John Waters has always been a special kind of connoisseur. Watching him introduce two of his favorite films, James Wong’s Final Destination (2000) and Douglas Heyes’s Kitten with a Whip (1964), at New York’s Lincoln Center and Anthology Film Archives, respectively, were personal cinematic highlights. His presence and presentation gave the screenings a context that’s often missing from cinema today. Instead of focusing on the macro, on hype and generalities, he embraced the films with an appreciation for single moments, glances, and thematic threads, like Ann-Margret’s energetic movement throughout Kitten with a Whip. His attention was on details that are often overlooked, and for how smart and warm and sexual and scary and bonkers cinema can be.
When you consider his own filmography, it isn’t surprising that Waters would watch movies this way. From early work like Eat Your Makeup (1968) and Pink Flamingos (1972) to gentler but no less transgressive fare like Serial Mom (1994) and Pecker (1998), Waters’s films are rich with the same kind of playful details and references. A sequence in Polyester (1981) even goes so far as to show Divine’s character, Francine Fishpaw, reading a copy of Cahiers du cinéma, the esteemed French film magazine.
As I’ve enjoyed Waters’s films, I’ve hungered for his insights into cinema and into the world more generally. Each year he writes a top-ten best-of list for Artforum, showcasing an unusually wide range of films that don’t appear on many other lists. Role Models, his book of essays on people he admires, pays tribute to outsiders like Bobby Garcia and David Hurles, two often-overlooked photographers who created obsessive and expressive bodies of pornographic work.
Despite being a filmmaker myself, I am interested less in John Waters the filmmaker than in John Waters the artist and curator. Waters has long been collecting, making, and exhibiting art in a career that is quite separate from his moviemaking. Represented by the Marianne Boesky Gallery, over the years he has regularly exhibited his own works, as well as the work of artists he admires, at institutions including the New Museum, in New York, which premiered John Waters: Change of Life (2004), his first major museum exhibition; London’s Sprüth Magers, which presented his 2015 exhibition Beverly Hills John; and Kunsthaus Zürich, which exhibited John Waters: How Much Can You Take? (2015).
His upcoming retrospective, John Waters: Indecent Exposure, will be his first show in his hometown of Baltimore, and will showcase a wide range of his work. Many of the pieces include movie stills, film photographs that Waters takes of his television screen that highlight a singular moment in a film, like the descriptively titled Dorothy Malone’s Collar. There are still lifes of Waters’s life, such as displays of his sink and under his bed, as well as short narrative pieces and sight gags like Congratulations, in which the words DID NOT SELL are spelled out in red sticker dots. Others play on visual comparisons, like his Manson Copies series, in which he juxtaposes an image of Charles Manson with an image of another famous person, highlighting a visual connection.
All of Waters’s work displays his appreciation for the old and the new and his ability to meld the two in intellectually expansive ways. This past spring, I was able to speak with John about his work. He was at the beach in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, and I was in New York, hoping my BlackBerry would record the call. We connected over our interest in the films of Delmer Daves and Dorothy Malone, and wild cinematic moments, like Troy Donahue rescuing a burning baby in the 1961 film Susan Slade.
I. “ART FOR THE PEOPLE IS A BAD IDEA.”
THE BELIEVER: How do you choose the scale of your work?
JOHN WATERS: Well, that’s the thing. I usually do jokes about that. I mean, some of them I call epic, but the artwork titled Epic takes a tiny little piece of The Poseidon Adventure title treatment, only upside down, because that’s what happened in the movie: the boat went upside down. And sometimes they’re hung really low [to] the floor. One of them has a little tiny picture of Chesty Morgan but a giant frame and a giant mat around it. The mat and the sizing and everything are sometimes part of the satirical humor I’m trying to get across. Like there’s a little one called Straight to Video, which is, like, the worst thing you can say about somebody’s movies. That’s in a little frame. But then I’ll have a tiny one in a big frame. I even have a piece called Badly Framed that’s purposely badly framed. The framing and the mat and the size are hopefully just another thing I try to parody in the work.
How a work is hung is also completely off-kilter. You know, I build a model for every show, including at a museum, and hang it that way. Certainly it’s not evenly side by side. Some of them are way high. There’s one piece called Secret Movie that’s on a pedestal that is so high no one can see what that secret movie is, and of course if you could see it, it wouldn’t be a secret. I try to satirize all things about the art world and the movie business and everything, because I love them both.
BLVR: You’ve said that art for the people is a bad idea.
JW: Yeah, it is. Usually that means art that everyone can do, that there’s no such thing as bad art.
BLVR: What I really love about your work are the openness and the warmth and the humor.
JW: Yes, but insider knowledge of the art world helps people get plenty of the humor. So it seems to me that when people come out and say they want “art for the people,” usually it’s a thing that very unsophisticated people who hate contemporary art say, the same kind of people who would say, My kid can do this. Basically, it’s code for how they feel; I have a piece that reads “Contemporary art hates you.” And it does if you don’t hate it back and make peace with it first.
BLVR: That makes sense.
JW: Because the art that I collect usually did make me angry at first.
BLVR: I really love Control and Playdate, and I think with that comes an ability to laugh at them, but it’s the kind of laugh that happens when you’re facing an uncomfortable truth.
JW: That is true. Both [Charles] Manson and Michael Jackson are thought of as villains in some worlds, and you think about what would happen if they met in a real way. And Control addresses a very complicated issue, because it’s Ike controlling Tina, obviously before she had the nerve to leave him, and she should leave him, but she was really great when she was with him too. I’m torn, you know. I like the music better from when she was with him, and that’s also—
BLVR: It makes you think about what wouldn’t exist if they had never been together.
JW: It’s also based on a cover of a Manson book that shows Manson with puppets of the girls, controlling them. So it was all kind of put together with that imagery. I was a puppeteer as a child, and all actors say to movie directors, “We’re not your puppets, you know.” And I always say, “Yes, you are,” just to make them crazy. I think many, many film directors were puppeteers as children. It’s not that we’re treating the actors as puppets, but they’re our first characters that we’re telling what to do.
BLVR: Two of the characters that you play with [in your art] passed away this year: Charles Manson and Dorothy Malone.
JW: Dorothy Malone I met. And Charles Manson—I went to the original trial. I’m glad Charles Manson is dead. He ruined a lot of people’s lives, including the people who followed him. Dorothy Malone I actually met in the Dallas Country Club, and she told me to meet her there, and I walked in and I explained to her that I was obsessed by her collar always being worn up in a movie, and she didn’t have it up that day and she was like, “Oh, OK,” and she just put her collar up.
That collar up was the signature, so when I did Dorothy Malone’s Collar, I went through all of her movies just to concentrate on her collar. That’s really an obscure ephemera from a movie career. So yes, I was very sad to hear that Dorothy Malone had died, because she was a great actress, and anytime I see any woman wearing her collar up for fashion, I think of her.
BLVR: Well, actually, one of my favorite quotes of all time is a Dorothy Malone quote from Written on the Wind: “I’m allergic to politeness.” It makes me think of you.
JW: I don’t remember that line, but I love that movie, and I think of Written on the Wind whenever I see a leaf fall in the fall, and I actually met Douglas Sirk once with Fassbinder. I made the movie Polyester, which in a way was making fun of melodrama.
BLVR: A lot of your pieces are little movies in their own right, a series of images that read left to right. In the Manson Copies series, you make connections between Charles Manson and individual celebrities. You compare the two in a side-by-side photo panel and find a visual cue that connects them. In the case of Manson Copies Brad Pitt, the two men are linked by the fact that they’re sporting sunglasses and similar beards.
JW: All of my work—this work—is about editing, I think. It’s all conceptual. Before you read it left to right, I think up the piece, and once I think it up I have to find the images to make that little movie work. With the Manson Copies series, I always had to find… they only had certain newsreels of Manson and the parole hearings from which I could take whatever fashion he has and then find the movie star that looked like it to say that he was copying him. So it’s like a snipe hunt, you know. It’s like looking at millions of images. In a movie one second is twenty-four frames. So think of the number of frames you have to look through in order to find the one that works to tell a story.
BLVR: I was wondering about the storytelling, just because it has to be precise in a very different way.
JW: It’s high-concept. It’s like how you pitch a movie or how I want to remember a movie even if nobody else remembers the movie that way. Like with Written on the Wind, nobody remembers Dorothy Malone’s collar from it. But to me that’s the most important detail, and that’s what I wanted to celebrate and concentrate on, so I always say that I’m a failed publicist. Every movie still that I put in my art shows would never be one that’s shown to promote the movie, because it does not concentrate on the sellable aspects of the movie.
BLVR: One of the pieces that I love, just because you’ve documented one of my favorite moments in a movie, is the Susan Slade piece.
JW: You saw that movie? Very few people have.
BLVR: I did. Recently, I was thinking about watching movies and how rarely you see something that is really shocking. I tried to think of experiences I have had like that. Susan Slade is definitely one of them. When the baby caught on fire, I was like, What? All of the Delmer Daves films from that period are incredible.
JW: I know, and you never—there are no film festivals for him. There are no books on him. That movie—and I even have the paperback novelization of it—is a moment. That’s a perfect example. They would never release that image as a still of the movie. Come see a baby catch on fire! To me, I’m kind of rewriting the films as these scenes. That was a real shock to me as a teenager when I saw that. And I thought, Did that just happen? Her baby caught on fire? I remember in Serial Mom I had a big fight with a film executive who said that you can’t have her set her kid’s friend on fire. You can’t do that. And I said, “Why, it’s been in movies forever.” And I’m thinking of Susan Slade, but I’m thinking there’s no point using that in the argument.
II. “WHO WOULD HANG THAT IN THEIR LIVING ROOM?”
BLVR: Thinking of those pieces that you’ve made with movie stills, I’m curious what kind of television you use. Because you take photographs off of televisions, right?
JW: Yeah, but it has to be the right kind. The new flat-screen…
BLVR: Do you use a television that has those cathode-ray tubes, the big ones that have the back?
JW: I use a giant TV, but a square one; I don’t know what it’s called. I still have it in Baltimore, but it’s the only one that works. I tried digital and freeze-framing. It doesn’t work right. My images were always taken on a very large for its time but square television. So even with the 1:85 ratio, it wouldn’t fill the whole screen. So it depends where you put the tripod, and it depends if you even use a tripod. I found that mostly, in my own films, the ones that were the poorest quality work the best for art, and the best quality of film worked the least well. Fifties stuff works well because the color is so saturated. If you go back and look at my work, you’ll see that I don’t freeze-frame or anything. It’s just me in the dark with a Nikon camera with real film.
So I’m like a crazy fan trying to relive one-twenty-fourth of a second that I want to remember. And you can’t even buy film anymore. Many times, a lot of the films, the only ones I could ever find that I needed, were VHS’s, and the quality… you forget how bad VHS quality was, even on good ones. When you photograph that again, it adds another generation that makes it less good as a movie and better as art.
BLVR: I’m a video archivist by day so I play with VHS all of the time. It’s a pretty special medium.
JW: Does anybody collect VHS’s anymore?
BLVR: I think so. There’s a group of people I know in New York who love VHS and keep them just because the color and textures are completely different from what you get on cleaned-up Blu-rays these days. Growing up in the ’90s, I saw so many movies for the first time that way.
JW: That’s the only way you could see the exploitation movies and everything—because there were no prints or anything. Now some of them are on DVD. But when I did it, I just had to find it on any medium. Some of them never even came out on VHS, even pirated ones or taped off of television. The source material was always hard to find. And I have a friend named Dennis Dermody who’s a film critic, and he was a great help because I could say, “Think of every movie where there’s a bear in it.” You know, not a gay bear. A real bear. And he would know, you know? So he was great! The art projects involved research too. And then you’d have to go through each movie, find the scene, and a lot of the times it didn’t work. You know, sometimes it works. Sometimes it wasn’t framed right. So what you’re doing is writing left to right with imaginary images based on memory. And then you have to make that real. And that is complicated and problematic, and once in a while it works.
BLVR: One image in particular that I’d love to hear you talk about trying to capture is Wicked Glinda. I was unsure if it was manipulated or if it was a fade that you magically captured.
JW: That was naturally captured. It is a dissolve between Glinda the good witch and the Wicked Witch of the West [from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz]. It was a real dissolve, the exact moment when they fade into each other. It was really hard to photograph, and I just got lucky. Because I didn’t freeze it. So I had to click the camera at that exact moment. You had to know it well enough to click it right before that happened. I did it so many times that I was so happy when I got it.
BLVR: It’s beautiful. And I love Margaret Hamilton so much.
JW: Me too. She was my childhood idol. She sent me a picture signed by her that says “WWW,” like, monogrammed.
BLVR: Wow. I think every child for the most part sees her in The Wizard of Oz first, and then I discovered her in all of these other movies, and it just changes the movie.
JW: Because you can never forget that role.
BLVR: Another piece that really speaks to me is Headline #1, which consists of a single tabloid headline, Ed Sullivan Raped Me!
JW: Now, when I did that, it was way before the #MeToo movement, and it was a real headline, and it was a real story in [National] Enquirer or The Globe or one of them. Now that I look back, when I saw it, it was so ludicrous, the headline. But the woman told the real story, like in #MeToo, and it was probably true! But now it’s in a completely different context. When I did that piece, obviously none of the #MeToo stuff had happened, so to me, I had it because it was such a ludicrous headline and such a sensationalist headline, but about Ed Sullivan? The one person no one ever felt sexually about? But then who really thought Harvey [Weinstein] was sexy? So I guess to me it has changed very much. Just like in one of my movies, Serial Mom, I got a bonus joke now because this woman says, right before she’s murdered, “I love Bill Cosby movies.” But this was before, you know? It’s weird how things can change over time politically.
I think now, the “Ed Sullivan Raped Me”—it was never supposed to be funny, but it was supposed to be almost ironic in the beginning, because most people thought I made up that headline. But it was a real headline, in color and everything.
BLVR: Yeah, I googled it, and I was like, Oh, that’s real. For me, looking at that, there’s something about seeing that offline. So much of #MeToo is consumed online in this rapidly changing environment, and to have something mounted on a wall, at that scale—for me it makes it feel different.
JW: Who would hang that in their living room? [Laughs] To be honest, I don’t know if we ever did sell one. I have to look back. What I always say is “Well, it will fit right over your couch.” [Laughs] Well, that one would fit, but I’m not sure what home would welcome that headline in the living room. Or any room!
BLVR: I am a bizarre person who likes old movies and has seen Susan Slade, but I’m wondering how you think your work will function for people who maybe don’t know the references as well. I was actually horrified the other day to realize that none of the interns at my office know who Heidi Fleiss is.
JW: To me, you’re right. Sometimes it helps. Who would ever know? There was one piece I did [titled 9/11] that just had titles of two movies. They were the movies that were about to be shown on 9/11, on the planes. No one would know that unless you were told. So it is a narrative, and it sometimes does require research to figure out what it is. One time, this collector bought Manson Copies Dorothy Malone’s Collar, and he had never seen any of the other ones. And he said, “I didn’t even know what you were talking about. I just thought it looked nice.” And I thought, He didn’t get it at all, you know? Like in reference to the other works. And how could he? No one could. But he said, “I just liked how it looked.” In a way, that’s when you really know the work worked. If they could never understand the references—which, who could? If they had never seen the other Manson Copies series or the Dorothy Malone series, it’s almost ridiculously an insider joke. I guess you never know.
BLVR: How has your audience changed over the years?
JW: For which? The art audience?
BLVR: Well, we can talk art. You can talk generally too.
JW: Well, I kept them very, very separate on purpose. I would say that still many people who know my films have absolutely no idea that I have an art career. And I kept that very separate on purpose, because as I address in the work, celebrity is the only obscenity left in the art world, and it is the one thing I will always have to fight. So I make fun of it, I use it, I talk about it all of the time. But [art] is different. It is a completely different way to tell stories. And so I kept it separate. It doesn’t matter in Europe. It does matter in America.
III. “INGMAR BERGMAN’S DEATH SYMBOL”
BLVR: You always talk about being a troublemaker. What does it mean to be a troublemaker today? Is it even possible to be one in this day and age?
JW: Well, it is. I say I love women who hate men, and I hate men who hate women, but guess what: I like sex, too, which is the most radical thing you can say today.
BLVR: We’ve kind of lost the nuance of accepting all human experience.
JW: I’m glad I’m not single, because it would really be hard to pick up somebody these days. It must be brutal on the singles scene.
BLVR: Well, I guess that part of it is that it all takes place on applications now, anyway. I have friends who—let’s say they’re forty years old and they’re trying to find someone, and they want to go to a bar, but people now just use their phones.
JW: Yeah, they don’t go to bars. Even in Provincetown in the gay disco. Shirtless men are dancing together looking at Grindr on their phone while they dance. It seems to me there is no such thing as cruising. And I guess that’s why all the bars are doing badly. People don’t go out looking for a date like they used to. They stay at home on their computer. And some of them never even meet the date. They just have sex with them on their computer! [Laughs] So that’s bad for the bar business.
BLVR: Yeah. I think it’s bad for people too.
JW: Heck yes. And now I get pictures of these full human robots you can buy to have sex with that really do look real. And feel real. I even read some article where somebody tried them, and they said that except for the temperature, it was exactly the same. That is alarming.
BLVR: There was some documentary—I don’t know if it was on Netflix or something—that featured some kind of horrified doll with a mouth that you could insert yourself into.
JW: Well, they have many different orifices; all orifices available.
BLVR: Another piece that I really kind of loved is Grim Reaper.
JW: You know, that’s Ingmar Bergman’s death, and I’ve always loved Ingmar Bergman movies and I love that image. I made a movie called Eat Your Makeup where we showed the Kennedy assassination a couple of years after it really happened, with Divine playing Jackie, and people really didn’t think it was funny. And maybe it wasn’t. But that day and that image are so strong. How many thousands of people have played her in movies and everything? You just try to imagine that death was stalking them that day. And to me there’ll never be—everything is cinematic, so whenever I think of any subject, I think of what movie did that best, and I think Ingmar Bergman’s death symbol is pretty damn good.
BLVR: How do you make the choice between doctoring photos and telling a story by arrangement?
JW: Well, I guess the first one I ever altered was Dorothy Malone’s Collar, because I found that Dorothy Malone credit in the movie, and I had to add an apostrophe s, which I put on with Wite-Out. So that might have been the first one I altered, but I altered them all in the beginning, without using Photoshop. And later, when I actually put death in, that was different. In the beginning, it was just me trying to remember a moment of a film that I loved and to celebrate that. And as I went a little further, I put two different things together, hoping it would be a new kind of movie that would say something else. And then I invented narratives. Then I took images.
I did one, Sophia Loren Decapitated. Basically, I just tore her head off. But that’s a fear that everybody has: Is the next person waiting in line going to do something to me? You don’t know, really. I guess it’s celebrating the fears of the businesses I’m in, and the unspoken rules. In the piece Artistically Incorrect, there are all these expressions. One says, “All photographs fade.” And even my dealer, Marianne Boesky, said, “I can’t have that as a full-page ad in Artforum,” which I wanted for the show. Because that’s what you’re selling. [Laughs]
I’m always trying to question those two businesses, art and film, in a way that’s celebrating the mistakes, and what goes wrong, and insider knowledge. I put “a hair in the gate” in every one of these big shots. And that’s a thing in movies that most people in the general public don’t even know about. Right before you move on to the next shot, the assistant cameraman always says, “Check for a hair in the gate,” meaning suppose some hair got in there in the last shot and ruined the thing. I have never in my life had a shot ruined by a hair in the gate, after making seventeen movies. But I try to imagine, Suppose they didn’t check? And the hair is stuck over the biggest, most expensive scene in the entire movie. I’m always thinking the worst in a good way.
BLVR: What I see being the third thread of your work between the art and film industries is maybe yourself and your own narrative.
JW: Yes, certainly it is, and my own celebrity and my own image, which I try to make fun of. I do self-portraits where I’m either turning into Don Knotts or I’m Elizabeth Taylor’s scarf in a facelift, or I’m turning into—
BLVR: The dog catcher.
JW: Yeah, I’m turning into the dog catcher. I’m always imagining myself in some different image, which is pretty easy to do because of my mustache. [Laughs] So I always try to make fun of my own self-image. In one shot it was all different headshots of me, and I just defaced all of them in a different way; I put overexposed stamps over them and everything. I am trying to make fun of my own celebrity too.