fans, and anyone who's ever felt like mainstream American life passes them by. Ultimately what I got from this book was his love and loyalty to people who don't live at the center of celebrity, wealth or fame but who live honestly, try to be kind and to create some kind of meaning with their lives. And that's a pretty good standard to live by, I think.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


Zibilee said...

Waters is someone I find fascinating, though at times a bit repugnant. I find it interesting that he has such a wide list of people that he admires, and that some of them are not all that morally correct. I bet this would be a really interesting read for me. I am not sure if I would like him or dislike him by the end!

Kathleen said...

I've not seen his films either but have heard him interviewed and he has always seemed a really interesting and quirky sort of character to me. It sounds like that comes out in his book as well.

Anonymous said...

You mean you've never had the privilege of seeing Pink Flamingos? ;)

I love Waters. I saw him do his stand-up Christmas show in Austin a couple of years ago, and he was great. (Sounded a lot like his book, actually!)

Ryan said...

I really like John Waters. I've enjoyed all of his films that I have seen, though I admit it's not that many. You say you aren't planning to watch any of his films. I hope you don't actively avoid them. His films are worth it, if only for the quirky factor.