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10.10.07

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Stream of Consciousness: Filmmaker John Waters brings his one-man show to Monterey this week.

John Waters Doesn't Like TV

And other curiosities about the director of the original "Hairspray."

An interview by Richard von Busack


Having gone from public menace to elder statesman, director John Waters takes it on the road to the Golden State Theatre in Monterey, Oct. 11. There, the progenitor of the original Hairspray, as well as a wealth of criminally indie movies, will discuss his life and art. Metro Santa Cruz film critic Richard von Busack spoke with him by phone in late September; the full transcript follows.

METRO SANTA CRUZ: Hi, Mr. Waters; first-time caller, longtime fan. First question: What's on the agenda for the Monterey appearance?
WATERS: My act: my spoken word /comedy routine/rant/ message to young people about how to be a juvenile delinquent all your life. I've been doing this thing for 30 years—forever. I started at the very beginning as a way to promote my films. I didn't have any advertising money so I'd put the print in the trunk in the car and go. Anywhere they burnt the Bank of America, I'd go.

MSC [in what will be the first of many interruptions]: Say, I used to live in Isla Vista! [And who could forget that Feb, 26, 1970, evening when a group of students expressed their disdain for the corporate world by torching the local B of A branch. A memorable event in the history of that densely packed student ghetto, which I'm told is more populated per square inch than San Francisco's Chinatown.]
WATERS: I played the theater down there.

MSC: It was called the Magic Lantern. I saw De Palma's The Fury there. [See what I mean about the interruptions?]
WATERS: They couldn't afford seats, and people sat on inflated inner tubes in it. I'd book a theater for $50 or $100, and stand around on street corners and give out fliers. Onstage, I'd give a speech about nudist camp movies. Then I'd introduce "the most beautiful woman in the world." Divine would come out and throw dead fish at the audience. Then police would come out and pretend to arrest her, and she'd strangle them and kill them, and then the movie would begin.
I was my own distributor and I learned a lot about distribution, before New Line took over for me in the 1970s. In those days, before video came out, the college film society was the only way you could see underground or independent movies. There was a huge college film circuit. In the 1980s. I brought movies to punk rock clubs. I'd play anywhere. Once I opened for a William S. Burroughs spoken-word performance.

MSC: Did you get along with Burroughs?
WATERS: I did, very much. He's the one who called me "The Pope of Trash." I used to go to his place in New York, an old YMCA with no windows. My favorite memory of him was that he'd serve you a drink, warm vodka and no ice, in a peanut butter jar washed out. I saw his bedroom: there's a single bed, bare, and a copy on it of the Guyana massacre paperback.

MSC: I have musician friends who said they used to see his letters to the Lawrence, Kan., newspaper complaining about reckless drivers running over his cats.
WATERS: I was there, on a speaking tour, and saw his place there. He was doing paintings: gun paintings, where he shot stuff.

MSC: I was so much happier with the new Hairspray than I thought I was going to be. ...
WATERS: How do you think I felt? I was thrilled with it. I was so nervous when I went to see it, that I saw it alone. But it very much kept the original's tone throughout. Everyone who worked on the movie got the Baltimore tour.

MSC: Maybe it wasn't as romantic as the original, with the Toussaint McCall scene.
WATERS: That was romantic, with the rat. The new Hairspray wasn't an imitation—it had to be a reinvention. And that's why it worked. It was a big budget Hollywood movie. I can't believe it, though—something I was writing on the bed in my slum neighborhood apartment has already made three different girls movie stars.

MSC: In your book Crackpot, you were describing some of the pretentious art movies you adored, Agnes Varda fests and the like. What's your film-watching diet like these days?
WATERS: I just saw Bruno Dumont's Flandres. It was punishing. [From the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival Catalogue article by Steven Jenkins:
"Andre, a typically lugubrious Dumont antihero, runs a farm with lackluster success, communicates almost entirely in expressive grunts, and shares wordless, animalistic trysts with childhood friend Barbe, an unapologetically promiscuous, unstable farmer's daughter. ...'Dumont reports that his next film, set in Paris, will be about `the death of God.'"]
I liked it better than his last one, Humanite.
I saw Lust, Caution and liked it very much. At first, I thought it got its NC-17 rating for smoking!. Ludicrous thing, to rate a film R rating for smoking. That's progress for you—look at This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated, and how little good it did.
Grindhouse is my favorite movie this year, the way it was originally released. ... Let's see, what else did I see? I don't have my movie calendar handy [pause as he retrieves it]. Away from Her. Julie Christie deserves an Oscar. The comedy I Want Somebody to Eat Cheese With I liked very much, Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!, I just saw that, and I loved Isabelle Rossellini. A Walk Into The Sea, this documentary about Andy Warhol's boyfriend who killed himself, I never heard that story before. ... Inland Empire, that was great. I think films are more extreme when the director and writer are the same person. Haven't seen the new Cronenberg, or the new Gus Van Sant, or the Coen Brothers. ...

MSC: To get back to gore, there's so much around. Does it interest you much anymore?
WATERS: Well, Hostel—I've met the director, I'm for him. I'm for gore, the idea of it. Gore was great when Herschel Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast, et al) did it, when it was obscene ... it's obscene again, I guess.
I guess what happened in gore was that it was ridiculous. And then it was scary like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then it was campy, like Scream. So it had to go back to obscene again or it would be slapstick, almost. ... I'm interested to see what horrible thing they'll come up with next. People ask me why I don't make horror films, and I say, "My mother thinks all my movies are horror films."

MSC: Your films are certainly entertainments, but it seemed like everyone of them has a common theme of social struggle between an influential group: fashion setters, pressure groups, decency enforcers ... and rejects and outcasts ... is this deliberate?
WATERS: I guess that is true, all my movies are about some kind of war. A war where people who wouldn't win, do. They're all politically correct, even though I find political correctness the new kind of censorship. The people in my movies that win are the ones who mind their own business and don't judge others, because I am someone like that.
I'm always fascinated with behavior I don't quite understand. There's joy in my movies. I don't ever make fun of anybody, really. I think I'm celebrating them. I think I make Baltimore look better than it looks in real life, to be honest. Even if my characters might look grotesque, I think you can tell I'm never looking down or condescending to them, I'm looking up to them.

MSC: Is Pecker your most autobiographical film? So much of it seems to be about the reaction in the old neighborhood to the success of an affectionate observer ...
WATERS: I understand why you say that. At the beginning I used people like Edith Massey, a sort of outsider actor. The big difference is that Pecker himself was naive. I got Variety when I was 12. I wasn't an idiot savant sitting around in a trailer. I didn't grow up blue collar, I grew up upper middle class. The big influence in Pecker was the contemporary art world. I show art and I collect it.
I always wondered what Diane Arbus' models felt when those pictures she did of them go for a million dollars. I did later read a very good interview with the kid in the Arbus picture, the one identified with the best: the kid with the hand-grenade. People think that photo was tragic. He's playing, he had a good time, I think Arbus' models are bewildered by her work but I don't think they're mad at her.
I like Nan Goldin personally, and I love her pictures—I own some of her pictures—but I don't know that I want to be in them. Nan came over early one Christmas morning with the cameras and I went Uh-uh!
That is an interesting thing about contemporary art photography, I want to own it but I don't want to be this picture. That's what led to Pecker.

MSC: Between cable and the Internet do you ever find yourself glutted with trash?
WATERS: To be honest, I never watch TV. I watch The Wire because my friends work on it and I watch the episodes I'm on. But the kind of trash you're thinking about, I don't watch. I don't watch TV because I read every night. I can't do both. I don't watch videos either. I go to movies in movie theaters, or I don't ever see them.

MSC: No home theater, then?
WATERS: Nope. I have the most pitiful television. I use it just for pornography, or for the news if we're bombing some country.
Oscar time, I do get the Academy Screeners ...
[Not everyone knows what these suckers are, so I'll explain. To pump the Oscars, the Motion Picture Academy sends DVD copies of current-release films, a.k.a. "screeners," to Academy members and film critics so they can see the films before they vote in the Oscars, or 10 best lists, respectively. If they're movies you hated first time around, you still cannot get rid of them, since they are heavily encoded bootlegs and the police will come and shoot your dog if you try to sell them or give them away.]
WATERS: The garbage man will take 'em and dupe 'em and you'll get arrested. Almost never has a screener made me change my vote. If I didn't see that movie when it come out, I was pretty right in thinking I wouldn't like it.

MSC: They might be good for skeet shooting ...
WATERS: I did a photo piece called "Destroy All Screeners" with me feeding them to a bonfire.

MSC: Do you spend much time online?
WATERS: I do have my book pages: "Welcome to Dreamland" is the unofficial Waters page, and I like it so much I write in. Let's see:
Gawker, ArtNet, drudge report, gaypornblog, AWOL Marines, Smoking Gun, Paper Mag, DudeTube, Craigslist, Symbionese Liberation Army website, Dennis Cooper.

MSC: I can recommend gofugyourself.com. Photos of different actress wearing unfortunate clothes.
WATERS: Like all the magazines have at the back? Does it say mean things at the bottom?

MSC: Very mean things. It's not the sort of thing I'd feel like I'd laugh at in the abstract, because they're often actresses I enjoy. But I laugh anyway, whether I should or not.
WATERS: This whole thing is that there's now an occupation called "stylists," which means people who are paid $10,000 a week to tell a movie star to wear a ponytail.

MSC: Did you see the Britney video?
WATERS: I talk about her in the show. You don't take her kids away just because she can't lip-sync! But it did look like the opening act to the Adult Video Awards. I'm a fan of KFed, and I said it so much it got picked up in the paper. One morning, my assistant said "Line 2," and it was him. Fortunately, he does have a sense of humor.

MSC: Have you ever been offered a position teaching film?
WATERS: I taught in prison for a long time in the 1980s. I'd love to teach at prison again, but I would not like to teach at a university. To be honest, I've been thrown out of every school I ever went to, and the academy is not for me. When I walk into school even today, I feel claustrophobic.
I'm sure it's great for most people, but I wish I'd quit school at 16 because I would have made at least one more movie.

MSC: After reading your review of Hail Mary by Jean-Luc Godard, I was quite sorry you didn't write more film criticism.
WATERS: One thing that didn't get published then was a box I added: "Five Dumb Questions for a Genius." I got Godard's very high-powered publicist to get him on the phone so I could ask him, "What's your favorite color?" He was so stupefied. He said "Blue." I only remember the other question I asked him: "What's your worst movie?" He said Band of Outsiders.
I still love his new movies.

MSC: I've found that a lot of Catholics, as they age, start making peace with the church. ...
WATERS: I have not. I rebelled from the very beginning, I had go to Sunday school because my mother was a Catholic and my father wasn't. Those nuns should be in prison, not because of sexual molesting but for telling you your father will go to hell. I went to high school with the Christian Brothers, they're indigent priests, basically. They discouraged every interest I could possibly have. I don't have good memories of it. I never got abused. It's the ones who were not abusers and knew about it and covered it up that were the worst. Incidentally, the best movie about that scandal is that Canadian film The Boys of St. Vincent.

MSC: I have a funny story about that. Here in downtown San Jose they did an alfresco movie series, and they showed I Confess with Montgomery Clift on the side of St. Joseph's Cathedral. I thought that was a great idea, and I started writing about how that film is an excellent example of why there's a separation of church and state. The Catholic church really ran Quebec in the 1950s. And there's a scene in the courtroom where Clift is being tried, where on the wall, there's the biggest crucifix I've ever seen. It's like the church and the state have him at the same time. So I mentioned all that stuff in the review, mentioning The Boys of St. Vincent to prove the point about Quebec. And I got a furious call from the priest who ran the church, commanding me to make an appointment to be yelled at in person. "Why are you digging up this old scandal!" That was right before the priest sex scandal hit. No digging required.
...WATERS: Hah! You're lucky you didn't hear from William O'Donohue of the Catholic league. He's the junkyard dog they set on unbelievers. I'm not against people's religion. I don't care what people believe: just don't make me do it.
I believe in the basic goodness of people, and that's as spiritual as I get. Which means I find the idea of original sin incredibly evil. Little babies are not born guilty. And the virgin birth: I'm feminist, and I'm against the idea of a woman getting pregnant without getting pleasure from sex.
The only one I do believe in is the resurrection. I have to be buried, not cremated. But I have questions about it. Are we nude when it happens? Do pets get resurrected, too?

MSC: Did you see The Passion of the Christ?
WATERS: No. Tracy Ullman said, the only movie ever you want to watch on bootleg.

MSC: What do you think of the state of the union—is it worse now than in Nixon's time?
WATERS: People forget how horrible Nixon was, but I don't. Maybe it is worse, because if there were a draft, every college would be burned to the ground. But there isn't a draft. So my main thing is that I'm sick of college students whining about Bush. I say, "Go turn a car over. Riots were like raves, we went every weekend." People that count the days until Bush is gone [snort of disgust]. ... Go do something. The last election was stolen. Big deal. Let's steal the next one, go vote twice! But stop whining. Use humor to humiliate the enemies. Humorous terrorism is the kind of terrorism I favor. It converts people to your side if you can make them laugh.


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