Above is basically contraband footage from a live interview/signing John Waters did last Friday that was put on by the Word bookstore in Brooklyn (though it took place at an actual venue, Coco 66). We weren't supposed to take any pictures or video, but I couldn't resist having my boyfriend capture footage while I asked John about reality TV. His immediate response struck me as disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing because he's said plenty disparaging words about reality TV (John Waters saying that something ruined bad taste is about as big as an insult can get). All night he was like that with the weirdly bashful L.A. Times reporter Carolyn Kellogg, who interviewed him, while regularly turning and covering her face when he said anything mildly racy. She called him kind to his subjects in his recent book Role Models and he was like, "OF COURSE, I'M NOT GOING TO INSULT THEM!!!" She said it was interesting that he didn't out Johnny Mathis in the chapter about him and John was all, "IT'S NOT LIKE IT WOULD HAVE BEEN A GREAT JOURNALISTIC COUP OR ANYTHING!!!" I'm paraphrasing, but all mean to say is that he was oddly combative. I guess when you're John Waters and your ass is now raw from all the kissing it's experienced, you get to be abrupt and dismissive.
Anyway, I obviously do not see eye-to-eye with John or most of the audience, for that matter, if their very vocal agreement with his words on reality TV was an actual indication of their opinions. They were so vocal and antagonistic when I suggested that reality TV was pop culture's most reliable source of camp that I wondered, "Are we gonna fight?" I was conflicted about whether I should elaborate on my point, but ultimately decided not to be a mic hog (this was the audience Q&A portion that clearly was only to last for a brief period of time, and people had stuff to ask him about paving the way for Skinemax-type shit that they masturbated to in their youth and stuff...yeah, I didn't really get it either). But if I had gone on, I would have pointed out that I think that director/producer intent matters less in the appreciation of camp than the sensibility's grand unifying element: extreme human behavior. That element is celebrated in the films of Waters and reality TV alike. I'm pretty sure that John's queer sensibility allowed him to see hilarious, absurd things in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! that Russ Meyer never intended. On the same token, I can't imagine that everyone who watched Pink Flamingos stood in appreciative awe of Edith Massey -- surely there must have been some spiteful laughter about her acting...technique or teeth gap or clear insanity. Also worth considering is that not all exploitation is without humanity (and, on top of that, what in contemporary pop culture isn't somehow exploitation, anyway?). Maybe the big corporate machines that drive these reality stars to public infamy do not actually care about them, but with my own eyes I've seen the bonds that form between subjects and story producers. Not everyone involved is out to subjugate.
My great respect for him, his work and his massaging his fist full of trash into the body cavity of pop culture notwithstanding, I can't help but wonder if John's a little butt hurt. After all, his brand of trash is not the most relevant to contemporary pop culture, and that could be threatening. It seems like he's constructing a hierarchy here (one not unlike that of porn girls who'll fuck however, but don't do anal...like those other girls). His argument is a rationalization: "Well, my trash is better than that other trash, for you see..." Is this just a matter of making mountains out of trash heaps?
From the viewer's perspective, I promise everyone that it is quite possible to watch reality TV and laugh in amazement at the people on screen. As response to reality television becomes more sophisticated (Richard Lawson, case in point) and voluminous, it's very strange that the assumption remains that all interpretation of it must be the same and all of it must include schadenfreude. That seems to be what John is supposing, and it's furthermore evident in, to name a recent example, Katie Roiphe's New York Times Sunday Book Review piece on Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay. She writes, "Watching young people kill each [on reality TV] other might seem a little sick or unhinged, and this is not an author to delicately avert her gaze. Our voyeurism is fully engaged in these books, but so intelligently, adeptly engaged that it does not feel trashy or gratuitous." This assumes that it is not possible to be fully, intelligently and adeptly engaged in trash or gratuitousness (in order to get out of bed in the morning, I must believe this is wrong), and it at least implies that reality TV does not yield such a sophisticated reward anyway. To answer this, I'll call on a quote from Petronella Danforth in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: it depends on how you use it.