Cult director John Waters has never been a fan of “normal.” His late-70s Baltimorean B-movie brilliance not only shocked and delighted curious audiences, but changed the course of art and film, which developed a new appreciation for “filth” and trash cinema.
Perhaps more importantly, the social commentary via Waters’ knack for turning nuclear families upside down is radical in its own light: characters crush societal status quos and set the world (or at least their hometowns) on fire with sensationalism, sass, and a blazing sense of self.
Waters is a true pioneer, and his films are some of the most prominent in dealing with recurring themes of queerness, gender bending, and fetish exploration.
On December 13, the king of filth returns to the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta to present A John Waters’ Christmas: Holier & Dirtier. We got the opportunity to talk to him about the tour, Donald Trump, and his thoughts on queer identification.
Greetings, John! The team at Wussy is curious about your current obsessions at the moment.
I’m always obsessed with writers. I love Elena Ferrante. I love the Neapolitan books, all four or five of them that have come out so far. Books are always my obsession, definitely.
Because of [the rise of] digital media and everyone looking at tiny screens, do you feel like film is suffering at all?
No, I actually think my films look better small. I don’t mind if people watch them on a watch or their phone. Good! You don’t notice the mistakes. It doesn’t matter where you watch a movie really as long as you are able to watch it. I think more people are probably able to watch things easier as long as they can stream it. It’s like saying you don’t like talkies. It’s not going back. Get used to it and use it!
I wonder, though, if people rent movies anymore. When you have Netflix you only have so many options with what’s been curated to you by those companies.
People don’t even know what CDs are anymore. If you want to punish your child don’t give them sticks and stones, give them CDs and DVDs. They’ll be so embarrassed to own them.
Speaking of presents and the upcoming holidays, I believe this is your fourth year coming to Atlanta.
I don’t know exactly because I’ve been doing these kinds of shows—not just Christmas, I have another show called This Filthy World—for years. But it could definitely be! I’ve been doing the Christmas tour for ten years. I’m looking forward to coming. It’s always been a great audience over the years and I hope it is again this year! I have a lot of new material for you.
Everyone is really excited! What is it about Christmas in particular that appeals to you?
Well, it’s always been an extreme time but every year I’m trying to re-imagine: is Christmas now a gay holiday? With the bear movement, is Santa Claus a bear now? It’s confusing at Christmas. Every year people start putting their decorations up at Halloween now. I see doors that have pumpkins AND mangers on [them], which I kind of like! Maybe the two holidays should merge and we’ll go trick-or-treating on Christmas Eve.
It’s a campy but creepily “American values” [kind of] holiday in ways.
Not just American! They do it up in London big time. It’s certainly a Christian holiday even though Christmas trees are pagan. It’s church and state that is always important to keep separate at Christmas. Especially this year I think.
The upcoming election feels more and more like a joke or a spectacle with everything that’s currently happening in the world right now.
I kind of wish the election was over tomorrow. Who’s going to change their mind? I’m not. And we have to listen to all these people another year? Oh my GOD! It seems like torture. I know who I’m voting for. I’m happy with what is going on in the Republican party because they keep bringing more extreme, one lunatic after another. They are all beatable.
The fact that Trump is running…
What’s so odd about that? Arnold Schwarzenegger was a governor! Jesse Ventura was a governor. Ronald Reagan was president! He was… (laughs) I don’t know. I don’t even read the articles because I refuse to rise to the bait. Will Trump win? I don’t think so. I really don’t. Would you want him negotiating with what’s going on in the world right now? I certainly wouldn’t. I don’t think he knows enough about it. He’s a foreign policy dolt. Even Bush knew more about foreign policy. You’ve got to get someone that knows SOMETHING about it.
It’s scary. As time goes on, in general, I find people don’t contextualize as much. Attention spans are worse. A lot of people are disconnected and don’t have references to what they are incorporating. I even see this in the young queer community.
That happens a lot because they don’t even imagine what anything was like before all the technology of today, but that’s understandable. If I was a kid I’d be like that, too. I think kids are having just as much fun today as we had when I was young. But I am tired of gay people having to be so good all the time. I get weary [of] that. And I’m against separatism so I don’t care if a gay bar is closing. All the young gay people I know, they don’t feel like going to a separate place. They want hang out with everybody.
It seems in a way that queers of today focus so much on conjuring “dignity” to get respect from “society” that doesn’t accept them either way. At the same time I know tons of transwomen that use the word “trannie” frequently. Trans issues are obviously very complicated though.
I really like transgender men. I think they are great. These boys I like! They ask me to sign their mastectomy scars. I want to sign bottom surgery. Maybe I’ll get to do that in Atlanta.
Actually the first time I ever encountered a transman was in Desperate Living (1977).
As ridiculous as that looks, they haven’t gotten too far ahead of that as far as giving a penis. It’s still easier to take it away than put it on. I’m for everybody having whatever and being whoever they want to be and whatever sex they want to be. But as soon as we can’t ever laugh about our troubles because of our vastly evolving political correctness I think we are in trouble. Gay people used to have a great, cutting sense of humour. And now, of course I’m for gay marriage, I campaigned with Governor O’Malley in Maryland to get gay marriage passed and we did, but I still don’t want to do a lot of things that heterosexuals do. I don’t want to do the Electric Slide either.
The popularity of the word “poly” weirdly reinforces deviating from some norm, but [people use] the word as a tool to be seen as “respectable.” By who? And what was the norm for you before? Being like a straight person? Being a straight person even?
Well, what is the norm now? I think if straight people want to picket they should picket rich kid schools because certainly gay people are not discriminated against there. I can’t even imagine a gay person in a rich school saying they are discriminated against. At NYU, they say “Gay-by-May.” And hardly are people harassed for being gay in art school. I think straight people in art school are the brave ones these days… they want to be gay. They’d like to be but they just aren’t.
And if you criticize them it’s a big uproar and you’re somehow homophobic.
If you criticize who?
Straight people who want to say they are gay.
(laughs) Well, I don’t have that problem. I think the problem is when you criticize gay people. Like I like women that hate men, but I hate men that hate women.
With you on that. It’s weird to have experienced misogyny as a female bodied person [from] both straight men [and] gay men, which feels insane to say. Though I’ve also always appreciated how femme hysteria has been a carrier for some of your characters.
Who do you mean, Mink?
Any female character who gets freaked out by men but then says “fuck this, I’m not dealing with this shit anymore” and totally revolts.
I know a lot of strong, crazy strong women. I like what’s called a “difficult woman.” I get along with them. Some of my closest friends can definitely be described, and would like to be described, as difficult women. And, yes, it is sexist to call a woman “difficult,” especially in the business place. A man is never called “a difficult man.” He’s called an asshole.
It’s always a point that she is a woman somehow, just like the words “bitch” and “slut” seem to relate to womanhood and not the personality itself.
And there can be such a thing as a bitch and there can be such a thing as a slut.
In some circles those words are empowering. I definitely appreciate there are still young people who can take what has been used against them and make it their own and be proud of it.
Yes, but if they are quick to do that it’s likely that their parents made them feel safe or they were strong and had support. It’s the people that don’t have that support that are the ones that end up shooting up a school or going crazy or OD’ing or committing suicide. They are the types we have to help. But it’s very, very tricky to identify that.
Do you feel like, in a lot of ways, a lot your films are about embracing the stigma and owning it rather than trying to give power to anyone else?
Yes. And I also thinks it’s about... don’t judge other people [if] you don’t know the whole story. If you get harrassed about something your whole life and you suddenly embrace that and exaggerate it and laugh about it and turn it into a fashion or a style, then, yes, nobody can harass you about it.
Queer [identification], and even just being a weird kid in high school, was difficult, but it never stopped me from being me. Ever.
The little bit of trouble that you get at school is how you learn to deal with adversity. That’s why I’m against homeschooling and such. You have to be out in the world. Everyone gets harrassed for something in high school. High school is a horrible place but you have to learn how to get through that. And, yes, some people AREN’T equipped to deal with that. Divine was not equipped to do that. They beat him up everyday. The police had to pick him up. The teachers beat him up. He could not deal with it. And he never thought it was funny when he would see fans waiting in line that used to be the people who bullied him in school. He’d say, “I can’t even laugh about it. It doesn’t make me feel, ‘oh good, look what’s happened!’” But still he didn’t let it stop him. He didn’t whine about it for the rest of his life. Adolescence is a terrible time. If you don’t have any trouble in adolescence that means you’ll be a very dull adult.
Go see A John Waters’ Christmas: Holier & Dirtier at Variety Playhouse on December 13, 2015.