Camp, Trash, Filth celebrates John Waters’ salubrious sleaze
Cover | by Gregory Beatty
What do you ask someone who’s been interviewed a gazillion times before? And by the crème de la crème of the entertainment industry too, from David Letterman and Stephen Colbert to Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien? That’s the dilemma I faced when I interviewed American filmmaker, author, artist and provocateur John Waters ahead of his June 24 appearance in Regina as part of Camp, Trash, Filth. Short of asking Waters something flaky like, “If you were a tree, John, what type of tree would you be?”, what could I ask him that wouldn’t feel like a rehash of dozens of other interviews? For better or for worse, this is what I came up with.
What it was like growing up in Baltimore?
Well, the ’50s were horrible. You might know them from watching television and hearing doo-wop music and seeing cool cars, but it was a time of terrible conformity. That’s why rock ’n’ roll went crazy. That’s why beatniks started, then hippies, then punks, then grunge, then gangstas, and now hackers. So there’s my history.
Your early cultural influences really spanned the spectrum from high to low art?
I always looked for movies that caused trouble. When I was growing up, foreign films were the first ones to show nudity. Ingmar Bergmann was the first to show vomit. At the same time, I was seeing exploitation movies that Baltimore had everywhere, like Blood Feast and other gore movies. Underground movies started coming out when I was a teenager too. I read about them in The Village Voice, and knew about Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol and the Kuchar brothers. I tried to put all three types of movies together to create a genre that was mine — which was really exploitation films for art theatres.
How important was it to have the Dreamlanders as collaborators?
Nobody really called us the Dreamlanders until 10 years ago. We said Dreamland Studios. We’re not offended, but we never called ourselves that. We were just friends who made movies together. In a weird way, it turned into a Hollywood system. The ones who got the best reaction, like Mink, and Divine, and sometimes Edith, went to the top and got bigger parts.
Before your Regina performance, there’s a panel on the use of filth, outrage and the abject in queer film to explore marginalized identities and taboo subjects. Did you have an aesthetic or ideology in that sense?
That sounds awfully intellectual. To me, it’s a reaction against the tyranny of good taste. My early films were like terrorist acts against good taste. They were humorous, but even hippies were afraid of them. My audience, originally, was not just a gay audience. It was gay people who didn’t get along with other gay people, it was bikers who fought other bikers, and lots of blacks and whites together when those communities were against that. And prisoners, too, as I show my movies in jails.
Ideas of celebrity, reality TV and the surreal seem so prevalent today. Were you maybe anticipating their emergence in your films?
It might have led to them. But I don’t like those things. I think reality TV asks you to feel superior to other people and make fun of them. Even celebrity casting — yes, I tried it in Cry-Baby. But I never picked somebody who I thought was so bad they were good. I loved David Nelson from Ozzie & Harriet. I grew up with him. I loved Traci Lords who was fresh from escaping the porn world. I felt I was giving her a chance as a refugee. Patty Hearst was so sick of being a victim in the press that she wanted to make fun of it — which she certainly did in my movies. Even Johnny Depp — he came in and made fun of being a teen idol. Instead of them being so bad they were good, I always said they were so good they were great.
You’ve transitioned from film to being a published author with book deals—
I wrote all my movies too. I never made a movie I didn’t write.
I listened to Carsick on audio book. To me, it encapsulated what ended up happening in the election, with you hitchhiking across this great divide between blue and red states from Baltimore to San Francisco.
The people who picked me up, if I go back and imagine who they voted for, I’m sure some did vote for Trump. We’ll see later if Trump gives them what they expected. I don’t think he will. They might have been Republican, but they were way more nonjudgmental, perhaps even believing in gay rights. That was maybe because the people I met were the type who picked up hitchhikers. That is a definite breed. Most have overcome some struggle in the past, and they want to give someone else a chance.
With your new book Make Trouble, did you sort of throw down the gauntlet for young people?
That sounds a little serious. But certainly, I believe it was good advice. It was written before Trump was president. It was a commencement speech at [Rhode Island School of Design]. I never graduated from college. They wouldn’t even let me graduate off the stage in high school. So, it was funny to me that I got a doctorate and gave a speech. But it did speak to some people, so having it as an illustrated book… many people are buying it for graduation — which I find delightful.
Are you optimistic the younger generation will be up to the challenge?
I always have optimism. I’m proud of my past, but I’m not nostalgic. I think it’s a better time now. Right now, Trump is someone to fight. So they can have a little taste of revolution.
You also mentioned in your speech the value of being an insider versus an outsider.
It’s just now I think it’s more important to get inside, be a Trojan horse and sneak in like Hairspray did in America. Then change people’s values when they don’t even realize it.
You’re also a big free speech advocate?
I think it’s crazy Berkeley didn’t allow that idiot Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. And they banned [Ann Coulter] too — although I understand. I went to a demonstration once where we stopped Spiro Agnew from speaking during Watergate. Even then, it felt kind of wrong. But I think you should let idiots speak. Then you confront them.
Certainly, as an artist, you’ve had people try to stop you from speaking.
Yes, I went through all that. But that was what I based my career on, negative reviews. It was a different time. There was a cultural war then, there isn’t now — at least, not yet. Back then, disapproval of the establishment, you wore it proudly. Today, the established critics are all hip. They’re not dumb enough to give you the kind of bad review that helps like they used to.
Do you think the arts are held to an unfair standard? With war, poverty and oppression, there’s no shortage of obscenity out there, yet the arts get singled out.
Sure, and I always say it’s the context. With Pink Flamingoes, I never won an obscenity case. At midnight, with friends, it’s a joyous experience. But in a courtroom at 10 a.m., it’s obscene. When the Museum of Modern Art bought a print, I thought “Well, this will save us with the jury.” But they weren’t impressed. And in Canada, I had the worst experience. It was with Multiple Maniacs, where they just burned the print when I sent it to the Ontario Censor Board. That was maybe the best blurb I ever had. “Destroyed!”
Queer City went through an experience like that in 2000 when a program on queer porn led to demands by the Opposition Saskatchewan Party that funding be pulled.
And what happened?
People rallied to the cause, and they ended up looking like fools.
Yeah, that’s what I mean. The censors are often your best publicity agent.
With your visual art career, you have two major projects underway. You’re in the Venice Biennale?
Yes. It’s work I’ve done from my past. But it’s perfect for Venice. And I’m really proud it’s been included. Then also, the Baltimore Museum is giving me a full retrospective in 2018. It’s going to travel to other museums, but I can’t tell you where yet.
I’ve read that when you were starting out, you used to screen your films in churches.
Yeah, we always did. Churches had things like Black Panther and anti-war meetings too. It’s hard to imagine that today. But Multiple Maniacs premiered in a Unitarian church. Mondo Trasho premiered in a Presbyterian church. That way, we could avoid the censor board because they weren’t going to bust a church.
Are you aware your Regina performance is in a church?
No, I don’t think I knew that. But that’s great. What kind of church?
Oh good, I’ll try to perform a couple of miracles. ❧
John Waters’ Sly Subversion
John Waters’ films have done more than scandalize the self-appointed sentries of the status quo. Several of his movies have left a mark (or at least a stain) on pop culture, and opened the door to ongoing anti-establishment projects. Here’s an incomplete overview. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo
PINK FLAMINGOS (1972): Waters desire to disrupt and his growing filmmaking abilities come together in an anything-goes blood feud for the title of Filthiest Person Alive. Pink Flamingos not only establishes the filmmaker as a leading counterculture voice, but it brings society’s marginalized to the forefront, an approach that opened the door for the likes of Tim Burton and Gus Van Sant.
HAIRSPRAY (1988) & CRY-BABY (1990): No genre is more contrived than the musical and in the late ’80s it was all but dead. Not one to let trends dictate his choices, John Waters uses it to deliver back-to-back attacks against the establishment and the patriarchy. In Hairspray, the hero is a ‘pleasantly plump’ (her words) teenager who challenges segregation and socially accepted body image. Cry-Baby pits morally bankrupt “squares” against good-natured “greasers” in a role reversal that still resonates. Both films have great tunes and Hairspray has become a classic.
SERIAL MOM (1994): John Waters’ most ‘Hollywood’ movie was — predictably — a flop: his sensibilities may have gained in acceptance, but were still far from mainstream tastes. Serial Mom mixes the wholesomeness of ’50s TV shows (a tight family unit facing the blandest of dramas) with pitch-black comedy (if you wear white after Labor Day, you deserve to die). Despite the box office results, the contrasting sources of inspiration work better together than expected and would lead to plenty of “suburban hell” farces.
A DIRTY SHAME (2004): Waters’ final movie (to date) managed to score an NC-17 rating because of “pervasive sexual content” (residents of a quaint community become sex addicts following head trauma). Truth is, the film is not all that explicit. It just presses every button American censors are touchy about (mostly penises on screen). Still, not a small feat to get yourself banned from the multiplex in this day and age.
Divining For Waters
How do you bring a titan of transgressive cinema like Waters to Regina? It wasn’t easy
Queer City Cinema artistic director Gary Varro says he’d had the idea for several years.
“It was more of a fantasy than anything,” says Varro. “When you consider bringing in someone of that profile, there are certainly apprehensions. But I thought, ‘Well, if you don’t try, nothing ever happens.’”
After Googling Waters’ agent online, Varro contacted her.
“I hadn’t been aware he has a spoken word show, which he’ll be doing here, called This Filthy World,” says Varro. “That worked well, as my idea was just to show his films, have him hang out for a few days, and do some talks and Q&As. But instead he came with this built-in project.”
At one point, Varro wrote to Waters about Queer City’s long-standing interest in underground/experimental film and “atypical approaches” to queer subject matter. “I wanted him to see Regina as a place that, even though he may not have heard of it, was showing work he would recognize and appreciate,” says Varro.
With Waters booked, Varro applied to Canada Council for funding. “We applied thinking it would be a success, but it wasn’t — we were rejected. So I had to cancel the booking.”
Undaunted, Varro reapplied to Canada Council, and this time was successful. With money in hand, he was able to re-book Waters.
While Waters’ June 24 appearance is the highlight of Camp, Trash, Filth, there’s plenty of other stuff happening, starting with a retrospective of Waters’ films. There’s also a VIP reception with g-string clad servers, a recreation of Lipstick Beauty Salon from Female Trouble, a Divine cocktail bar, and an extra-special canine treat.
There’s also a “Trashy Treasures” cabaret at Q Nightclub on June 23 with drag and other performances, and a panel called “Flushing Filth in Canada”, which explores how Waters and other queer artists dealt with issues of marginalization and desire in the Stonewall-through-HIV/AIDS era.
Varro is also bringing in the Winnipeg performance duo Lorri Millan & Shawna Dempsey, and Toronto filmmaker Bruce LaBruce.
“This program, in some ways, is about excess — which I’m realizing as I get more and more exhausted getting ready for it,” says Varro. “But to me that makes sense, because when you watch John’s films, you realize there’s a lot going on.
“Some people might see John’s films as pure entertainment. Camp, Trash, Filth implies a certain playfulness — but also as an attempt, as John has said, to ‘make trouble’. It’s not just gratuitously being an asshole, or disruption without thought. It’s thoughtful trouble. Over the years, Queer City has shown work that celebrates thoughtful trouble.” /Gregory Beatty