John Waters is on the line – allegedly – but I’m not taking any chances.
Sure, the folks at DiverseWorks ArtSpace contacted me days ago to confirm that Waters would be calling to chat about his two upcoming events in H-Town: This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier, the one-night-only one-man show (slated for 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at DiverseWorks) billed as a “vaudeville” act “that celebrates the film career and obsessional tastes of the man William Burroughs once called ‘The Pope of Trash’” (i.e., Waters himself); and Neurotic, Waters’ first solo art exhibition in Houston, which will be on view Thursday through April 14 at McClain Gallery.
But I’m not inclined to immediately accept that it’s actually Waters who has dialed my number. After all, we’re talking about the sardonic prankster who made a colorful career out of directing cheerfully transgressive cult movies (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living) before graduating to appreciably more mainstream fare (such as Cry-Baby – with Johnny Depp! – and Hairspray), and whose outrageously funny books (including Shock Value, Crackpot, and the New York Times best-seller Role Models) sometimes can make a reader feel like he’d be hopelessly outmatched in a duel of wits with the author.
So I proceed… warily. Maybe it’s John Waters, maybe it’s someone pretending to be John Waters. Or maybe it’s both.
CultureMap: OK, just to be sure – this really is John Waters, right?
John Waters: Oh, yes, it’s really me. It’s not like I have a double or anything. I wish l did, but I don’t. Even though on Facebook, I’ve been told, there are people who say they’re me, and even sound like me. But I’ve never looked at Facebook in my whole life. So if you see me on Facebook, it’s an impersonator.
I ’ve never looked at Facebook in my whole life. So if you see me on Facebook, it’s an impersonator.
CM: What about other social media? Do you Twitter?
JW: No, I want to be hard to reach. I already have friends. And every person I’ve ever been curious about in the past, I’ve already stalked their houses, so I know what they’re doing.
CM: We’ve come a long way, for better or worse, since the late, great Divine dined on dog excrement in Pink Flamingos. Do you think it’s much harder to shock movie audiences today?
JW: Oh, I haven’t been trying to shock people since… well, ever, really. I guess it’s hard to believe when you watch Pink Flamingos. But even there, I was trying to make you laugh at your ability to be shocked by anything. But I never tried to top that. Today, I’m trying to use wit to make you feel surprised. I think today the only people who are trying to shock you are people who make Hollywood movies, really. Whereas I used to be an outsider – now I’m an insider.
Really, I think a lot of people try too hard to be shocking now. I try to be your guide in a world where you’d be uncomfortable without me. But if I can make you laugh, maybe you’ll listen. And I think that holds true of all my work.
CM: Would you agree that without your blazing the trail years ago with Pink Flamingos and other transgressive comedies, we wouldn’t have – well, The Hangover? Or Bridesmaids?
JW: Well, I am a humble man. I saw Bridesmaids, and I thought it was hilarious. And imagine my complete surprise when I looked at Entertainment Weekly, and I saw Melissa McCarthy promoting the movie while dressed like Divine in Pink Flamingos. The same hair-do, the same pose – everything. I was stupefied when I saw that.
CM: So you would acknowledge Bridesmaids as at least an indirect offspring of your own work?
JW: I think Bridesmaids and Hangover are great examples of that. But there are a lot of others that I will never name that I didn’t like, that are big gross-out Hollywood movies. My specialty is praising things that other people don’t like. Never saying negative things about other people. I learned a long time ago that as soon as I name a movie I don’t like, I go to a dinner party and I’m seated next to the person who made it.
I learned a long time ago that as soon as I name a movie I don’t like, I go to a dinner party and I’m seated next to the person who made it.
CM: Hey, if you think that’s awkward for you, imagine what it’s like for a film critic.
JW: And that’s why I think film critics should never go to dinner parties.
CM: You may be on to something. Of course, these days, movie studios try to avoid bad reviews by not having press screenings for films they suspect will be panned.
JW: Yes, but with tweeting and everything, studios can’t even buy an opening weekend anymore by not showing the films to critics. After the first matinee, even if just 12 people see it – the word is out. As soon as the closing credits start, that’s when people start tweeting messages to their friends. That’s why all closing credits music is upbeat these days. Because that’s when people are asking, “Did you like it?”
CM: Do you talk much about your reviews, good and bad, in This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier?
JW: I don’t think I talk about any of them. Actually, This Filthy World doesn’t have much to do with my movies anymore. Because I don’t really make movies these days. Mostly, I write books and impersonate myself – that’s how I make my living. That, and do art shows.
CM: And speaking of art shows, what should we expect from Neurotic?
JW: Well, it’s a show that’s not really about photography – I’m hardly Ansel Adams – but I use photography to capture in an odd way my version of what the movie business is. I mean, I take pictures of other people’s movies and re-edit them in storyboard format to form a movie that might be completely different than what any of the people who made the original movies had in mind.
So I’m still being a writer. I don’t only write my movies and my books. All the photo pieces are “written” – and I put that in quotes – before I do them, because it’s conceptual art, where I think it up. Now, sometimes I’ll think, “OK, I’ve got this idea, and I’ve got to find images to go with it,” and it doesn’t work, and it becomes something else. But generally, I’m still trying to make you smile.
And, hopefully, if I’m successful, I’ve used some wit to do that.