John Waters: Conversations with Filmmakers ed. James Egan

“I’ve always wanted to sell out. The problem is that nobody wanted to buy me.”

I’m a die-hard John Waters fan, and for those of you poor lost souls who don’t know the name, he’s a renegade filmmaker who pioneered Trash Cinema or “Outlaw Cinema”  and earned the name the Pope of Trash while making some of the most outrageous films in the history of film. To quote John Waters: “You see bad taste to me is entertainment.” Are the film titles Pink Flamingos, Multiple Maniacs, and Female Trouble familiar to you? Well if not, what are you waiting for? Dash down to the nearest film rental location and grab some copies. Expect to find them with the porno because the people who judge such things don’t have a clue about what they’re looking at (I’ve also found Benny Hill in the porno section).

Years ago, the film critic Rex Reed, after watching one of my favourites, Female Trouble, made an immortal quote which is the quintessential response to a John Waters film :

Where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn’t there a law or something?

To address Rex’s quote, unfortunately there are laws and there are also opinions, and when John Waters, a man whose film characters blazenly “seem to revel in a fringe existence,” began his cinematic career using a camera bought by his grandmother for his 17th birthday, he made a number of underground/cult films which appealed to a minority audience and never hit the mainstream. Working in his home town of Baltimore with a handful of actors/friends known as the Dreamlanders (Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Edith Massey), John outraged just about everybody in America. While John seems to be fascinated by unusual casting (such as Patti Hearst, Iggy Pop and Traci Lords), in more recent years, his  films have included other, more mainstream stars such as Kathleen Turner and Johnny Depp. I went to see Serial Mom and watched people leave the cinema in droves muttering disgust as the door slammed on the way out. Hilarious! They’d come to see Kathleen Turner and had no idea what a John Waters film was all about.

People seem to either love or hate John Waters’ films, and naturally, I’m in the former group. I came across John’s films at a period in my life when I desperately needed to see another side of life, and John showed me the underbelly of American culture through his films which featured characters who were perfectly comfortable being trashy, slutty, filthy, coarse and disgusting. In fact Waters single-handedly raised low-lifes to a new level of art:

What’s more, they [the films] view with undisguised relish the grisly depredations of weirdos, misfits, and rejects of every stripe: love-sick transsexuals, warty lesbians,  gleeful mass-murderers, black-market baby salesmen, psychopathic drag queens–the very scum of humanity. Aesthetically, they seek to elevate, by imitation, the most despicable examples: gore movies, skin flicks, soap operas, the society pages of Violent World, the National Enquirer, and Sleazoid Express. With the ten Most Wanted list as their social register, and Frederick’s of Hollywood as their Yves St. Laurent, these movies dedicate themselves to all that decent men abhor. (from David Chute’s interview Still Waters)

John Waters is an important figure in my life–someone to whom I have a large debt of gratitude for mental liberation. Don’t expect me to be rational on the subject of John Waters, and this goes to explain why I own all his available films, all his books (including several autographed copies), and all his CDs. He’s my guru–someone whose world vision matches my own–except for the issue of the Manson family, and on that topic we come to a parting of the ways.

But enough. What of the book?

The University of Mississippi Press has an Interview with Filmmakers series, and I was ecstatic to see John Waters added to the list. About time, I grumbled as I requested a review copy from Netgalley. Editor James Egan begins with an intro explaining that he’s known John Waters for over thirty-seven years, and he goes on to describe their first meeting:

The streets were foggy and empty as we made our way to a bar light hanging on a converted eighteenth century waterfront warehouse, You could hear the loud music blasting from within. I entered and encountered a scene right out of a Pasolini film. At the center of the smoke-filled room was the Egg Man, Paul Swift, completely naked and playing pool with fellow Dreamlander David Lochary. Leaning against the pool table with her back to me was a thin woman with beautiful straight black hair down to her waist wearing stilettos. When she turned around to look at me, I was stunned: she was actually a very ugly man.

I felt my brain twist trying to comprehend what I was seeing and then I felt a sudden sickness in my stomach. Before I could flee, Margaret grabbed my arm and dragged me to the bar to buy her a drink. There leaning on the corner of the bar was John Waters, twenty-seven-years old, surrounded by a coterie of admirers, puffing on a Kool cigarette and looking more like a young David Niven than the Prince of Puke.

The earliest article is from The Baltimore Evening Sun from 1965, and many interviews are from the 70s. Since the interviews discuss John Waters’ film career, there are, naturally a few cross-over points, but the essential thing here is that we see an incredible overview of Waters’ life–from John in his 20s up to the last interview in the collection when he’s 65. He discusses his very first films made with a camera given to him on his 17th birthday by his grandmother, his university life at NYU which was aborted when he was expelled, and his  incomplete projects such as “an underground version of  The Wizard of Oz to be called Dorothy, the Kansas City Pothead.”  There’s a vast range of information here, including a filmography, the films that most influenced him (the Kuchar brothers, Russ Meyer, Kenneth Anger, Herschell Gordon Lewis), his film budgets (Pink Flamingos cost $12,000 and that “includes the car”) what he looks for in actors (including those who’ve turned him down), and even a home tour.  I particularly enjoyed John’s descriptions of working in a Provincetown book shop whose owner believed “the customer was always wrong.” The more recent interviews cover where he’ll be buried, the subject of gay marriage, the difficulty (impossibility) of funding independent film, and the question that lingers over John Waters’ career … has he sold out?

The interviews have a range of tone, and this is due in part to the dating of the interviews but also to the person doing the interviewing. One of the later interviews, for example, is conducted by Todd Solondz, a film director whose work has created no small amount of controversy, and there’s a previously unpublished interview conducted by James Egan (the book’s editor) in 2o10. The final interview in the collection was conducted in 2011 by Everett Lewis. There’s a treasure trove of quotes here, and I’ve included just a few:

John Waters on the Worst Film Ever:

But the worst movie I’ve seen in my whole life was Rocky. I needed a vomit bag watching that.

John Waters on controversy:

A lot of people were upset that we put the baby in the refrigerator. Well, it wasn’t like we had chilled it for a week; it was only in there for a few seconds.

John Waters on film:

I secretly think Patch Adams is as extreme a movie as Pink Flamingos, in that it scared me. I almost had a nervous breakdown watching it.

John Waters on film budget:

It’s been thirty years since 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, which really cost no money because the leading lady stole the film.

John Waters on Original Sin:

I believe in everybody minding their own business, and I believe everybody’s born innocent.

John Waters on the difficulty of not looking normal:

But the problem was no one would ever let me in their house, because I had real long hair and looked weird

John Waters on politics:

The liberals are the easiest people to offend–although I guess I’m a liberal

John Waters on meta-meaning:

People are always trying to read stuff into my films, but I never said there was any message.

John Waters on his film characters:

Most people in my films are rotten people–they’re not nice or sympathetic characters. Especially in Female Trouble, I don’t think there is any person in the whole movie that has a decent bone in their body.

Joh Waters on censorship:

What can you say about the censor board? There’s not a person that could enjoy films that could see any reason for it. I can’t see any way to defend it from any level. The only kind of censorship that should be effective is don’t go if you don’t like it.

I think something must really be the matter with anyone who would take a job as a censor.

Jon Waters on creative film funding:

On a bicycle I sold diet pills that I’d gotten from Dr. Hiebert. I sold them to friends. It wasn’t that I was a major dealer, but it was once the only way to raise money for underground movies.

John Waters on Divine:

Divine was obsessed with Christmas, really wanted a christmas tree , so they sawed down a decorated one growing on someone’s lawn.

John Waters on watching television:

If you watch TV all the time, you might as well be a heroin addict; it’s the same thing.

John Waters on being gay:

I’ve always been out. I’ve never said I wasn’t gay, but people never have the nerve to ask me.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “John Waters: Conversations with Filmmakers ed. James Egan

  1. Well, I’m one of the poor souls who don’t know the name, so this was enlightening. Thanks.

  2. I knew the name as I’m familar with Divine but I don’t really think I’ve ever seen one of his movies. I might try and watch Female Trouble.
    I like books with interviews and conversations, it’s often more interesting than a biography as I usually don’t like to read chapter after chapter about baby years, childhood…

  3. Thanks for this generous appreciation. I’ve been a Waters fan ever since I went to a double feature of “Pink Flamingos” and “Desperate Living” at least 25 years ago (of 10 in our group, only 3 of us made it all the way through both films). I’ve even gone so far on occasion as to think that John Waters has a decent claim to being the most important living artist in the United States. Though I usually climb back down from such a rashly impulsive use of superlatives, you’d have a hard time convincing me that he’s anything less than a national treasure. To me, no one is better at pressing the buttons of certain particularly American phobias and values. That members of the reactionary Tea Party started out by referring to themselves as “teabaggers” – in hazardous ignorance of Waters’ unforgettable role in illuminating the vernacular meaning of that term – seemed a sort of perfect illustration of the way in which many Americans seem to embrace – in a magnified, unconscious way – those very elements of American life that Waters limns so perfectly and with such a peculiar blend of his trademark “shock value” with sweetness, innocence and humor.

    • I can relate to the group John Waters film outing. I once arranged to watch Pink Flamingos with a bunch of friends… it’s certainly a way to winnow out those who are like-minded.
      Nice analysis, and great to talk to a fellow fan.

  4. Sent your post to my daughter, a Baltimore resident who was just telling me about the bar where JW hangs out. Maybe you’ll gain another reader…

    Serial Mom had Patty Hearst in it, didn’t it? I don’t recall it being very ‘difficult’ but I guess it’s all about expectations…
    BTW, I just ordered a hard-to-get-not-on-netflix DVD of Patty Hearst, the film with Natasha Richardson, rest her poor soul. It was a great film that I’ve wanted to see again for a while. As you know, I have a thing about the SLA…

    • Patti Hearst played a juror in Serial Mom, but she was also in Cry-Baby, Pecker, Cecil B. Demented, and A Dirty Shame.

      Haven’t heard of the Richardson film, so I’ll check it out.

  5. Could he be compared to Russ Meyer? I’ve seen quite a few of his movies but maybe they don’t have all that much in common.

  6. leroyhunter

    Well considering he’s had an episode of The Simpsons to himself, I’d say Scott’s “national treasure” description is about right.

    I’ve seen a couple of his films, flunked out of a couple of others…no doubt he’s a pioneer of some kind. When you consider some of the humiliations people are asked to undergo in the various flavours of reality TV nowadays, his antics all those years ago seem prescient.

    “Diet pills”, ha!

  7. God, memories of late-nights at the Scala in Charlotte St and the air so thick with the smoke of illegal substances you could barely see the screen. Even now the words cha-cha heels bring a shiver to my spine… I’ll never be grateful enough to John Waters for the deleterious effect he had on me as a young man.

  8. I agree with him on censorship.

    I’ve only seen the more obvious ones. Hairspray. Serial Mom. Both are good, but it sounds like it’s Polyester I should be tracking down. Would that be your suggestion as another to try?

    He’s absolutely right on censorship. I rather liked the quote about people trying to read stuff into his films too.

    Charles, if you’re still reading, the Scala for me was the home of all night zombie movie marathons. The cinema cat added to the atmosphere, particularly the night it leapt off a mocked-up graveyard in front of the screen onto someone’s lap. She didn’t scream at the film, but she sure as hell did when something leapt off a grave onto her. And, to be fair, so would I have. Great cinema. Much missed.

    • He goes off on censors more than once in the interviews. He also says that gay interviewers never asked him if he was gay as they were “afraid he was something worse.”

      Yes, yes to Polyester. I absolutely fucking love that film.

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