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In Make Trouble, John Waters politely asks graduates to raise hell

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Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Graphic: Nick Wanserski
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Make Trouble

Author: John Waters
Publisher: Algonquin Books

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When John Waters announced his book, Make Trouble, my mind reeled at the possibilities. It’s exciting to imagine what kind of book Waters could compile, from his early years as a criminal filmmaker scumbag to one of pop culture’s most esteemed filmmaker scumbags. While Waters has five other books to his name, most have been semi-autobiographical titles, telling his story through the lens of influential trash cinema, celebrities, and hitchhiking. But the blunt directive, Make Trouble, feels more like a manifesto, an opportunity for Waters to leverage his years of experience into an aesthetic Anarchist Cookbook. A massive compendium of insight—bound in chicken skin and penned in bodily fluids—that Waters is ready to pass down to the next generation of artistic shit-stirrers.

Unfortunately, the reality is far less ambitious. Instead, Make Trouble is a pocket-sized transcript of a graduation speech Waters gave to the Rhode Island School Of Design class of 2015. In the style of little gift books, it uses an unconventional layout, contrasting design elements and artist Eric Hanson’s sketchy pen and ink illustrations to flesh out what is—while thoughtful, funny, and well-composed—still a just a speech. It makes plenty of worthwhile points beyond basic “believe in yourself and keep reaching for the stars” pabulum. For instance:

On no:

Hopefully you have been taught to never fear rejection in the workplace. Remember, a “no” is free. Ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down.

On aging:

And as you get older, you’ll need youth spies that will keep you abreast of the new music that nobody your age has heard of yet or body-piercing mutilations that are becoming all the rage—even budding sexually transmitted diseases you should go to any length to avoid.

On success:

And finally, count your blessings. You got through college. You didn’t commit suicide, OD, or have a nervous breakdown, and let’s remember the ones who did.

It’s all very witty, but most importantly, makes explicit the fundamentally hopeful and uplifting spirit of a director whose positivity has previously been channeled through less obvious methods, like framing a jubilant party scene around a guy distending his own asshole. But for all that, Make Trouble is still a slight little thing, most likely destined to be paired along with Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go! as a present to graduates from relatives who want to slip in a bit of sanctified counterculture naughtiness alongside the established gift of inspirational whimsy.

Make Trouble asks the audience to do so from within the system, to force change as an insider instead of from the outside. Given Waters’ history of running from the cops while illegally shooting his earliest films, it’s an interesting pivot. Age, experience, and a shifting cultural climate have changed the rules of rebellion. “Who here wants to die for art!?” Divine famously asks in Female Trouble as she waves a gun toward her audience. A volunteer exclaims his willingness and is shot dead on the spot. It’s a violent, anarchic, and sudden means of making a statement. Waters now suggests a slower, more studied approach. An illustration in Make Trouble depicts a revolver with a gag flag emerging from the barrel. Instead of the classic BANG! the flag reads A+. Which of the two methods ultimately proves the more subversive, time will out.


Purchase Make Trouble here, which helps support The A.V. Club.