Baltimore writer and filmmaker John Waters. Photo by Greg Gorman.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles this week disclosed the dates and details for its major retrospective of the career of Baltimore writer and filmmaker John Waters, an exhibit that has been in the works for months but was never officially announced.

“John Waters: The Pope of Trash,” the first comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the artist’s contributions to cinema, will be on view from Sept. 17, 2023 to Aug. 4, 2024, the museum said yesterday.

The day after the exhibit opens, on Monday, Sept. 18, Waters is scheduled to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which administers the Walk of Fame, announced last June that Waters was selected as part of its “Class of 2023,” in the motion pictures category.

Outfest, an LGBTQ-oriented film and media organization based in L. A., nominated Waters for the honor. Waters has said he likes that the star on the sidewalk will be “close to the gutter,” where he started, and that he hopes his star will be near the one unveiled in 2019 for Alvin and the Chipmunks.

It’s all shaping up to be a busy month for Waters, 76, who has written and directed 16 movies over five decades and is working on another. Last October, Waters confirmed reports that Village Roadshow Pictures has optioned his 2022 novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” and that he would write and direct the film.

An earlier Waters film, meanwhile, has been named one of the “100 Greatest Movies of All Time,” as ranked by Variety put “Pink Flamingos” at No. 92 on its list, which was unveiled in December. “Pink Flamingos” and “Hairspray” have both been added to the prestigious National Film Registry, a roster of films that the Librarian of Congress selects for their “cultural, historic or aesthetic importance” to be preserved as part of the nation’s film heritage. 

Focus on movies

A still from John Waters’ 1988 film “Hairspray.” Image courtesy of Warner Bros., photographed by Henny Garfunkel.

Unlike recent Baltimore Museum of Art exhibits that have highlighted Waters’ talents as a visual artist and art collector, including the current exhibit entitled “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection,” the Academy Museum’s “Pope of Trash” exhibit will focus on his work as a filmmaker, exploring his process, themes and moviemaking style.

Works on view will include costumes; props; handwritten scripts; correspondence and memos; scrapbooks; photographs; moving-image material; and more.

In its announcement of the exhibit, the museum described Waters as “a multi-hyphenate filmmaker: writer-director-producer-cinematographer-editor-actor, as well as an accomplished visual artist and author.”

Aimed at “skewering traditional institutions,” the museum said, “his work led novelist William S. Burroughs to anoint Waters as the ‘Pope of Trash.’ His transgressive approach has spawned paragons of cinematic originality—movies that revel in irreverence, laugh-out-loud humor, and heart.”

The exhibit is organized by Exhibitions Curator Jenny He and Associate Curator Dara Jaffe, with the support of Curatorial Assistant Esme Douglas and Research Assistants Manouchka Kelly Labouba and Emily Rauber Rodriguez. Major funding for the exhibit is coming from Robert and Eva Shaye; The Four Friends Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, Kulapat Yantrasast and others, the $480 million museum opened in 2021 at 6067 Wilshire Boulevard. This will the third large-scale exhibition in its 11,400-square-foot Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery, following “Hayao Miyazaki (2021–22)” and “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898–1971,” which closes July 16, 2023.

“Known for pushing the boundaries of ‘good taste,’ Waters has created a canon of high shock-value, high-entertainment movies that have cemented his position as one of the most revered independent auteurs in the history of American movies,” He and Jaffe said in a statement.

“A massive inspiration to other artists who rebelled against the mainstream, Waters’ renegade films are replete with muses and themes derived from obsession and celebrity culture,” the co-curators said. “They lovingly draw inspiration from Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer, Andy Warhol, and Ingmar Bergman alike, and are also tributes to his hometown of Baltimore.”

According to the museum, the exhibition will reveal the nuance and detail of how independent films are made and how Waters’ movies have redefined the possibilities of independent cinema.

“His daring dismissal of social norms and the status quo,” the museum said, “has been celebrated and adored by audiences for more than fifty years—for films including ‘Pink Flamingos’ (1972), ‘Female Trouble’ (1974), ‘Desperate Living’ (1977), ‘Hairspray’ (1988), ‘Serial Mom’ (1994), and ‘A Dirty Shame’ (2004).”

In addition to the “Pope of Trash” exhibit, the adjacent Warner Bros. gallery will feature a media installation surveying works from the American Avant-garde and New Queer Cinema, contextualizing Waters’ films within contemporary and subsequent film movements.

During its run, the ‘Pope of Trash’ exhibit will be accompanied by a series of film screenings and public programs, and a catalogue. Co-published by the Academy Museum and DelMonico Books, the book will feature an artist statement by Waters; an introduction and essay by curators He and Jaffe; texts by film historian Jeanine Basinger, film critic and cultural theorist B. Ruby Rich, and author, writer, and producer David Simon; a filmography, and an interview with Waters by numerous contributors, including Sean Baker; Deborah Harry; Barry Jenkins; Johnny Knoxville; Bruce LaBruce; Ricki Lake; Orville Peck; Iggy Pop; Cindy Sherman; Kathleen Turner; Christine Vachon, and Edgar Wright.

Variety changes its mind

A shot from the set of John Waters’ 1972 film “Pink Flamingos.” Image courtesy of Warner Bros., photographed by Lawrence Irvine.

In placing “Pink Flamingos” on their list of the “100 Greatest Movies of All Time,” Variety’s editors admit they had to backtrack from the position their own staff took in 1973, when Variety ran a short review that panned the film.

Here is the review Variety published on December 31, 1973:

Divine, also known as Babs Johnson, is a 300 lb. drag queen of grotesque proportions who holds the title ‘the filthiest person in the world.’ Vying for the title are Connie and Raymond Marble, who kidnap girls, impregnate them, and sell the children to lesbian couples in order to finance ‘an inner city heroin ring’ catering to high school students.

Around the above premise spins the nitwit plot of the poorly lensed 16mm picture Pink Flamingos – one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.

Divine’s Mama Edie, a huge mountain of adipose tissue, inhabits a playpen in the mobile home and performs coprophagy on the fresh product of a miniature poodle while ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window’ toodles on the soundtrack.”

Here is what the editors wrote about putting “Pink Flamingos” on their ‘Greatest 100’ list:

It was panned by Variety, which called it “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.” And, of course, it became famous for the scene in which Divine, its snarling drag-queen star, eats a handful of dog poop. (Eat your heart out, P.T. Barnum!) But we’re here to tell you that Variety was wrong. John Waters’ ultimate midnight movie is, in fact, one of the funniest, most audacious and scandalously compelling films ever made. That’s because every moment in it is touched with a gleeful outlaw rageaholic danger too weirdly joyous to be faked. Divine was a stupendous actor, and in “Pink Flamingos,” he’s the clown demon of the Baltimore underground taking revenge on the world.

In its No. 92 spot on Variety’s list, ‘Pink Flamingos” placed just behind Scenes from a Marriage, from 1974,  and just ahead of Le Samourai, from 1967. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” from 1960 ranked No. 1, beating out “The Wizard of Oz” from 1939 at No. 2, “The Godfather” from 1972, No. 3., “Citizen Kane” from 1941, No. 4,and “Pulp Fiction” from 1994, No. 5. The complete list can be found on Variety’s website.

Christmas in January

Waters will appear in person twice this month in the Baltimore-Washington area to present spoken word performances of his “A John Waters Christmas” show, in lieu of shows that were postponed in December. He’s calling it “A John Waters Christmas…in January.”

The performances are on Jan. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at The Birchmere concert venue, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Virginia, and on Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. at Baltimore Soundstage, 124 Market Place in Baltimore. For the Baltimore show, doors will open at 7 p.m.

Waters will also appear at Baltimore Soundstage on Feb. 14 at 8 p.m. for a Valentine’s Day show, entitled “A Date with John Waters – The End of the World.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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