Whitehot Magazine

A Conversation with John Waters on His Retrospective at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Installation view: Hairspray Costumes.


In recent years, filmmaker and auteur John Waters has gained critical praise for his multiple artistic exhibitions, which have been shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, and both the Gagosian and Sprüth Magers galleries here in Los Angeles. But the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ current installation places its focus solely on what Waters is most famous—or infamous—for: his films. 

Curators Jenny He and Dara Jaffe spent four years compiling an impressively deep and thoughtful overview of Waters’ directorial career, and “90% of it has never been on public view,” according to He. The end result is a kaleidoscopic explosion of film clips, costumes, props, production materials and other ephemera that chronologically tells the story of Waters’ journey from underground filmmaker to cultural icon. This sprawling retrospective takes up the entire fourth floor of the museum, and is worthy of comparison to the 2012 Stanley Kubrick exhibition at LACMA in terms of its size, presentation and thematic content. But because this show embraces Waters’ trashy, campy and gleefully subversive aesthetic, the tone of the exhibition is more like Stanley Kubrick in drag.

While Pope of Trash covers each of Waters’ films, from his debut short Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964) to his most recent theatrical release A Dirty Shame (2004), it’s not surprising that his most successful crossover feature Hairspray (1988) is dominant. The exhibition’s largest room is dedicated to the film’s colorful, off-kilter costumes, while several of Hairspray’s dance numbers are highlighted within the Musical Interlude gallery, which explores Waters’ melodic soundtracks. However, it is refreshing to see some of his underappreciated later features get the attention they deserve, like Cecil B. Demented (2000), which shows off Waters’ skill at revealing character traits through impressively detailed wardrobe, and A Dirty Shame, which unveils the planning behind its comically oversexualized production design.  

I made sure that one of my two visits to the show was on a busy Saturday, so I could observe other people’s reactions, and this proved as entertaining as what was on display. Smiles, stunned looks, nervous giggles and boisterous laughter punctuated each room, making the exhibition a truly communal experience, reflecting the very process of how Waters made his films. His Dreamland team of actors and production personnel is well-profiled, and one gains a deeper appreciation for their contributions to Waters’ transgressive cinematic universe.

What makes the exhibition so rewarding is not just the rare items on display—including pages from Waters’ hand-written financial ledgers that demonstrate how meticulous his filmmaking process was from the very beginning—but the fact that curators He and Jaffe made the conscious decision to make the retrospective as interactive as possible. From peeking through peepholes into other rooms, entering a mockup of the trailer from Pink Flamingos, learning dance steps from Hairspray which are recorded and broadcast on video screens, to AR-driven selfie face filters that allow visitors to become Divine, Edith Massey or Waters himself, the emphasis is on uninhibited self-expression, which is the driving force of Waters’ film work.

Portrait of John Waters.

Christopher Heyn: From the moment one steps into the exhibition, it emphasizes the twin themes of transgression and redemption which are played out in all your films. Do you consciously see your films that way?

John Waters: The heroes in my movies learn to celebrate what society has used against them, and they embrace it and win. And that's what I think audiences have [learned] from all my films. I wrote a book called Role Models, which was the same thing—about people who did that for me. They made me believe that I was okay; there were other people like me, and there was an “outsider world,” and it was called bohemia. It’s still a great world, and it's still a world that I function in.

CH: Speaking of role models, have other filmmakers told you that they viewed you the same way, or that you’ve influenced their work?

JW: A lot of them say that I gave them the freedom to do it, but I don't think anybody copies me, and the ones that do, do it badly. Filmmakers I love are Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant. I'm still for filmmakers that cause trouble in some way; I always praise the kind of films that are hard to like. I saw a movie the other day called Femme that I like very much. It’s weirdly politically incorrect. It's about an African-American drag queen who seduces her white gay basher, and then turns him into a bottom.  

Installation view: Pink Flamingos Trailer.

CH: Other artists have used those kinds of shock tactics to convey subversive social and political messages, but what makes your work different is that you injected camp into your films as a primary ingredient. Was that strategic? 

JW: Humor is political; every single joke you ever make. Freud wrote a book about the psychology of jokes. It’s how you change people's minds, if you can make them laugh. So, I’m trying to make my own audience laugh at things that they probably are uptight about… but if they can laugh about it, then it's the first chance to discuss it, or to let its power over you be weakened. I embrace all extremes for humor; I always have.

CH: Your early films first screened in church basements. I couldn’t see that happening today. Do you think American culture is more conservative now than when you made your films?  

JW: The left wing is more conservative. If anybody is going to censor anybody these days, it's the left wing, because the right wing gave up. They're just too crazy on their own; they’ve got their own lunacy. So, yes, it's become self-righteous. Look, I think terrorism can be good if it's humorous. You embarrass your enemy and make them look like fools. That’s good terrorism, and I'm for it. But today, I am politically correct; I never get that much hassle from the left. I make fun of myself and the old rules that supposedly outsiders live by. And these days, they've got more rules than my parents did. 

CH: You’ve mentioned that the first artwork you ever purchased was a postcard of Joan Miro's Summer. 

JW: I love that piece, because it was hard to understand for an eight-year-old. And when I hung it up in my bedroom, all the other kids said, “Oh, that's hideous.” God, I realized the power of modern art! And that's what intrigued me so much—how angry it made people, which was astounding to me, because I thought it was something I didn't quite understand, but was beautiful.

CH: Was that an early inspiration for the use of bright color in your films? 

JW: No, I think my inspiration for color would more be The Girl Can’t Help It, the lurid ‘50s Technicolor. I wish every one of my movies looked like that. 

CH: Music also plays a vital role in your films, and the exhibition dedicates a considerable amount of space exploring the variety of songs you pulled from your own record collection, some of which are pretty obscure. What music were you inspired by?

JW: In Baltimore, all white kids listened to African-American radio stations—even racists. So, we grew up with rhythm and blues, and they were not obscure to me, but yes, not everybody has heard of them, certainly. But rhythm and blues people know those songs very well, so it depends on how old you are and where you grew up. I certainly picked weird novelty songs, and I used music ironically a lot. It might be shocking imagery with very goody-goody singers over the top of it. I use music as a narration, so music was like part of the writing of the movie. 

Installation view: Script to Screen.

CH: That's a very Stanley Kubrick thing to do, much like he did in A Clockwork Orange. 

JW: Yeah. It’s the same. I think Kenneth Anger did it first, even before Martin Scorsese, with his ironic use of pop music in Scorpio Rising.  

CH: The exhibition also shows how prophetic your films were about society and culture. For example, in Female Trouble, Dawn Davenport’s goal is celebrity and fame, and she’ll go on a crime spree and end up in an electric chair if that’s what it takes to earn it. In today’s Instagram culture, people are willing to do even criminal things for clicks and likes.

JW: Well, I think that came from Jean Genet. “Crime as beauty” was the influence on that. Ever since In Cold Blood, true crime has been very American. In Serial Mom, it really is like [the O.J. Simpson trial] in parts of it, right before it happened. I used to go to a lot of famous murder trials, so they were very influential on the making of that movie and Pink Flamingos. There's a courtroom scene in practically every movie I do. 

CH: And you’ve also been known for using famous “outsider” personalities that you wouldn't think would be in a film, like Patricia Hearst.

JW: Patricia Hearst was just like using “guest stars” like they used to use in the ‘50s. I wouldn't have used her if I didn't think she was a good comedian; it wasn't a one-shot thing. She's been in five or six of my movies. But I invented stunt casting with Cry-Baby. It was like a joke with the craziness we had: David Nelson from Ozzie and Harriet married to Patricia Hearst with Traci Lords as their daughter. I mean, that was a parody of casting.  

CH: How do you pull the performances you want out of such a crazy cast of characters? 

JW: My main direction is, “Never wink at the audience. Don't tell the audience it's funny. Play it like you believe every word of what you're saying, no matter how ridiculous it is.” I wrote [the movie], so I know exactly what I want. I've been playing that character myself for three years before we even get on the set. So, I am every character already. I can’t imagine directing a film I didn’t write; I never have, and I never will.

CH: And your writing never looks down on your characters. You clearly love them, even if they do twisted and perverted things. 

JW: Oh yeah, I do. The people that are usually villains in the movies win in mine, and the people that are heroes lose… but they still win for the right reasons. My films are morally correct. The right people win.  

Installation view: Cecil B. Demented Costumes.

CH: Speaking of outsiders, you recently said that you no longer want to be an outsider. You'd rather be an insider because “insiders have the power to get things done.” How so?

JW: Everybody wants to be an outsider now. Don't you think that Trump thinks he's an outsider, or Obama is an outsider? No matter who you are today, an outsider is something you want to be. When I was growing up, it was something you did not want to be. So, it's changed. So now if I can be an insider, it’s like being a Trojan horse. You're in and you can really cause trouble once you're in the room. 

CH: What kind of trouble would you like to cause?

JW: To make people laugh at the self-righteousness of everything they believe in. I think there's such a thing as a bad gay writer [or] an untalented African-American poet. There's good and bad in every kind of person. I'm friends with some Republicans. I don't get it, but it's not like I don't speak to them. They have just as much fun making us mad as we do making them mad. What we have to be able to do is talk, though. I like to hang around with all kinds of people. Because then I want to hear somebody else's worst night. Not just somebody that’s just like me. 

CH: Do you think that the shared shock and humor that people experience when they watch your films has the ability to bridge that divide?

JW: I think they do. I always said it as a joke, but even racists like Hairspray, because they were too stupid to realize I was making fun of them. But I think my films do bring people together in a good way. Laughter brings people together. It makes people not worried about how they look or feel. It gets rid of guilt. It gets rid of shame. Everybody has horror stories in their family. Nobody has a perfect life. Everybody has secrets. Everybody has undercover things that they don't want to talk about. But if we can joke about them, it certainly makes it a lot easier. WM


Christopher Heyn

Christopher Heyn has spent many years working in television production. In addition to providing online content for Warner Bros. and USA Network, he has written about film and music for a number of regional publications. He is the author of the book Inside Section One: Creating and Producing TV’s La Femme Nikita (2006), the second edition of which will be released later this year.

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