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This Filthy World (2006)

Not Rated | | Documentary, Comedy | 24 November 2006 (USA)
Jeff Garlin's documentary on the work of John Waters.

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At the Harry DeJour Playhouse in New York in the mid-2000s, John Waters emerges from a confessional onto a stage littered with trash. He tells stories. After a few about his childhood and early influences, he roughly follows the chronology of his career as a film director, relating anecdotes about the making of each film and letting those stories lead him to riffs on other topics. Gay references and wry observations about people's foibles and limits are constants. Waters' looks, too, are the butt of his jokes. Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

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A very gentlemanly dissection! ;-)
12 August 2007 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

"Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years?" Shakespeare was no stranger to vulgar elegance. He made an art form of obscenities. It pulled in those (from all classes) who simply wanted to be entertained. Says Waters, "To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about." We don't always want to have our sensibilities elevated, our higher aspirations appreciated, and our refined tastes developed with dialectic. Calling a spade a spade might even help you avoid treading on it. We talk about the 'shit hitting the fan', but do we ever imagine what that would literally be like? John Waters makes us imagine.

When you ask someone what they like, they will invariably also tell you what they don't like. We justify our taste by expressing selective intolerance. Some people can't stand films with subtitles. Others can't stand the pap of multiplex movies. Some people detest nudity, while others detest censorship. Having defined what we don't want, we sit there in unproductive silence going, "Entertain me!" It could be said that This Filthy World ("Isn't it beautiful?") ignores the list of don't-wants and entertains you anyway. His immaculate and freshly starched style, penetrating insight, wit and gentle but brutal honesty, provide a safety net for us to identify with, rather than running out of the cinema or feeling personally attacked.

Filmed over two nights at the Harry De Jur Playhouse in New York City, the film provides Waters' insights on everything from the director's own childhood to his views on capital punishment, artistic censorship and why Dorothy was crazy to want to return to Kansas. He provides authoritative comment on his films (the most famous and critically acclaimed of which is still subject to the British censors' scissors), and delights us with his gourmet appreciation of all that is 'unmentionable'.

This hour-and-a-half retrospective analysis comes at a time when the 'trash aesthetic' is almost institutionalised. No longer a purely underground force attacking mainstream tastemakers, philosophical Warhol, breast-infatuated Russ Meyer, anti-establishment Troma, and a whole gamut of psychotronic paracinema of 'bad taste' with Waters as its queenly king, is controversially taken seriously. Academic film courses include subjects such as horror and pornography. Waters has exhibited at the Andy Warhol Museum. (Warhol, of course, has long been a respected name in art circles.) Critics regard Waters' outrageous 'Pink Flamingos' highly, even if it is part of the trash aesthetic. Directors like Waters did more than pave the way for trash (in every sense of the word). They paved the way for the intellectual deployment of themes and techniques that break down barriers or entertain in new ways. The vulgarity of the vernacular, expertly translated into images, challenging our established feelings: the 'entertainment' value ensures a steady cohort of supporters.

But we cannot judge a film-about-films on the strength of the films it refers to, or even entirely on the merits of its main protagonist. This Filthy World is not a John Waters film: it is a film of him performing a one-man stand-up show. Fortunately he is a charismatic entertainer. His camp sophistication encompasses a delicacy and charm when he discusses the most sordid of scenes. Immaculately groomed and attired, he looks and sounds the epitome of good taste. It is the actual content that you will find hilarious or offensive.

The film does have some shortcomings. Waters is not primarily a stand-up comedian and his monologue, a steady torrent, could be better paced. He talks precisely and quickly, with good enunciation. But from a purely cinematic point of view, a mixed interview format could have brought more contrasts and made for easier viewing. Although not essential, This Filthy World is best appreciated if you have at least a passing acquaintance with his films, whether the old classics like Female Trouble (which has been re-classified by the BBFC, with previous cuts waived) and the landmark Pink Flamingos (which is only available with cuts in the UK), or his more mainstream offerings such as Hairspray (recently re-made by others), Serial Mom, or Cecil B. Demented.

Even if you are new to the films of John Waters,it is hard not to tickled by his explanations of such strange practices as tea-bagging, or the more extreme practice of helicoptering. His creepily gross descriptions evoke shock and laughter in a way that most stand-up comedians today can only envy.

Professor Susan Hayward has said, "Queer camp is about trashing stereotypes with flash and flounce and dress in excess. It is about ridiculing consumer passivity through deliberate vulgarity." Provocative, vulgar and refined all in one, this film is Waters own take on Waters.

For John Waters fans, This Filthy World is essential viewing. As a commentary on his work, it should find a worthy future home as one of the Extra Features in a fully restored boxed-set of his classics.


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