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troublemag | December 10, 2019

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Making Trouble : John Waters

Making Trouble : John Waters

interview by Dr Mark Halloran

Q. I was interested in your childhood, and your parents Patricia and John, and being raised as a Roman Catholic in Baltimore. I was raised a Roman Catholic as well so I feel as though there is a kind of saturnine weirdness to it.

JW: Well it was worse because my father wasn’t a Catholic, but my mother was, which at the time was a called a mixed marriage. I didn’t go to Catholic grade school I had to go to Sunday school where the nuns were really mean to you because they knew your parents didn’t send you to Catholic school, so they would be really hateful. I think my first rage came through that, and the first act of rebellion when you had to stand up and take the Legion of Decency pledge where we [say we] wouldn’t see any films condemned by the Catholic Church. I was about seven years old and I refused to take it. I remember that my mother was just horrified that I wouldn’t do it, and that was my first rebellion.

Q. I read about you going to a Catholic high school and how you tricked the nuns and the priests into letting you read the Marquis de Sade’s 120 days of Sodom.

JW: When I got to high school it was Christian brothers, they were like impotent priests; they were like priests who didn’t have the power to say mass or do the ultimate magic trick of communion. And they drink a lot too. I was so rebellious they thought that [reading de Sade] would shut me up. And I would read and I got a good education, but I would not read the books that they gave me – I would read the Marquis de Sade and William Burroughs and they didn’t know who they were so they didn’t care, they didn’t get upset – they just thought I was reading. 

Q. I felt as though the Catholic experience can really be about guilt and shame, I thought perhaps that your creative expression in terms of touching on the forbidden was a rejection of that? 

JW: Well it was in some ways. You know you said guilt and shame, but I have a lot Jewish friends who would say that Jewish people are made to feel shame and that Catholics make you feel guilt. I think that the Jewish [people] have the right idea they raise their kids to say they are the chosen people, whereas Catholics you’re taught that babies are born guilty which I think is the most terrible thing to tell a child…

Q. Original Sin?

JW: Yes, Original Sin, do they even say that anymore? I haven’t heard that term uttered a lot. I mean they did get rid of Limbo and they got rid of Saint Christopher so I’m wondering if they have gotten rid of Original Sin too? Maybe not. Haven’t they gotten rid of saying that the Pope is infallible? 

Q. I’m not sure. He’s supposed to be in succession with Simon-Peter the Rock. But there are some strange ideas, transubstantiation and so forth…

JW: Oh I don’t know. I don’t let the Catholic Church make me mad anymore but I do have a whole chapter in my new book Mr Know-It-All where I do come out against them because they have been bashing me and my culture for centuries.

photo by Greg Gorman

Q. I remember reading that you said that Pasolini, who was also a Roman Catholic, was the only saint that you would pray to… 

JW: Yes … and my prayers have been answered. 

Q. Your prayers have been answered?

JW: Sure I’ve got a good career for 50 years. 

Q. Why have you been so drawn to the forbidden?

JW: I always felt that people got upset about things that they didn’t really need to be upset about and the villain in fairy tales is a much more interesting character than the hero or the heroine… they were kind of dull … the villain had better outfits and better dialogue and got to a die a very melodramatic death in the movies. I was always kind of on the side of the villain. And later on in all my movies the heroes were what would have been villains in regular movies. The villains were true to themselves so they weren’t villains to me. 

Q. You’ve also talked about the mundane, of growing up in Baltimore, of being stifled [not by your family], I wonder if you are the villain compared to 1950s suburbia?

JW: No I don’t think I was the villain. I think when I first started, when I first went to summer camp, I was twelve and I would write these campfire stories that were filled with gore and horror and I’d read them and all the kids would have bad dreams and the counsellors would call my parents … And that’s how I started my career. And then I was a puppeteer for a long time [performing] at children’s birthday parties. So I had a career really early, I knew what I wanted to be – they just wouldn’t let me. I think I enjoyed causing trouble because then people would listen, it was a way of getting people’s attention and then if you can make them laugh after that then they’ll be on your side. I think it’s easy to be shocking it is much harder to be witty at the same time and that’s how you get people to change their minds and listen to you. 

Q. I felt like Pink Flamingos was influenced by Salò and people like Paul Morrisey…

JW: Pink Flamingos was made before Salò I think, Pink Flamingos was made in ’72, when was Salò made? 

Q. I’m not sure … [Editors note: Salò was made in 1975]

JW: I think I saw Salò after Pink Flamingos. I think the influences I had were Warhol and Kenneth Anger and some of the underground movies – at the same time I went to see Russ Meyer and all the exploitation films…  and the gore movies and I ended up putting those all together to try to make movies. Exploitation films that were only shown for art theatre.  

Q. There is humour that comes through with films like Pink Flamingos. There is this idea that you are the Pope of Trash and that it’s part of Filth Culture…

JW: It’s all been said with a chuckle and good humour. I think that called me those things said it in a good way – I don’t think any of them were bad reviews. There were bad reviews but they weren’t the bad reviews.

Q. I remember you saying that Salò makes a bad date movie. I actually watched Salò on one of my first dates with my partner and we’ve been together eight years.

JW: I have had a lot of people come to me and say that they got married after seeing Pink Flamingos on a first date – I think it either makes or breaks it. It’s either your good date or your really terrible one. 

Q. You’ve been a champion of the LGBTQIA community for a very long time. I remember you saying that there were minorities that came to see Pink Flamingos that hated other minorities. I was just wondering what your experience was of the LGBTQIA community then and what it is now?

JW: Well it was kind of square – the first time I ever went to a gay bar I thought ‘well I may be queer but I’m not this’. I was into Bohemia and [I am] into Bohemia still – I like mixed bars, I like where there are all kinds of people because it’s more of a mystery and at the same time I think people shouldn’t be separatist. I don’t want to hang out in a bar where everyone is exactly like me. I want to hear everyone’s crazy stories. So, first of all it was illegal when I went to gay bars, and secondly it became hipper as the years went by, especially when the hippies came out and everything and I think that the first Stud was the first hippy gay bar I went to in San Francisco, that was really great it was all bearded men and they were all hippies but they were gay. And then there was a bar nearby called Squeeze Box which was kind of the first punk rock gay bar, but also straight people came too. Those are the two bars I remember really fondly but when I was really young in Baltimore I wanted to be a Beatnik and I went to Beatnik bars and certainly in Beatnik bars there were gay people – but the kind of gay people I wanted to meet. They didn’t want to be Miss America they wanted to be, I don’t know, William Burroughs.

Q. Do you feel that the LGBTQIA community has changed and if there are things that you like or perhaps even dislike about the changes?

JW: No, I am glad that gay people don’t have to be an outlaw. I did an art piece called ‘Beige Stroller’ – it was a child’s stroller from Walmart but the cloth on it was decorated with the logos of the most hideous gay sex bars of the time. Because today in the same neighbourhoods where the most insane gay bars were are now gay people married with children – so I think I am celebrating both. I think those extremes are good. I think it’s a wonderful society we have now where we can have those extremes. Whereas in the old days the bars were illegal, and it may have been more exciting but it’s certainly better for gay people where they can get married and do whatever they want. 

Q. I remember reading that Pink Flamingos was released in a gay porn cinema originally and you were displeased with that. 

JW: Yes, but I don’t think many people have masturbated to Pink Flamingos but if they have they are in trouble [laughs]. I don’t think it makes you horny. It might make you want to commit a crime or be political, I don’t know how horny you’d be, maybe you never know what makes people horny… At the same time it didn’t work in a porno theatre, I didn’t go see it [at that theatre].

Q. The interesting part for me was when I found out that you were really interested in the Manson family case and how Pink Flamingos was to some extent a story about what makes a family and how all families are different.

JW: That’s the problem with the Motion Picture Association of America and the films now… there are lots of different kinds of family now, family isn’t the same as when they started. A family can be no relation to each other, it can be a tribe, it can be [people] who live together and support each other and gain strength and love from a certain group of people; that is a family. So family values, which has become a code word for censorship, is no longer the same anymore – times have changed radically. So when you say family values – which kind of family? There are lots of different kinds today.

John Waters signing the jean jacket sleeve of a fan at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, 1990. Photo by Davidphenry [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Q. I know that you had advocated for the parole of former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten and I just wondered what drew you to the women of the Manson family?

JW: I don’t really comment much on it anymore, since I wrote Role Models where I wrote a lot about her she has been granted parole three times and the governor turns her down. I think her lawyers are the ones who should be talking now. I believe that she has served almost 50 years – that she is incredibly sorry for what she did – she met a madman when she was 17. She doesn’t blame him she blames herself for making him a leader. I believe some people if you could ever forgive them they deserve a second chance so… I’ve visited prison, I don’t believe many people really deserve parole, but I believe she certainly has.

Q. It sounds like you empathise with her and the other women, and I think that would have been difficult for a lot of people to do. 

JW: I don’t know about just the women I think that everybody that was in that cult had the same story; their minds were taken over by a madman. And so I think they all have the same story, it’s not just the women. 

Q. I’ve heard you say once that you were unblackmailable. 

JW: [Laughs] I think I am pretty unblackmailable, because what do I not admit [to] really? I don’t know. Now your phone knows everything about you and I think that I’ll be driving down the street and on a billboard a porn thing will show up that I’ve looked at. Your phone knows everything about you now. I can’t think of anything that I’d be blackmailed on. 

Q. Has there ever been anything that you’ve felt you wanted to keep a secret?

JW: Well if there is I sure as hell wouldn’t tell a journalist! [Laughs]

Q. Yes well I didn’t expect that you’d tell me [laughs]. Has someone not been able to forgive you? 

JW: You’d have to ask them. I think that over 73 years I maybe have a tiny number of enemies. After a while you just say you can’t win them all. I feel guilt about one thing: smoking cigarettes. 

Q. Why?

JW: Because it’s the one thing I did that in the long run will probably kill me. I didn’t know when I was young in the 50s that you shouldn’t smoke cigarettes, but I regret it. If there’s one thing in my life that I would change it is that I never smoked cigarettes, because it was so hard to quit and it was such agony. I don’t smoke now. But that’s the only thing I regret. Even all my ex-boyfriends I’m still friends with, some of them took a lot longer, but I’m friends with all of them. So no I don’t regret much in life, I don’t think I’ve been unkind to people or unfair to people. 

Q. Is there anything useful about guilt or regret?

JW: Well I guess everyone has to self-examine themselves to see if they feel bad about anything they’ve done. I think once you can admit to what you’ve done – you can learn by getting older. But at the same time, you can’t change things, you can’t go back, but you can learn from it and if you do feel bad about what you’ve done you can learn from your mistakes. As you get older that’s what maturity is, you can’t be angry at my age or really you’ve just wasted your life in a way, you should’ve worked something out by now.

Q. I remember you saying once that you feel as though you’re incredible politically correct.

JW: I think I am politically correct. I know that a lot of other people might disagree but I think I am. But I do believe that crazy political correctness is what is going to make Trump win because you can’t make people feel stupid. And some of it is crazy. I mean I get what they are saying, but let’s pick and choose the battles that we can win.

Q. I was interested in you saying [on Real Time with Bill Maher] that the way to change this is not to make the people who voted for Donald Trump to feel stupid. That doesn’t work. 

JW: No it doesn’t you have to make them feel smart to think about [how] maybe they made the wrong decision. And that’s a tough thing to do. Unfortunately I think he’s going to win again. I don’t think we have anyone that strong, and they don’t look like they are having any fun being politicians. Someone said to me the other day ‘no matter how much I hate Trump he does look like he is having fun being this awful’. And I hate to admit that’s true. 

Q. I feel as though your personality and your work has been defined by a kind of anarchist spirit. I know that you’ve said in 2011 that you had kind of thrill about the idea of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin in power. The chaos of that.

JW: It’s hard for me to say I want to be an anarchist when I own three homes. I mean come on [laughs]. I have to be realistic about things. 

Q. I was interested in the idea that you would like the chaos of that.

JW: Someone said to me recently they thought that if Trump lost he would refuse to leave the White House. That would be exciting because it would anarchy. It’s maybe a movie I’d like to see, I don’t know if I’d like to live through it – I think though it would be exciting from a journalistic viewpoint. 

Q. It seems like it would be interesting to you if you are interested in the forbidden.

JW: Yes. I think that’s it right? 

photo by Greg Gorman

An infamous auteur of transgressive movie classics and a champion of LGBTQI visibility, John Waters appears in his new show, Make Trouble :

• Tuesday 15 October, Sydney Opera House – sydneyoperahouse.com

• Wednesday 16 October, Brisbane Powerhouse – brisbanepowerhouse.org

• Friday 18 October, Hamer Hall Melbourne Arts Centre – artscentremelbourne.com.au

• Saturday 19 October, Nolan Gallery, Hobart MONA – mona.net.au