With new NC-17 film, Waters returns to his demented ways

September 16, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I ALWAYS feel better about Baltimore when a new John Waters movie comes out. It's reassuring, in a screwy way. It's the same feeling I have whenever I visit my eccentric Aunt Diddy: I hate the awful dish she loves to make for us -- roasted gristly short ribs rolled in sunflower seeds -- but I am always appalled and happy when she serves it.

The latest Waters film might be rated NC-17 -- meaning no one younger than 17 will be allowed into a theater to see it, meaning it's raunchy and disgusting and sexually explicit, meaning you'll probably find the DVD version on sale by Christmas in one of those stores with no windows on Pulaski Highway -- but who besides the real prigs would want it any other way?

Wasn't it time for the older John Waters to revive the old John Waters?

Look, it's a small town. People come here, make a name for themselves and move on -- Oprah, for instance -- and in the age of free agency, it's rare that any city gets a genuine sports celebrity who stays with that city for an entire career.

John Waters is Baltimore's own. He's been a very good citizen, making movie after movie here, staying loyal to old friends, using his premieres to raise money for good causes, keeping that mustache pretty much the same for three decades. He's still a Baltimore homeboy. And though some Baltimoreans have always been uneasy about the John Waters thing -- they don't get his films, don't watch them really, and think he's been pulling a fast one on all of us for years -- the guy's a genuine celebrity and creative talent, and he's ours.

Kinda like Cal.

But, of course, not like Cal.

Cal has slightly less hair.

Once upon a time, Ogden Nash, John Dos Passos, Eubie Blake, H.L. Mencken and James M. Cain all paid taxes to the city. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived here for a while (long enough for Zelda to get treatment at our excellent clinics).

Babe Ruth was born here.

Edgar Allan Poe died here.

Blaze Starr stripped here.

This is the city of Johnny Unitas, Brooks and Frank, Boog and Cakes. We can boast Dr. Ben Carson, too.

Now Michael Phelps has emerged from this community to become an Olympic champion, 19-year-old millionaire and worldwide celebrity.

(True story: Last Friday, while stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the Baltimore Beltway near Pikesville, the on-tour Phelps autographed three Wheaties boxes and handed them out the passenger-side window of his Cadillac Escalade and through the moon roof of a slow-moving minivan to three clamoring teenage girls. The girls -- Natalie Long, Nooresha Zariwala and Julie Corona -- had just left Towson Commons, unsuccessful in getting Phelps' autograph during his appearance there. They were headed home to western Howard County when Natalie's mom spotted Phelps' SUV in traffic and pulled up next to it, and Eight Medals accommodated their screams for an autograph.)

But less than a week after Phelps' triumphal return to Baltimore and Towson and a big parade and wholesome celebration, what happens?

John Waters' latest film comes out.

It's called A Dirty Shame.

It's about a band of marauding sex addicts on Harford Road.

You get that?

They're going to love this in Lauraville.

I haven't even seen the film, and I feel better already. John Waters is still with us, still being bad.

And it's apparently the old bad. The way-back Pink Flamingos kind of bad.

For a while there, it looked like Waters had flowed into the mainstream.

We were all very happy for the guy when his PG-rated film, Hairspray, became a Broadway hit. It was downright wholesome family entertainment. I took my kids to see it, for crying out loud!

Now he's produced an NC-17 -- and my kids won't be seeing this one any time soon.

I am tempted to say that's too bad, and that I wish Waters would just make funny films about crazy Baltimore characters that eventually could be turned into musicals the whole family will enjoy. (I'd still like to see a Waters movie about a war among Baltimore crab houses operated by ruthless women, titled Steamed Females.)

But forget it. JW can't do PG. An artist can't turn his own stomach. He has to be true to himself, even if what comes out are sex addicts on Harford Road.

I say long live John Waters, Baltimore's own. The Orioles aren't going to make the playoffs, the Ravens are off to a rough start, and Michael Phelps is moving to Michigan. Meanwhile, John Waters' new film starts tomorrow at the Senator. I feel better already.

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