The distinguished merchant of sleaze

The faint of heart and the delicate of sensibility had better run for the hills. John Waters—the self-proclaimed “Prince of Puke” (who actually included a recipe for cinematic vomit in his book Shock Value)—is coming to town for an appearance at UNCA, following a retrospective of four of his movies.

The crown prince of smart smut: John Waters has gone from showing his work at the sleaziest of cinemas to being screened at the most academic of lecture halls. Photo by Greg Gorman

In a phone interview from his Baltimore office, Waters tells Xpress he’s heard quite a bit about where he’ll be visiting. “I’m glad I’m coming there—everyone in Provincetown talks about Asheville,” he says, noting the popular tourist destination and gay community in Massachusetts. “I actually know people in Provincetown who say they want to leave Provincetown and come live there.” His good friend Chan Wilroy,for example: “[He’s] been in all my movies and always talks about how much he likes it there.”

Welcome to Asheville, Mr. Waters. But given his reputation as an auteur of bad taste, how does he feel about appearing at UNCA as part of their “Distinguished Speakers” series?

“Well, I understand that. I’m distinguished—in filth,” he reasons.

Did it ever occur to Waters in his early days of filmmaking—back when he shocked the moviegoing world with 1972’s Pink Flamingos, wherein he filmed his 300-pound transvestite star, Divine, eating dog crap—that his appearance would be heralded by universities?

“Weirdly enough,” he confides, “I learned a long time ago a dirty little secret—my movies did the best in the best-educated and the richest neighborhoods, and the worst in real exploitation theaters. That’s because my films involve irony, and people that were the real audiences for exploitation, sexploitation [and] blacksploitation didn’t think those films were funny. And I thought [those films] were great. I respected them, but I was at the same time seeing Ingmar Bergman movies, which are exploitive in their own way.”

To me, that makes sense. The first time I encountered the name John Waters was during a trailer for Female Trouble at a midnight showing of Ken Russell’s The Devils at, of all places, a porno theater. While both movies may have been called pornographic, neither qualifies for the term in any real sense, so what was the deal with the porn-house presentation?
“I got my first break in national distribution with Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs with something called the Art Theatre Guild, which was a porn chain,” Waters explains. “They had something called ‘Underground Cinema 12’ that was run by a guy named Mike Getz, and every Saturday at midnight, in a lot of mid-America towns, they had an underground movie show to—I guess—make them respectable, and they were packed. It paid a dollar a minute, so I got $90 a week, which then was a lot.

“I’ve always been a friend of porn, I guess, even though to watch it these days, heterosexual porn is really a snuff movie because they don’t use protection,” Waters adds. “To me it’s like making a snuff movie. I’m against that.”

Still, since UNCA’s retrospective selection of his work won’t include the most notorious of his movies—Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble—will it capture the essence of his oeuvre?

“To me, you can pick any one of my movies—I don’t care if it’s Hairspray or A Dirty Shame—and in a way, they’re the same. They have the same sense of humor. Some are a little more extreme, but Hairspray is the most devious movie I ever made.”

And he’s probably right, especially about Hairspray, the movie in which he told a very subversive story and sold mainstream America Divine as an understanding Baltimore mother and housewife. He wrapped it all in a PG rating—a pretty neat trick.

After I confessed that, as much as I love his more outre work, Hairspray is probably my favorite of his movies for exactly those reasons, Waters remarked: “To me, my favorite is … well, the joke is that they’re all children of mine, but they have learning disabilities. I think Gus van Sant and I talked about this, that you always pick the one that didn’t do so well. You feel like it’s a neglected child. Although to me they’re all the same: They’re John Waters movies. It’s a different time in my life, it’s a different time of what I thought was funny. Each one of them is a genre of film that I satirize.”

No genre, it seems, will be spared a Waters treatment along the way. “I’m working on a children’s movie now that I’m trying do because I’ve never made a children’s movie,” he says. “I’ve done a musical, I’ve done a dance movie, I’ve done a crime biopic, I’ve done a showbiz biopic, I’ve done a fairy tale, I’ve done a sexploitation movie—each time it has to be a genre, because that’s the kind of filmmaking I like. I was glad to be in the Chucky movie and I wanna be in Final Destination 4.”

Putting aside the idea of a John Waters children’s movie, will there really be a Final Destination 4? “I hope!” Waters exclaims, noting his fascination with series movies. “I sometimes like the very last sequel—like when every bit of originality has been beaten out of it.” An example? “I think the last Airport movie was my favorite—the one where Charo said, ‘You misconscrue me.’ That was a wonderful line that people have forgotten. They had dialogue then.”

Waters has long been an influential voice in film, especially when it comes to pushing the boundaries of what’s permissible in a movie, but what influences him?

“I grew up wanting to be a Walt Disney villain,” Waters says at first. “Then at the same time I was taking LSD and going to Bergman movies, and then going out with a bunch of kids and going to the drive-in and seeing Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, and then being very excited and sneaking to New York and seeing underground movies. I think I put all them together.”

How? By trying to forge “a sense of humor from the whole thing.”

Now that he’s a respected figure in the film world—and a distinguished speaker to boot—does Waters ever miss the old days and his crude filmmaking beginnings?

“God, no!” he says. “I did that. Do I want to have to go to the bathroom in the woods and not eat? No!”

“I like having a trailer and all that. But at the same time, all my movies cost under, like, $7 million.” That’s a paltry budget, compared to the average Hollywood film, he notes, but he prefers it to what he dealt with before.

“It’s not like we’re jumping in the car and running like we used to. … I did that and I think that’s going backwards. I think you reinvent yourself. You keep going and you make it so young people will come to see it—and that is still the only crossover that I am interested in.”

To read more from Ken Hanke’s Q&A with Waters, visit on Monday, Sept. 17.

[Ken Hanke, author of several books on movies, writes the weekly Xpress movie-review section, “Cranky Hanke.”]

John Waters speaks at UNCA Wednesday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 general admission/$10 for students. Advance tickets highly recommended due to high demand. Info: 232-5000.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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