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The Film Society of Lincoln Center is honoring filmmaker John Waters with the first retrospective of his films in the United States. Over the course of ten days, they’ll be screening all twelve of his feature films and the early underground shorts he directed and shot financed by his father. His first film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, was made fifty years ago, when he was 18 years old, and has only been seen in public once before. There will also be what Waters calls a Celluloid Atrocity Night, comprised of Multiple Maniacs and Mondo Trasho, which are feature length, and The Diane Linkletter Story, which is a short. Mondo Trasho was his feature-length debut in 1969.
His early work was influenced by Andy Warhol and Russ Meyers, laced with humor which he compares to the Theater of the Absurd. The series offers a free shorts program featuring Eat Your Makeup, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, and Roman Candles. Waters has also chosen 8 films by other directors he is jealous he hadn’t made, most of which are relatively unknown and delightfully controversial. Lately, Waters has focused on his writing, one-man shows, hosting events, and lately his art. The last film he made was A Dirty Shame in 2004. He would like to make a film called Fruitcake, a children’s Christmas film, but he claims that he cannot get sufficient funding to make the film.
These days, Waters also styles himself as an artist, and has an upcoming art exhibition that will open at the Marianne Boesky Gallery this coming January. His first gallery show was at American Fine Arts in 1995. In 2004, he had a solo show at the New Museum and in 2009 he had his first show at the Boesky Gallery, entitled Rear Projection, that was shown concurrently at Gagosian Los Angeles. One of the works is made up of four film titles spelling out the phrase, “Contemporary Art Hates You.” Waters considers his art conceptual and acknowledges he’s no Ansel Adams or that craft is not what his work is about. Waters has his own collection of contemporary art including pieces by Helmut Newton, Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Warhol, and Mike Kelley, among others. Waters was also once a guest curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Since John Waters’s aesthetic is to celebrate bad taste and has been labeled “The Pope of Trash,” his whole purpose is to make fun of the standards of mainstream society and expecting his art to conform to the average art scene work is defeating the purpose. His obsessions in his art are the same that are dealt with in his films, books and live shows such as celebrities, tabloid figures, fast food, pretentions of the art world, the commerciality of our culture, parody of human foibles, sexuality. In 1995, he began taking still photographs that he shoots from off his television. The photographs are basically a takeoff of his films rather than pieces that work on their own. He made the film Pecker in 1998 and it is a spoof of the New York art world. The lead character played by Edward Furlong spends every waking moment taking photographs of the people in his life. The artist Cindy Sherman is in the movie and plays herself. Pecker is courted by the pretentious denizens of the art scene and the film satirizes how art is valued.
I spoke with John Waters about his film career, his art, and the retrospective at the the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
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Gerry Visco: So, how was your summer? What have you been doing since your Carsick book tour? [Referring to his recently published book, Carsick, about Waters’ adventures hitchhiking across the United States.]
John Waters: I’ve had a very good summer and the book it did great. It was on the bestseller list so I was touring with that. I’ve been in Provincetown. I’m packing up my apartment today so I’m going home Sunday.
GV: So you’re going to be returning to New York City on the opening night of September 5th? It looks like you’re going to be making several appearances at the Festival/ Any surprises planned?
JW: Well it’s exciting to me. The opening night sold out in five minutes and crashed the Lincoln Center website which was really exciting. All the Dreamlanders are coming. It’s like “This is your Life John Waters!!!” so that’ll be fun.
GV: Is there going to be a red carpet? Or a black carpet?
JW: Yeah, we’re having the night with Dennis Dermody (the actor in I Am Divine, Divine Trash, and Cecil B. Demented) that ought to be great because that’s the ‘Celluloid Atrocity’ night. That was the original ad line for Multiple Maniacs, “celluloid atrocity” and the other one was “you won’t believe this one.” We’re going to show my 16MM prints of Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs that are probably the last ones in the world. And, they’ll never make more 16MM prints. If they’re ever shown again it’ll be digital. So basically they might burn up. Who knows what’ll happen to them. But it should be a good night.
GV: Yes, definitely.
JW: It’ll be 16MM with scratches and splices and all the things that used to happen in underground movie theaters. Then I think hopefully all the films I picked will be surprises for the people who haven’t seen them. All the ones that I said I was jealous I didn’t direct. All the things from Final Destination to Before I Forget, a wonderfully depressing French art movie.
GV: It was an interesting assortment. Were there films you would have liked to have included but weren’t able to?
JW: Oh sure. There are plenty of movies. I could do ten series like that. But these are the ones I think was all kinds of movies which I’m a fan of every kind of movie. I can go see Boyhood and the next day go see Into the Storm. You know, I like all kinds of movies. Except 100 million dollar tent pole special effects movies. They come out in the summer. I don’t even know what they are. I go to see them and from the trailers they all look like exactly the same movie and then I didn’t even have to see them. They show the pitch basically, for how the movie got finances.
GV: Well what was your criteria for the eight. Because eight is not that many so what was your criteria for selecting those particular ones?
JW: Well they just gave me a number really. It’s really a pretty long series. It’s filled with all of my movies too.
GV: Well why did you choose those eight?
JW: I just picked eight and I tried to pick different kinds. You know a horror movie, a comedy. You know I just tried to pick every kind of movie. But they just gave me a number, eight so that’s what I came up with.
GV: 50 years is incredible in itself. How does it feel to be in the company of filmmakers like Fassbinder and Mankiewicz? Did you ever know that your films would be so respectable?
JW: It’s wonderful. Like I said in the press release “finally I’m filthy and respectable at the same time,” that’s hilarious.
GV: You’re critically respected now.
JW: Well that’s fine. I didn’t have to change really and they’re even showing all the movies plus I got to pick other ones I like. So it wasn’t like anybody bent me into some kind of career I never wanted. No I’ve always done kind of the work I did, no matter if it was in books or movies or artwork or whatever. So at the same time I’m proud. I’m happy that I’ve been able to do this. I’ve only had to have a real job a few times in my life and that was in bookstores so that wasn’t bad either.
GV: And how did this come about by the way?
JW: They called and asked me and I said yes!
GV: They called you up out of the blue? That’s fabulous.
JW: The photographer Henny Garfunkle had first told me that they had said something about it, so I first heard about it through Henny.
GV: Are there any of your films in the series that you think are underrated and that you feel like you’re glad are being included?
JW: You know you always stick up for the ones that maybe didn’t do well. Cecil B. Demented is one I like a lot and when it came out it got very mixed reviews and it did OK financially but still people walk by me on the street all the time and say “Demented Forever!” which makes me laugh. That’s the cult slogan they said in it. And so you know it’s all one body of work. So I think if you’ve never seen any of my movies you can come to see any one of them and get what I’m about.
GV: If you were to go back to any of your early films is there any advice you’d give to yourself as a filmmaker?
JW: Well to be kind they were kind of ephemera, they were amateurish home movies. I was learning how to do it. Everybody else went to film school and turned in homework. I made movies and showed them. Technically they’re terrible but Cecil B. Demented says technique is nothing more than failed style. Maybe I agree with that.
GV: Now one of your biggest known films is Pink Flamingos.
JW: I would say Hairspray. I would say that more people in the world have seen Crybaby than any other movie I made because of Johnny Depp and television.
GV: I guess I’m thinking of the queer world, maybe.
JW: Well the queer world, I don’t even know what that is anymore really because that seems like it’s so, everybody’s involved in that. I know straight people who have watched “Pink Narcissus.” I don’t know that the queer world, I was never just the queer world. I never wanted to be pigeonholed. I always say being gay is not enough. It’s a good start.
GV: But you have to admit that the people that followed you in the early times were the crazy people.
JW: Yeah but they weren’t all gay, though certainly plenty were. It was the gay people that other gay people didn’t like.
GV: Yeah definitely.
JW: They were punk rockers. They were bikers. They were prisoners. They were all people who were angry and had a sense of humor. Who liked to fuck with other people and laugh. So I’m lucky. I still like those kinds of people.
GV: Will they let them into the retrospective?
JW: Well I don’t know. If they have tickets. All my friends, you know all of the Dreamland people are coming. It’s like a reunion, so we’ll see. And I know the Celluloid Atrocities sold out in like five minutes so I think we’ll have a good audience yeah.
GV: Well I’m going to wear my crazy outfit, ok?
JW: Of course!!
GV: What about your early films, Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, will they ever be put on DVD do you think or you’d rather not?
JW: Oh no, I don’t know. There are issues with them. I hope so one day but, you know, there’s no DVD business, there is none anymore. It used to be, when they were out on video, at the height when people were doing video. But, as you know, now the DVD market is almost meaningless. Maybe one day they’ll come out in a giant box set after I’m dead and that’ll be fine.
GV: Well I don’t know that you’re ever going to die, John.
JW: A meme, haha.
GV: Know what I mean?
JW: But I’m just saying, that would be fine. The fact that they’re hard to see, makes them better.
GV: Yeah definitely, I’m really excited because I haven’t seen them myself.
JW: You might be disappointed. There are reasons why they haven’t been showing
GV: Well it’s true but plus the fact that it’s free I’m a little worried about how crowded it’s going to get.
JW: Well that I don’t know. The last time we showed them at an art gallery in Berlin and we had them in peep shows.
GV: What about Diane Linkletter?
JW: You know what I found out, when they released all the Watergate tapes, that Diane Linkletter, they lied about it. She had not taken acid for a whole year and Nixon and Art Linkletter really conspired to blame Timothy Leary for her death when she was not on LSD when she jumped out the window so I feel bad for Diane Linkletter I wish she had hung out with us. And oddly enough I have a friend who bought an apartment in LA and I’m not going to name it because he’s freaked out about it. But he bought it and the next day his neighbors said, “you know who lived in that apartment, she jumped out of the window” and he freaked out. He still lives there, but they changed all the windows and everything. It’s not even the same windows. He lives in her apartment and I keep saying we should have a seance but he gets mad. He doesn’t want me to talk about it.
GV: What do you think Art Linkletter’s reaction was to the film? He didn’t see the film did he?
JW: I have no idea you know. But he did something that was in worse taste than what I did was that she put out a record when she died called “we love you, call collect.” Which was in his voice, with him crying. So I don’t know. It was a battle of bad taste there. I don’t know who’s winning. I’m very sorry Diane Linkletter is dead. I liked her. We didn’t do it to be mean to her. We made fun of the whole thing that they tried to use against LSD and blame and use her as a poster girl to be anti-drugs which I think was unfair.
GV: Yeah well maybe you and Art have more in common than you think.
JW: Well he tried to get children to talk about going to the bathroom on television and was very successful. I doubt it. I think Art Linkletter made AIDS jokes too if I remember before he died so I don’t think we had much in common. But I didn’t dislike his daughter and it was a tragedy and I felt bad for her. And yes, it was in bad taste that we made that movie. I didn’t plan it. It was the day that we got the equipment to test for Multiple Maniacs, the first time I had ever had lip-synched sound. And the day before or something, it happened. So we just said, let’s do it and Divine can play Diane Linkletter but Divine doesn’t even have makeup on in it. He just has a day old beard and my bathrobe and a 2 dollar wig from a thrift shop. So it was not a movie that was written or planned or anything. It was technically a camera test. And yes, it was in bad taste, but I had also done the Kennedy assassination so. It was an iconic death that was used in the media constantly and certainly I agree it was in bad taste. I don’t think there’s any reason to apologize for it
And yes, it was in bad taste to make that movie. I didn’t plan it. It was the day we got to be equipment to test for Multiple Maniacs, the first time I had ever had lip-synched sound. And the day before or something, this happened! So we said, “Let’s do it! Divine can play Diane Linkletter.” Divine doesn’t even have makeup on. She just has a day-old beard, my bathrobe and a two-dollar wig from a thrift shop. So it was not a movie that was written or planned. It was technically a camera test. And yes, it was in bad taste, but I had also done the Kennedy assassination. It was an iconic death that was used in the media constantly. It was in bad taste, but I don’t think there’s any reason to apologize for it. It’s not in distribution, you can’t get it, it’s not out there, it’s being shown in a historical context.
GV: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing it. I can’t wait to see it. I remember that whole thing happening and it was kind of ironic. Have you had bad acid trips yourself?
JW: Never had a bad one. LSD was great for me. I always said it gave me the confidence to be who I am today. My mother always says, “Don’t tell young peoplethat!” But it’s true, people who I took acid with are dead from drugs later in their lives. So it depends on each person. So, no I never had a bad LSD trip. Would I like to take it now? Oh my god, no. I can’t even imagine — it lasts too long.
GV: Well, speaking of young people — many young people now know you as a personality, but might not be as familiar with your earlier movies. Are you glad to have the attention put back on your work?
JW: Oh, they know the films! Although, it’s almost true that the people who come see me know weren’t born when I made my last movie. In five years, that’ll be true, which I find kind of funny.
GV: Is that really your last film, or are you holding out on us?
JW: It might be. And if it is, I’m fine with that. I made a whole bunch of movies, they’re out there, and my book was a bestseller — you know, A Dirty Shame was not a hit. I’m proud of the movie, but it only goes to show, if that film had been a hit, I would have made a new movie right away. That’s how the movie business works. And the movie business, as I know it, is no longer right now.
GV: I know what you mean. Still, is it possible you’re gathering forces behind the scenes?
JW: Well, I’ve had meetings, I’ve done pitches, but it’s much more likely I’ll write another book.
GV: Definitely. What would your next book be about though?
JW: I can’t tell you, because I don’t even know. I’m mulling that over. I don’t like to talk about it before I do it. I talk about it plenty after I do it, but before — when you’re thinking something up you don’t talk about it. It’s bad luck.
GV: Because this is an art blogazine, my editor wanted me to ask you some questions about your own artwork.
JW: I’ve got a big show at Marianne Boesky Gallery that opens January 6th in New York.
GV: What’s going to be the show?
JW: Well, I’m working on it right now, I’m not going to give it all away. Certainly photography and video and some sculpture, continuing the same kind of work I do. It’s a big show, I’ve been working on it for a long time.
GV: In your exhibits, you take film stills and sort of work them over, right?
JW: I use them in a different way, take them out of their original context, and put them in a completely new context that makes them have different meaning than the director ever wanted. So, I guess I’m a failed publicist.
GV: Would you say that most of them are humorous?
JW: Hopefully! I think good art can be funny.
GV: Absolutely. What about Jeff Koons, what did you think about him?
JW: You can see it online, I interviewed him in LA for the Eli Broad Foundation, and 2,000 people came. I’m all for Koons.
GV: Is there anything you want to add about your art career?
JW: No, because I’m still working on the show. I just hung up from a meeting with my assistant and we’re doing a bunch of new stuff when I get back to Baltimore Sunday. That’s the main thing I’m working on right now.
GV: How long have you been making art?
JW: Since 1992, I had my first show with Colin De Land who was my art dealer at American Fine Arts until he died.
GV: Would you say the visual sense is the same that you bring to your films?
JW: It’s the same thing, I’m just trying to tell you a story and use humor and get you to look at things in a different way. It’s all the same, no matter what field I’m in.
GV: You recently interviewed Isabelle Huppert, who you’ve said is your favorite actress. How did that go?
JW: I think it went well, you’ll have to ask the audience. I was on the stage. It seemed to go well and god knows she was game.
GV: Are you going to do a movie with her?
JW: I don’t know if I’m going to do any movie, but it would be hard to figure out how we’d use Isabelle Huppert in Baltimore. We’d have to kidnap her from the airport when the plane landed.
GV: There you go, that’s your movie, John! I don’t know, I don’t believe you’re not going to make another film. I’m a little skeptical.
JW: I didn’t say I wasn’t! But I might now. It’s a possibility. I haven’t made one in a while.
GV: Anything else you want to tell us about the Lincoln Center retrospective?
JW: Nothing except that it’s everything I’ve ever done, so you can sure judge me. I thought up the ad campaign, “How Much Can You Take?” I don’t know the answer to that!
GV: If you had to choose a least favorite film, one that you’re not as into, what would it be?
JW: I think the early ones that are just juvenilia, where I didn’t even really know what I was doing. The first movie I made, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, had my high school friends in it, and they didn’t even want to do it! They’re not movies you would go pay to see at a movie theater, but if you want to see how we started and what Divine was like when he was in high school, in 1966 when we were really young — back then Dreamland Studios was my bedroom in my parent’s house. They’re just like any kid today who’s making their first movie on a cell phone. But they didn’t have that then, they had 8mm film. My grandmother gave me this camera, and I used to read Jonas Mekas’s column in the Village Voice and run away to New York and see underground movies, and so I just tried to do them. That’s the beginning. And they’re certainly not commercial, they’re not in distribution, they’re not to be paid to sit down and watch in a movie theater like you’re paying to see a movie, but they are source material, they’re early sketches of what, hopefully, I later became.
GV: Why don’t you put them on YouTube?
JW: Why would I want to be on YouTube? I don’t want to run an advertising agency. That’s what happens on YouTube, you get big careers in advertising.
GV: Yeah, but I think a lot of young people might be eventually interested in seeing them.
JW: I know, they might … Maybe it’s better if you never see them. I think Warhol said that about some of his films. If you never see them and just talk about them, they’re better. That might be true.
GV: I know what you mean, especially after I went to see some of those Warhol films that were, shall we say, not that interesting.
JW: Well, I think his get better and better, even the ones that are almost impossible to watch.
GV: They had some kind of footage at the New Museum about the Kennedys, it was really boring.
JW: I was amazed that they were making that at the same time I was making Eat Your Makeup. I didn’t know about that until two years ago, they were never released or talked about. We were basically doing the same thing, but I actually had a bigger budget. I had a car and they used a couch!
GV: In terms of you as a filmmaker, you obviously have very thorough film history knowledge, you’re very astute. Have you ever thought of writing about film or teaching film?
JW: No, I don’t want to ever teach unless it’s in prison. I hated school, I don’t want to be a teacher. I’ve curated a lot, so I’ve presented a lot of movies, I do my ten best list every year for Artforum. I’ve always promoted movies, in a way, that I liked. In all my books I’ve written about movie that I’ve liked. I have a chapter, “Guilty Pleasures” in Crackpot, which was actually an article where they would ask authors their favorite guilty pleasure films and most of them would pick trashy movies, but I picked Bresson films, art films that people never thought I would have liked. So I’ve always written about films.
GV: What else would you like to tell us, if anything?
JW: I don’t know. I don’t have a burning message. I’ve been doing it for 50 years.
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Update, 9/11: The opening night film shown at the Film Society retrospective was “Female Trouble,” which I first saw in 1974. I’d forgotten how Waters presents Divine playing Dawn Davenport as a sort of insane performance artist, satirizing what some of the more extreme downtown performance artists actually do. No, Davenport doesn’t urinate or defecate on stage. Instead, she kills her own daughter by strangling her at her nightclub act and then taunts the audience with a gun asking, “Who wants to die for art?” She then proceeds to shoot into the crowd, killing and injuring a few of them. After her arrest, Davenport tells the judge that her daughter died for her career. He asks, “The death of your daughter was art?” She gleefully replies “my life is a show” and is enthusiastic about going to the electric chair — as long as it’s televised.
Is it true that Waters really was unable to get the financing for “Fruitcake” as he has been maintaining for several years? It could be so, or he prefers not to make any more films since the conditions of making one have become more difficult. At the Lincoln Center Film Festival opening after-party at Stone Roses in the Time Warner building, I asked Waters why he couldn’t he return to the DIY aesthetic of his earlier films. “No, I don’t want to go back to do-it-yourself film,” he replied, slightly annoyed. Some John Waters fans and critics maintain his earlier films were edgier than his more mainstream productions. Is it that Waters has gone Hollywood and can’t go back?
Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take? opens tonight at The Film Society of Lincoln Center and runs through September 15.