John Waters: Change of Life

by Marvin Heiferman


S ometimes the facts must be faced: John Waters the personality is more interesting than the work he creates. For the past 10 years, Waters has given much of his creative energies to becoming a respected visual artist, which recently culminated in an exhibition at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art and a coffee table book, Change of Life. The filmmaker's artwork is at times clever, humorous, and witty, but just as frequently, derivative, obvious, and pandering.

Waters, aka the "Pope of Trash," "Sultan of Sleaze," or the "Prince of Puke," primarily uses photography to reedit and recapture scenes from film and television, which he shuffles into condensed narratives or humorous juxtapositions. With images shot straight from the television screen, he lays his photographs in horizontal bands, recalling filmstrips. "Toilet Training" is a typical piece. It shows nine actors sitting on the loo in movies, from Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber to John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. He uses the same technique for "The Hot Seat" (electrocutions), "Movie Star Junkie" (IV drug use), and the oh-so mysterious "Puke in the Cinema." One of his more clever filmstrips is derived from the 1957 movie Peyton Place. Each time sex was implied during the original film, the director cut away to pastoral scenes of trees and rivers, and Waters has reassembled all those shots here as stand-ins for wild sex.

The authors of the essays in Change of Life stop just short of fellating Waters as they attempt to align themselves with a once-subversive pop figure. They tend to linger on "twisted" biographical sketches: Waters' childhood fascination with car wrecks, his quirky combination of gung-ho spirit and naiveté, and even a detailed account of his personal system for composing daily to-do lists. This focus belies the hunch that these art-world essayists secretly understand that Waters' work is audience friendly but none too spectacular.

The most interesting parts of the book are photographic inclusions from Waters' personal collection of oddball object and images. A much more interesting book could be made from his personal stash of toy electric chairs, Michael Jackson baby-dangling dolls, and books entitled Call me Lumpy and Why Catholics Can't Sing. CHAS BOWIE