John Waters is at war with the tyranny of good taste
A two-toned Ricky Ricardo jacket, And an autographed picture of Andy Devine
– Jimmy Buffett
In his living room, with walls of books climbing to the ceiling, bits and pieces of art scattered on every flat surface—including the floor—and John Waters himself sitting sedately on the sofa clutching a needlepoint pillow, you hardly notice the mustache.
He is gracious—once he warns you not to touch, move or step on anything—and gradually you understand his caution. The granite rocks along the wall aren’t rocks, they’re art, papier mâché or Styrofoam, something light and fragile.
The open box of Jujubes, the candies scattered randomly on the side table? Art. You can’t eat them.
The plate of glazed doughnuts? They’re ceramic. It’s art.
All things are not, it appears, what they seem to be in the world of John Waters.
You settle down in an adjoining chair to start the conversation and now you notice the famous mustache, a pencil-thin line stretching across his upper lip like a flexible exclamation point, or perhaps a permanent reminder of his idol, Little Richard. And you realize, it too is art.
So here he is, the self-proclaimed “Pope of Trash,” the “Baron of Bad Taste,” sitting comfortably in his genteel Nob Hill apartment surrounded by art, most of it in good taste, and you can’t help yourself, you have to go straight to the heart of the paradox, that act of cinematic mayhem most successful directors would never admit making, would try to bury in the back corner of their portfolio garden.
You have to ask about Pink Flamingos.
It might be otherwise unfair to shackle John Waters to the outrageous legacy of his almost adolescent past—that was 40 years ago, he was only 25 after all, when he made the film by which he is most often measured.
But the thing is, he embraces it, he affirms it, he is actually proud.
Certainly, there are many people who have never seen Pink Flamingos, and who never should. It has sex scenes in which a chicken appears to die. It has a grandmother living in a crib and subsisting on chicken eggs. It has various forms of excrement, for various reasons. And it has things much, much worse than that.
But it’s the never-should-watch part that delights Waters, because he is profoundly—and, apparently, sincerely—proud of bad taste. He considers it his life’s work to crusade against good taste, or at least against the societal norms that demand it. Hence Pink Flamingos.
It would be so easy to dismiss all this if you could attribute the film’s historic, over-the-top tastelessness to Waters’ exuberant youth. But no. He steadfastly refuses to dismiss a moment of the movie. In fact, he insists there’s no substantive difference between Pink Flamingos and his most mainstream movie, Hairspray, which morphed into a Tony Award-winning Broadway show and from there into a hit Hollywood version of the Broadway show that became the fourth highest grossing movie musical with a worldwide gross of more than $202 million. Oh the shame.
Still, Waters insists, “To me they’re all the same. The difference is not so much budget either, because my first film that got national attention was Pink Flamingos, and my last film, A Dirty Shame, was NC 17 and had huge censorship problems, so I don’t know that anything’s changed.”
Come on, you say, Pink Flamingos is in a bad taste class all by itself. But Waters persists.
“I accidentally made a family movie called Hairspray which, if you believe I’ve ever done anything subversive, that’s the one, because it was my same values. But middle America didn’t notice, and they embraced two men singing a love song, embraced a movie that actually encouraged their white, 15-year-old teenage daughters to date black men. But they never seemed to notice that that was weird. So I guess, Pink Flamingos was preaching to the converted.”
And whether he cares or not, sPink Flamingos has been good to him.
“God knows, it still works. It’s like a good growth stock. My work has gone up and down over the years, and the most important thing is that they’re all still playing, all over the world. You can’t get rid of them. Every single one of my movies, except A Dirty Shame, has played on television now. Pink Flamingos has played uncut on cable television. I never could have imagined that. I still am shocked by that.”
He’s already said he made the film for about $12,000 ($2,000 over budget), so you can’t help but ask, with such crazy success, how much has it made for him?
“I have really no idea what it’s made,” he insists. “As a midnight movie it was impossible to keep track of, because in the beginning it was free. I always said I paid my rent with Pink Flamingos. I still get reports twice a year, and Warner Brothers now distributes it. Who would have ever thought?”
– from Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste
The plot of Pink Flamingos, a deadly rivalry over who is the filthiest person alive, is largely irrelevant. The film is most remembered for shocking moments that include the sex scene in which a live chicken is crushed, a unique, almost unwatchable rendition of the song, “Bird Is the Word,” and a closing scene in which Divine, the film’s drag queen star, picks up a clump of fresh dog turds and puts it in her mouth.
“It was no big deal. I did one take. I’m not a sadist. It was done as a political action, almost in the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, in the spirit of the Weathermen, in the spirit of, I guess, Occupy. That’s the spirit in which Pink Flamingos was made. It wasn’t a real movie, no agents asked me for their clients to be in it. The people who were in it, looking like that, they were brave comedians. That’s how I think of the acting troupe that helped me make Pink Flamingos. They were brave. It was against the tyranny of good taste. A terrorist act.”
John Waters, the cultural terrorist?
“The fact is, we took everything together, we took foreign films, underground movies, sex movies and everything that was changing, and made fun of them. And that’s what Pink Flamingos was. My genre was really exploitation films for art theaters.”
Perhaps the hardest thing to understand about that film is who watched it, who made it so popular? Waters’ answer is revealing, if it’s true.
“It only worked in expensive neighborhoods. It still does. I don’t get asked to speak a lot in Oakland, to be honest. The most intelligent and the richest audiences always went for me. Which, I guess, I should be embarrassed to admit. The 1 percent, the intellectuals, were the ones who fought for me.
But the people who made it so successful were potheads. It was a movie for potheads. I thought it up on pot. The audiences were 100 percent on marijuana —100 percent. That had a lot to do with it. It’s a pothead movie. A shared pothead movie. It’s not the kind of movie people would come by themselves and watch, it’s more of a shared group madness.”
Since John Waters is unabashedly—but not histrionically—gay, you have to ask how much of his work is simply the elaborately raised middle finger of a gay man telling the world he doesn’t care what people think.
“No. No. My audience for that movie was certainly gay people, but angry gay people. It was gay people that didn’t fit in with other gay people. It was bikers. It was criminals. It was punk rock before there was such a thing. It pissed off hippies. I was a yippie. I never felt I was a hippie. I was definitely a yippie.
“So the gay thing was definitely a part of it, but it’s too easy to say it was just a gay thing. Because, it was certainly gay-ly incorrect. I mean, the fact that Divine was in drag was not part of the plot, ever, in those movies. He was playing a woman. But we went beyond that. I mean, a mother/son sex scene that was real? I mean, Divine had to give a blow job and recite 12 pages of dialogue in one take. With her friend, who was straight. Without laughing.”
The gay thing is an issue Waters wants to be very clear about.
“The gay world gets on my nerves as much as the straight world. With the rules and the, ‘oh my god’. I’m gay-ly incorrect. I’ve always been. When I went into the first gay bar in Washington, I thought, I may be queer, but I’m not this. It’s so square. I wanted Bohemian, and I still do. I always liked it mixed, and I think Bohemia always was. That was the first time blacks and whites hung out together, gays and straight people did, and that to me was much more revolutionary than separatism, which I’ve always been wildly against, either gay or straight.”
Breaking rules seems to be a necessary part of the Waters credo, although today he seems far too refined to be a rabble-rouser. But making Pink Flamingos violated more than good taste. During an important scene in the movie a house trailer is burned to the ground. You’ve always suspected that Waters did the scene without a permit.
“My father’s business was fire protection equipment. And all we had was one pitiful fire extinguisher. And it was in the middle of the woods. That entire neighborhood could have burned to the ground. We had nothing except one fire extinguisher. There were no safety people. And I’ve read in reviews that, because I lingered so long on the fire, obviously I’m a pyromaniac, this was something sexual. No it wasn’t, I was just a bad editor.
It should have been shorter. But I went to so much trouble I didn’t want to cut it. But it sounds better that I was a pyromaniac.”
Push all the cinematic rubble to the side and ask Waters what drove him creatively and the answer is simple.
“I was a writer, basically. I never wanted to make a movie that someone else wrote. I never have, I never will. I wanted to have a way to say things. Same reason I write books now. I always wanted to cause trouble in a way that was fun. And writing is really what I do more than a filmmaker. I mean, I write all my own movies, I write all my books. I write the art stuff I do. I think up the concept of what it is. I write my spoken word act. So, I guess I wanted to make movies because it was a way to be a writer and have many different ways to tell stories.”
Waters has often credited one, not-so-surprising source with unleashing his creative muse. “I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter in the very, very beginning,” he has written. The Wizard of Oz opened me up because it was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes. And great dialogue. I think the witch has great, great dialogue.”
Waters hasn’t made a film in a while, although he’s sitting on a screenplay called “Fruitcake,” for which he had a development deal before the economy tanked.
“I can’t get it made right now at all. I don’t know anybody who can get a $5 million movie made right now. And that used to be thought of as a modest-priced, independent movie. Now they want you to film it on your cell phone and sell it at Sundance for $500,000. I’ve done that, you know.”
So he keeps writing books (“Always helps to have many backups.”) and most of his titles are still in print, including Crackpot, Shock Value, and Role Models.
Waters says writing is a labor of love.
“I love writing books. I write every day. Oh my God, I’m so overly disciplined. My hangovers are scheduled a year in advance. I’m very organized. I write every Monday to Friday, 8 until 11, or until 12 if I’m not thinking it up. If I’m rewriting.”
He is also, as we have already seen, very serious about art, both as collector and producer. What does he look for?
“Something that, at first, kind of makes me mad. I did a piece called “Contemporary Art Hates You,” and it does hate you if you don’t first open your mind to things that you at first hate. So it challenges. The best thing about art is that it makes you think about something differently from then on.
And then, of course, if you’re a collector, it has to be something you can afford. I’ve never sold any thing, I don’t buy art to make money. But it’s a kind of an addiction. I go to galleries constantly. I go to maybe 50 galleries a month. In New York you can do like 30 in a day, easily.”
He describes his own art, which is widely collected, as “representational. I think it all up before I do it, and then I take it off the TV screen a lot, and it’s more about using other people’s images to make new images of my own, that tell a different story.”
The pillow Waters is holding on the sofa also tells a story. It was created by his 86-year-old mother who copied in needlepoint a photo John gave her of a San Francisco police car burning during the riots that followed the assassination of Harvey Milk.
Now 65, Waters has become a somewhat subdued and elegant elder statesman of what he insists on calling “trash.” He has tamed most of his demons, he says, “But anything I didn’t work out I turned into a career. There’s some demons you live with forever but, you know, they’re your friends.”
He refuses to say which of his films he likes best, insisting, “They’re all my children, and mine have learning disabilities.” And he summarizes the message he insists they all promote, like this: “Mind your own business, don’t judge people, learn to laugh at the terrible things that can happen to you and you’ll be stronger. And that’s it. They all say that. Oh, and exaggerate what society uses against you, and turn it into a style. I don’t always follow it, but I can give it.”