Right off the bat -- and
right in the middle of a sentence -- cult filmmaker John Waters
stops to ask, "Are you taping or writing?"
Waters has evidently been through enough
interviews -- taped and otherwise -- to know that nothing short
of mechanical reproduction can keep pace with his manic musings
as they spill forth from every direction and on a catalog of
subjects: from porn ("I think it's the only reason possibly
to have a television.") to his sexual orientation ("The
press never asked me if I was gay for 30 years for the same
reason my parents didn't. They feared the answer was worse than
The pauses between these bon mots
aren't really there to allow more questions, but to let the
one-liners fall with the necessary fabulousness. Because Waters
is an aesthete -- make no mistake -- even if of a strange type,
the type thoroughly dedicated to bad taste.
It's been 25 years since he ascended to
his precarious and contradictory perch as film's leading auteur
of trash. In retrospect, Waters' 1972 breakthrough, Pink
Flamingos, defines his style -- not just because it initiated
his popularity or because it ends with arguably the most shocking
scene in cinema history (if you don't know by now ) -- but
because of the badge of low-culture from which it took its name.
"I got the idea for the whole movie
the first time I ever drove to California from Baltimore, which
was actually to go to the Manson trial," he says. "I
saw all these flamingos everywhere, in every trailer park, just
in the middle of America, and I realized that it was really a
symbol for something -- a certain kind of peaceful bad taste that
I found kind of elegant in its own shabby way."
Today, Waters still uses that symbol to
explain what can only be called his system of anti-aesthetics --
his full-blown theory of bad taste.
"Bad bad taste is a yuppie with a
pink flamingo on the front lawn. [That] really offends me,"
he explains. "A real person that has a plaster one from
their parents that they got from a trailer because they like it
is beautiful, I think."
And in between the two -- between bad
bad taste and real bad taste -- stands Waters, the well-bred
Baltimorean enamored with the lower things in life. "I don't
look down on my subject matter," he insists. "I look up
to it. I wish I had the freedom of lower-middle class. I wish I
had been raised that way. But I wasn't. I was taught to revere
good taste, which I think is the only way you can appreciate bad
Armed with that outlook and an array of
obsessions (ever-changing, he says, but including violence,
trials, and criminality in general), Waters has nicely settled
into his role as the self-styled "Ambassador of Filth."
He's made six features since Pink Flamingos, all of
which dubiously immortalize his hometown of Baltimore, exposing
its underside so Waters can explore the twisted America of
fetishists, drag queens, and serial killers. "Come to town
and be appalled," he suggests as a slogan for the Baltimore
Chamber of Commerce.
While at 51 he is certainly to be
counted among the elder statesmen of cult-cinema, he says that
his vision hasn't changed all that much since the making of Pink
Flamingos. One and all, he says, his films have had the
same motive: upsetting liberal sensibilities.
"[Liberals] think everything is all
right unless it's in their own life," says Waters, a
self-described card-carrying ACLU member. "And as soon as it
is, they panic. Pink Flamingos was a movie that was
made to make fun of hippies. In Serial Mom, I asked
liberals to root for a serial killer. Same thing."
Another constant has been the battles
he's faced getting his films to the screen. Perhaps surprisingly,
1994's Serial Mom -- which starred Kathleen Turner
as the spree-killing housewife of the title and which stands as
his most accessible film to date -- was the one Waters had to
fight hardest for. "They acted like they had just seen
snuff," he recalls of the first time he showed it to
And although his budgets have increased
over the years -- Pink Flamingos was made for
$10,000, Serial Mom cost $13 million -- he says
that the process has remained more or less the same and brags
that Serial Mom would have cost $20 million if it
had been made by anyone in the Hollywood system.
His next project, Pecker, will be
on a tighter budget of $6.5 million, half that of Serial Mom's.
"It's about a kid that lives in Baltimore, a blue-collar kid
that works in a sandwich shop and takes pictures of his loving
but peculiar family on the side and exhibits them in the sub shop
and is accidentally discovered by a New York art dealer and
turned into a huge art star against his will," he says of
the project, the details of which are still being negotiated.
"It's about somebody who is really the most un-American
thing you can be: somebody who doesn't want to be famous."
In addition to making movies, Waters has
published three books, lectures frequently, and is one of the few
guests who can be relied on to make David Letterman's skin crawl.
In other words, far from it being merely a self-styled moniker,
he really is the "Ambassador of Filth," and disarmingly
so. His appearance is dapper, his manners refined, yet there's
something not quite right, something vaguely -- which is to say,
believably -- disturbing about him.
Maybe it's the mustache, that
pencil-thin strip of smarm that mars an otherwise dandyish
appearance, lending him the sleazy air of a carny con man. Once
Letterman scoffed that it wasn't real and he responded by
inviting the late-night host to touch it. He wouldn't, and it
looked like the mere thought of it sent shivers up Dave's spine.
It would of course be silly to suggest
that Waters' status and cultish mystique can be reduced to a tiny
tuft of facial hair. But that doesn't mean it can't serve as a
cosmetic reminder of his aesthetic maxim: "Any good taste
needs a little bit of vulgarity to make it stylish."
Without it, he might be mistaken for
some other fop. With it, he is unmistakably the authority on all
things filthy, with the last word on matters of bad taste poised,
literally, on his lip.