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Laramie Movie Scope:
John Waters speaks

The irrepressible John Waters

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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September 24, 2000 -- John Waters is a wonderful public speaker, glib, quick-witted, articulate and he has a great sense of humor. Waters spoke to audiences at the Gladys Crane Mountain Plains Film Festival in Laramie, Wyoming on September 15, during which two of his films, "Cecil B. Demented," and "Pink Flamingoes," were screened.

Most of you who have been to film festivals and have heard Waters talk have probably heard his stand-up comedy routine before, but in addition to that, he also spoke during a panel discussion on filmmaking. Waters is not only anti-Hollywood and anti-blockbuster, but he doesn't even like some "art" films. He is determined to burst all bubbles. Arriving on stage with an ill-fitting suit, a striped t-shirt, no tie and tennis shoes, a thin man with thinning hair, he seemed a bit out of phase with the plane of existence most of us are familiar with.

A great example of Waters' in-your-face filmmaking is "Pink Flamingoes," a film that goes off the Richter scale of tastelessness. Asked about the pale imitations of it by the Farelly brothers and others, like "Scary Movie," he indicated he didn't think anyone could ever top "Pink Flamingoes" in terms of all-out grossness. He never felt the need to try and he feels his title of gross-out king is secure. He did predict, however, that at some point in the not-too-distant future a wide-release movie will be made in which couples engage in real sex in front of the camera.

The MPAA ratings got a lot of abuse from Waters, who said you can show a penis and a testicle, but never together in an R-rated film. He asked the audience if that makes any sense at all. "I'm for the NC-17 rating," Waters said, "but nobody will show them. It's bullshit." He added that you can show sex on screen as long as no one enjoys it. "You just can't really like sex. If you really have fun having sex, that's bad. If you're not enjoying sex, that's good."

Waters admitted he was a rank amateur when he first started making films. He did not know anything about editing, for instance. He thought you just showed everything you shot. What Waters did have, though, was a passion for making films, and a sense of showmanship. Promotions for his films were staged like promotions for prize fights or pro wrestling matches. He raised his own money, worked on shoestring budgets. "I've stolen things to put in movies," he said, "You do what you have to do."

During a panel discussion there was an amusing round of one-upsmanship between Waters and the other panelists, young filmmakers just starting out. One of them said her mother did the catering on the film. Waters responded, "We had no food. You want to eat something, you go find something in the woods." Waters said in order to make movies "You have to be obsessed." He said, "You'll never have enough money; you'll never have enough time; you'll never have enough sleep," to make a movie. He pointed out that even with the gigantic budget allotted to making "Titanic," director James Cameron ran out of money and had to put his own salary into the project to finish it.

Unlike some contemporary directors, like the Coen brothers, who storyboard all their scenes, Waters storyboards only action scenes. The rest is rehearsed in Waters' living room. If the actors come up with changes to the script during rehearsal, that's where the changes are made, never on the set, Waters said. "When we get to the set, it's already directed, almost," Waters said.

"I have a terrible time getting through it the first time," Waters said of script writing. "I can think up a million characters. That's never a problem. The narrative, that's the hard part." Like some other writers, Waters approaches script writing in a workmanlike fashion. Arriving at his office at the exact same time every day to work on his script. He grinds it out, painfully working his way through the first draft. Then, "the real work starts with the revision of the first draft," he said.

Watching both "Pink Flamingoes" and "Cecil B. Demented" for the first time, one can see how much Waters has progressed as a filmmaker. "Pink Flamingoes," made nearly 30 years ago, looks downright amateurish compared to the polish of "Cecil B. Demented." The latter film was shot in 32 days. Waters indicated that shooting was organized so that very little editing needed to be done. Waters seemed sad, though, that he seems to have become more of a mainstream filmmaker. "I guess the final irony of my life is that I am the establishment," he said. Has America come around to Waters' way of thinking or has Waters changed, or both?

Listening to Waters, I was reminded of another man who touched the lives of millions, artist Robert Crumb, subject of the brilliant documentary film, "Crumb." It is a peculiarity, perhaps, of American life that artists like Robert Crumb, who influence millions, are on the fringes of the human sexual spectrum. Perhaps it is that tension between themselves and the rest of society that powers the creative spark. Growing up in a Catholic background, Waters said he got great satisfaction when his movies earned the condemnation of the Catholic Church. Waters denies he's influencing anybody with the decidedly offbeat sex and violence in his films. "No movie's that good!" Waters said in response to the argument that violent and/or sexual movies cause bad behavior in kids.

It seems that many artists don't believe in conventional morality, and in some cases they have been victims of conventional morality. Art is a way of fighting back. Waters admitted he takes great pleasure in manipulating audiences with his film "Polyester" which features a scratch and sniff pad given to all audience members. He enjoys the idea of people paying him money to scratch and sniff the smell of a fart. Movies surely offer more than just petty revenge, but rather they are a way to hammer away at the hypocrisies of our time. Waters' films are like guerilla warfare in this siege. Movies provide a means to achieve not mere sufferance for the moral outcasts, but tolerance, at last even acceptance.

As for his own childhood influences, Waters cited director William Castle. Castle, a master showman, was king of the gimmick film. He directed "House on Haunted Hill" and "Macabre" in 1958, "The Tingler," "Mr. Sardonicus" and "13 Ghosts," and "I Saw What You Did (1965)" The movie "Matinee" was said to have been loosely based on Castle's career. Waters also mentioned Kenneth Anger, whose influential "Scorpio Rising" pioneered the use of popular songs in ironic juxtaposition to the images on the screen. It is probably no coincidence that one of the characters of "Cecil B. Demented" is a follower of famed black magic practitioner Alaister Crowley, as is Kenneth Anger. Waters also mentioned "Mom and Dad," a film which features a live birth, and "She Shoulda Said No," a movie about teen sex, both produced by Kroger Babb, as influential films. As a child he was captivated by the Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz." He dressed up as the witch one Halloween. "I wanted to have green skin," he said, "That is becomming more and more true as I get older," he quipped.

As part of his very funny standup comedy act after the screening of "Cecil B. Demented," Waters said, "I'm gayly incorrect," when it comes to supporting things like gay marriage. Two advantages of being gay used to be not having to get married and not having to join the military, he said. "I'm for an all volunteer lesbian army," he quipped. He joked about how young people nowadays pretend to be gay because it is considered cool. He included such a character in "Cecil B. Demented." He also told some gay jokes that went right over the heads of the straight portion of the audience. For his evening keynote address of the festival, Waters sported the same suit, but this time he wore a tie. His stand-up routine lasted almost exactly one hour.

Waters spoke with fondness of Divine, the 300-pound transvestite who starred in his early films. The late Divine's strength was a willingness to do anything, even eat dog feces, on cue. Waters did note, however, that Divine did draw the line once, at setting her hair on fire. A similar hair-burning scene is in "Cecil B. Demented," only this one is done with superimposed images. Devine passed away after making "Hairspray." In addition to Devine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Mary Vivian Pearce, Danny Mills and David Lochary were regulars in Waters' films.

"Don Knotts has always been a holy man in my life," Waters said. He said he would like to do a story of Knotts' life and star in the leading role: "John Waters is Don Knotts, coming this Christmas," he joked. He also made fun of the Hollywood youth culture and the rampant face lifts. "Nobody looks younger," he said, "They merely look surprised."

Responding to questions from the audience, he said he loves 16 millimeter film, but it isn't used much nowadays. When one aspiring young filmmaker said you can get a high resolution video camera relatively cheaply. "You can shoot hours and hours," at a relatively low cost, the young man argued. "That's just the problem," Waters said, but he admitted it is the wave of the future. It almost seemed as though he was a member of the establishment, with his back against cinematic changes coming fast. Who would have thought?

Waters noted there is no significant difference anymore between independent films and mainstream films. Everybody is cool, now, he said. What do you have to do, how far do you have to go to get an edge? That is what "Cecil B. Demented" is all about. It is about a revolutionary filmmaker attacking the Hollywood establishment, making films with real blood and real sex. It is a very funny movie, but I couldn't help but think as I saw it how conventional it looked. The story wasn't conventional, but the visual style of the film is certainly conventional. It doesn't have much edge to it, but there is no mistaking the fact this film was made by a cinematic maverick. Waters has been so successful carving a niche for himself out of an uncooperative film industry that he almost seems to fit in now.

That is ironic, indeed.

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Copyright © 2000 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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