September's Sight & Sound: Talking With John Waters

Talking with John Waters: Endlessly funny, erudite, charming and so well-read -- just try to keep up (he reads two books a week).
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Talking with John Waters: Endlessly funny, erudite, charming and so well-read, just try to keep up (he reads two books a week). I was thrilled to interview him for Sight & Sound's September issue. I won't publish the entire, long and entertaining interview here, this is just a teaser. You'll need to go out and buy the magazine right here. But, to whet your appetite, here are excerpts. Enjoy.

Kim Morgan: I know this question is asked of a lot of filmmakers, but it's interesting, especially when it comes to you, because you have so many interests and influences and innovations of your own. So, what did make you pick up a camera to shoot film?

John Waters: I'll tell you my influences. I was a puppeteer for children's birthday parties, and so William Castle was an influence. I'd try to throw all of those gimmicks in there. Somehow I got my hand on the Village Voice and started reading Jonas Mekas's column and that opened up the world of underground movies that I knew nothing about. I read about Warhol and Paul Morrissey and Kenneth Anger and, more than anybody, the Kuchar brothers. I used to run away to New York all the time, on the greyhound bus, and make up lies that I was going to a fraternity weekend or something and then go see these movies. I wanted to be an underground filmmaker. But at the same time, during my teenage years, we went to the drive-in almost every night, and in Baltimore they tested every kind of '-ploitation': 'hicksploitation', 'blacksploitation', 'goresploitation', I mean amazing stuff.

I also used to go to the Rex Theatre in Baltimore. They were fighting with the censor board all the time, and they had both nudist camp movies, and Ingmar Bergman! They'd show Monica's Hot Summer [Summer with Monika] Then they would cut out most of the dialogue and just leave the bare tits scenes in, so, those movies I was seeing too. All of those exploitation movies and Bergman.

I love Bergman. I still love Bergman. I still just think of Brink of Life [1957], my favorite Bergman: three pregnant women in a maternity ward. I used to go to this college nearby, Delta College, and they showed every Bergman movie. I'd steal books and watch Bergman. I used to take Divine on acid and make him go to Bergman movies. And he would get so mad. I always remember, The Hour of the Wolf [1968], where she rips her face off and Divine was like, "That's it. I'm not lookin' at these movies ever again! I want to see movies about rich people!"

KM: When thinking of Female Trouble [in which Divine's character is disfigured in an acid attack and then taken to a local beauty salon where the owners find her new look inspired], I think of today, when so many people change their faces through extreme measures, and tabloid culture, how we follow celebrity crime...

JW: Nobody's shot up liquid eyeliner yet!

KM: It's on its way! But, this idea in Female Trouble that crime and beauty are the same seems so relevant to me, especially now...

JW: That was all Genet. That was what I read in high school, he was a big influence on me. And I always say, "Everybody looks better under arrest." I still visit people in prison, I taught in prison. In my book Role Models [2010] I wrote a pretty serious thing about parole regarding one of the Manson women [Leslie Van Houten], who looks back in horror about it. So, I've always been interested in extreme behaviour. I would follow the Boston Bomber case mostly because I wanted to know what happened to the ex-wife of the one that died? She then remarried, supposedly, and has a child! I always say, "God. She has a boyfriend? Where did she find a new boyfriend? Where did she date?"

KM: Your movies tweak genres and conventions and even labels. What do you think of certain labels? Like camp? Or melodrama?

JW: Well, melodrama, I like. Camp, I've said a million times: "No one says that word anymore do they?" Even kitsch. That's like old queens talking about Rita Hayworth. And there's nothing the matter with old queens talking about Rita Hayworth, I'd probably like to hear that. I haven't heard that in a while. But I don't even say trash anymore. The punk movement never died... a lot of the punk world was gay. It was a great look for gay disguise. And it was a great look for really unattractive people. And goth. So I always loved that style, because if you were not a traditional beauty, or even if, by society's standards, you were ugly or had a body type that wasn't thought of as sexy, you could work it in the punk world and come across with a great look and be a star. So, I always felt comfortable in that world.

KM: It makes me think of how you view your characters and shoot them - like Edith Massey, an, unusual, interesting looking woman and, so, photographs wonderfully. Who were the photographers who inspired you?

JW: Oh, Diane Arbus. The hugest influence on me, way before Pecker. If you look at that one shot, the woman who looks like Divine in Female Trouble, she's holding a child and the other child is drooling, we looked at that picture. That was a direct quote, basically. Diane Arbus was a huge, huge, huge influence...

KM: Tennessee Williams, who we brought up before, was also an influence...

JW: Oh, he saved me. Because when I first read him, I realized there was bohemia. Nobody had ever told me what that was and that's what I always wanted, and still want. That was the world I was trying to find.

KM: And Williams didn't define himself as one thing. One thing that might become problematic is when things are labeled too easily...

JW: I agree. I'm against separatism. That's what I said in my commencement speech. Separatism is defeat.

KM: The term political correctness is over-used, to the point where it starts to lose meaning, especially among liberals; it's either a pejorative or not a pejorative. You've seen people rebelling on all sides of the spectrum, and when the term didn't exist...

JW: I am politically correct. I am completely politically correct.

KM: Yes. But there's got to be something beyond, perhaps? Like in your recent commencement speech you said, "Being gay is not enough anymore."

JW: It's not. In rich kid schools? Being straight... they're the ones who should be marching. As a gay man in the arts, do I ever feel prejudice? No. But, if I was gay maybe in a poor neighborhood in a poor kids' school? Yes, then it can be a problem. It's a class issue now. What's happening now, with rich kids, they pretend they're gay when they're not. But then you have to do it. So, I don't care. I mean, "Eatin' pussy for politics." You still have to do it.

Read my entire interview at Sight & Sound, in which he discusses further thoughts on Female Trouble, Divine's dislike of hot wigs, the huge influence of Ike & Tina Turner, Tab Hunter's bravery, Johnny Depp, Patty Hearst, Hairspray, Serial Mom (and more movies), how he learned filmmaking from teamsters, the movie industry today, his love of Freddie Francis's Trog, Derek Jarman's Blue and Joseph Losey's Boom!, among other British films he programmed along with his own BFI retrospective which is showing all of his films (every damn one), and how his next project will probably be for TV -- even though he never watches TV. Well, except for The Wire, he watched that religiously. Pick up the September issue now.

Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.

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