An Interview with John Waters

John Waters has always had a talent for recognizing the finer points of cinema.

It was a delight to witness him introducing two of his favorite movies, Final Destination (2000) by James Wong and Kitten with a Whip (1964) by Douglas Heyes at Lincoln Center in New York and Anthology Film Archives respectively.

His presence and discussion of the films created an atmosphere that is often lacking in today’s cinema, where the focus is on the big picture and generic topics. Instead, he appreciated the individual moments, glances, and themes, like Ann-Margret’s enthusiasm in Kitten with a Whip.

He pointed out details that are frequently overlooked, and showed us how brilliant, pleasant, sensuous, frightening, and wild cinema can be.

It is not unexpected that Waters would view movies in such a manner, considering his own filmography. From early pieces like Eat Your Makeup (1968) and Pink Flamingos (1972) to later, more delicate yet still unconventional projects like Serial Mom (1994) and Pecker (1998), his films are laden with amusing details and references. In Polyester (1981), a scene even portrays Francine Fishpaw, played by Divine, flipping through a Cahiers du cinema, the well-known French movie magazine.

I have had a great appreciation for the films of Waters, and wanted to gain more insights from him, particularly into the world of cinema.

Every year he puts together a top-ten list for Artforum, which includes a variety of movies not commonly featured on other lists. In his book, Role Models, he honors individuals like Bobby Garcia and David Hurles, two photographers who developed a unique, expressive style of pornographic photography.

As a filmmaker, my interest in John Waters lies not in his cinematic works, but rather in his works as an artist and curator.

Over the years, his art has been featured at renowned institutions such as the New Museum in New York, Spruth Magers in London and Kunsthaus Zurich.

In 2004, the New Museum premiered John Waters: Change of Life, while Spruth Magers presented Beverly Hills John in 2015 and Kunsthaus Zurich exhibited John Waters: How Much Can You Take? that same year.

Represented by the Marianne Boesky Gallery, his art has received much recognition.

John Waters’ exhibition, Indecent Exposure, is set to be his first show in Baltimore, his hometown.

The pieces included are varied, from movie stills to photographs of his television screen featuring Dorothy Malone’s Collar, to still lifes of his everyday life and possessions. Furthermore, short narrative pieces and comedic pieces, like Congratulations and Manson Copies, are also displayed.

The latter series draws parallels between Charles Manson and other famous people.

I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with John Waters from Provincetown, Cape Cod, while I was situated in New York.

Our conversation revolved around his appreciation for the old and the new, and his knack for combining the two in innovative ways. We also conversed about Delmer Daves and Dorothy Malone’s films, and the unforgettable scene from the 1961 movie Susan Slade featuring Troy Donahue rescuing a baby from a fire.

— Telaroli, Gina

Gina is a well-known figure in the world of cinema, having made a name for herself in the field of film criticism and beyond. She is a celebrated author and filmmaker, her work admired and respected by many. Her knowledge and expertise in the realm of motion pictures has been instrumental in advancing the art form.


What criteria do you use to determine the size of the pieces you create?

JOHN WATERS often utilizes jokes in his artwork, such as Epic, which takes a tiny piece from the title treatment of The Poseidon Adventure and flips it upside down.

He sometimes hangs them low to the floor, with one featuring Chesty Morgan in a giant frame. Straight to Video is in a small frame, mocking the phrase as the worst thing one can say about a movie. Another piece called Badly Framed was framed purposefully in a bad way, adding to the satirical humor in the work.

When putting on an exhibit, I construct a model for how the pieces should be hung. It’s rarely even, with some being way up high. For example, the piece Secret Movie is displayed on a pedestal so high that you can’t see what it is, and if you could, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. I like to include elements of satire in my work in order to comment on the art world, the movie business, and everything in between.

BLVR: It has been stated that it is not advisable to have art for the public.

JW: Absolutely. That commonly implies that any person can make art, regardless of their skill level. There is no “bad art”.

I’m especially fond of the congeniality, cheerfulness, and wit that is encapsulated in your work.

JW: Yes, however, having insider knowledge regarding the art world can assist people in understanding the humor present. Thus, it appears to me that when individuals state they desire “art for the people,” it is frequently a statement said by people who are not very knowledgeable of contemporary art, similar to the people who would say “My kid can do this“. Basically, it is a way to express their sentiment; I have a piece that reads “Contemporary art hates you.” And it does if one does not counter it with their own hatred and come to terms with it first.

It’s understandable. BLVR affirmed.

JW: Initially, I was often upset by the art that I chose to collect.

BLVR has an appreciation for Control and Playdate, which allows them to chuckle in the face of uncomfortable revelations.

JW: It’s true that Charles Manson and Michael Jackson both have a negative reputation in certain circles. When I think about what would happen if the two ever crossed paths, it makes me think of Control, which explores a complex issue. It’s about Ike commanding Tina before she had the courage to get away from him, even though she should. Although I’m conflicted because I rather enjoy the music that she created while she was still with him.

Considering what would not have come to pass if they had never joined forces, BLVR sparks contemplation.

JW: The cover of the Manson book was the initial inspiration for the project, depicting Manson as a puppeteer with the girls as his puppets. I was a puppeteer as a kid, and I always joke with actors, telling them “Yes, you are” puppets when they protest that they’re not. Many film directors had a background as a puppeteer, so it’s not like we’re treating the actors like puppets, but they are our first characters that we direct.

In your artwork, two of the characters that you portray have passed away in the year 2020: Charles Manson and Dorothy Malone.

JW recounted an encounter with Dorothy Malone at the Dallas Country Club. He had mentioned to her his fascination with her collar in movies, and she obligingly put it up for him. On the contrary, JW expressed satisfaction with the death of Charles Manson, citing the destruction he had caused in the lives of those who followed him.

The Dorothy Malone ‘s Collar was her signature style, so when I created the look I had to look through all her movies to capture it. This is a very trivial detail from her filmography. Hearing of her passing was distressing, as she was an amazing actress, and whenever I see a woman wearing her collar up for fashion I think of her.

BLVR: One of my most beloved quotations is a line from the movie Written on the Wind by Dorothy Malone, which states “I’m allergic to politeness.” It always reminds me of you.

JW: I can’t recall that line, however, I’m a huge fan of the movie, and when I observe a leaf drifting down in the autumn, I’m reminded of Written on the Wind. I was fortunate enough to meet Douglas Sirk with Fassbinder at one point. I created the film Polyester, which in a way was a parody of melodrama.

BLVR: Many of your works can be seen as miniature movies in their own right, with a succession of pictures that one sees from left to right. The Manson Copies project ties Charles Manson and particular stars together; a side-by-side photographic panel is used to make the connection. Specifically, the Manson Copies Brad Pitt piece links the two individuals through their shared use of sunglasses and a similar type of beard.

JW claims that their work is all about editing, at a conceptual level. To create the Manson Copies series, they had to search through numerous images and newsreels to find the necessary fashion from Manson, and then find a movie star that resembled it. It’s like a scavenger hunt, with the need to look through millions of frames to find the one that can effectively tell a story. Each second in a movie consists of twenty-four frames, which makes this process even more challenging.

I was pondering the creative aspect of storytelling and how it needs to be exact in an entirely different fashion.

JW: My art is high-concept. It’s like pitching a movie. Take Written on the Wind for instance, no one remembers Dorothy Malone’s collar, but it is the most significant detail to me. So, I refer to myself as a failed publicist since none of the movie stills I place in my art exhibits would be selected to market the film. They are not focused on the sellable components of the film.

I have a special fondness for your Susan Slade piece since you’ve captured one of my favorite moments from a motion picture.

JW: Not many people have seen that movie, have you?

Recently, I had been pondering movies and how seldom something truly shocking comes along. I tried to remember any experiences I’ve had that fit that description. Susan Slade is surely one that stands out. When the infant burst into flames, I was taken aback. All of Delmer Daves’ films from that era are spectacular.

JW: I’m aware there are no film festivals or books dedicated to him, yet the movie–I have even the paperback novelization of it–is a momentous occasion. That image would never be released as a still of the movie; “Come see a baby catch on fire!” To me, I’m re-exploring these films through those scenes. I was in shock as a teenager when I watched that, thinking “Did that just happen? Her baby caught fire?” I had a disagreement with a film executive about having the mother set her kid’s friend on fire, and I said “Why, it’s been in movies before” and I was thinking of Susan Slade, though using it in the argument was pointless.


BLVR: When I think about the artwork you’ve done with movie stills, I’m wondering what kind of television you use. Do you take the photos directly from your television?

JW: Yes, however, it has to be the correct type. The recently released flat-panel…

BLVR: Do you own a television with those bulky cathode-ray tubes at the back?

JW: My giant, square TV is the only one that works. I tried digital and freeze-framing, but the results weren’t great. Even with the 1:85 ratio, the image wouldn’t fit the whole screen. When shooting my own films, I’ve noticed that the poorer quality works better for art, and the best quality of film works the least well. Fifties stuff works really well because of its saturated colors. I don’t freeze-frame or anything; it’s just me in the dark with a Nikon camera and real film.

I’m an enthusiastic fan attempting to recreate a moment that I want to keep in my mind. But it’s not easy since you can’t purchase film anymore. Many of the films I required were only available in VHS format and the quality was not ideal, even for the best ones. When you photograph it again, it deteriorates the film quality but enhances the artistry.

As an occupation, I am a video archivist which gives me the opportunity to explore VHS as a medium. It certainly is a unique way to capture memories.

JW inquired if there were still individuals who amassed VHS tapes.

I’m in agreement. I’m aware of a particular group of individuals in New York who are passionate about VHS tapes. The reason being that the color and texture of them is distinct from the modern-day, polished Blu-rays. As I was a kid in the ’90s, I watched a lot of films for the first time via VHS.

JW: Back then, I had to be creative in order to see exploitation movies, since there were no prints or DVDs. Many of them weren’t even released on VHS, even pirated copies or taped off television. It was always hard to find the source material. I was fortunate to have a friend, Dennis Dermody, who was a film critic and could provide me with suggestions for movies with bears. He was a great help! The art projects also involved research. I had to go through each movie, find the scene, and a lot of the times it didn’t work. It was difficult to write right to left with imaginary images based on memory and then make them real. Occasionally, though, it worked.

BLVR: I’m curious to know about your attempt to take a picture of Wicked Glinda. Was the result obtained through manipulation or did you manage to capture it with a fade?

JW: The transition between Glinda the good witch and the Wicked Witch of the West [from The Wizard of Oz] was a real dissolve. It was quite difficult to capture, but luckily I got lucky. I had to time it so that I clicked the camera just before the moment of transition. After many attempts, I was finally able to get it.

BLVR: It’s a stunning sight. Moreover, I’m a huge admirer of Margaret Hamilton.

JW: Likewise. She was someone I admired greatly when I was younger. She even sent me an autographed picture with the initials “WWW” on it.

BLVR: It is amazing! I think that the majority of kids view her in The Wizard of Oz first and then, to my surprise, I found her in several other movies, which really alters how I watch them.

JW: It is impossible to erase the significance of that role from one’s memory.

BLVR: One work that especially resonates with me is Headline #1, featuring a single headline reading, Ed Sullivan Assaulted Me!

When JW did the piece before the #MeToo movement, the headline seemed ludicrous and the woman told the real story. Now the context is different and it has changed a lot politically. In one of JW’s movies, Serial Mom, a bonus joke was added as the woman said she loves Bill Cosby movies. However, this was before any of the #MeToo revelations. It is interesting to note how things can shift over time.

The title “Ed Sullivan Raped Me” was never meant to be humorous, but more so ironic. People assumed I had fabricated the headline, yet it was a genuine one printed in color.

BLVR was amazed to discover that the #MeToo movement was real. For them, seeing the online presence of it in the ever-changing digital world was one thing, but to have it up on a wall at such a scale made it feel distinct.

JW: [Laughs] I’m not sure who would actually want to hang this piece in their living room. To be honest, I’m not sure if we ever sold one. I’ll have to look into that. All I can say is that it will fit nicely above a couch. [Laughs] Though I guess it will fit, I’m not sure what kind of home would be eager to have that headline as a decoration in their living room or any room for that matter.

BLVR: I’m an odd individual with a fondness for vintage films and I’ve watched Susan Slade, yet I’m curious to know how your work will be received by people who may not be familiar with the references. It was startling to me to discover the other day that none of the interns at my job have ever heard of Heidi Fleiss.

JW remarked that sometimes it helps to include references in his works and no one would be aware of it. He gave an example of one piece titled 9/11 which was a compilation of the two movies that were supposed to be aired in the planes on that day.

He further added that once a collector purchased Manson Copies Dorothy Malone ‘s Collar without understanding the reference in the work. The collector just found it aesthetically pleasing and he had not seen the other works in the series.

JW stated that this is when you know that the work was successful as the references were not understood by the collector even though they were quite complex. He concluded that you never know how the audience will respond to your work.

What kind of evolution has been observed in the people who come to your shows over the years?

JW: For which group of people? Is it the art appreciators?

BLVR: We could converse about art, or we could just chat in general.

JW: Separating my film career from my art career was intentional. Despite the fact that many people who are familiar with my movies don’t realize I have an art career, I have made a conscious effort to keep them separate. I often address the issue that in the art world, celebrity has become the only true obscenity, and I must constantly battle it. Thus, I make jokes about it, I use it in my work, and I reference it frequently. However, art is a completely different medium through which to tell stories, therefore, I have maintained its distinction. In Europe, this isn’t a problem, but in America, it is.


BLVR: It is often said that you are a troublemaker. How does one define a troublemaker in the present? Is it feasible to be a troublemaker in the modern era?

JW: Certainly, I am passionate about women who dislike men, and I detest men who dislike women, however, I must admit: I enjoy sex, which is the most groundbreaking opinion one can express in this day and age.

BLVR: We have overlooked the importance of recognizing the many varieties of human experience.

JW: I’m so grateful I’m not single, as it would be immensely difficult to meet someone in the current climate. It must be unbearable for those who are single.

BLVR: It appears that the majority of people rely on their phones to find someone nowadays. I know people who are in their forties who are searching for someone, yet instead of going to a bar, they decide to use their phones.

JW: Yeah, it seems like people no longer go to bars. Even in Provincetown, the gay disco, people are dancing together with their phones in hand, but looking at Grindr instead of each other. It looks like cruising isn’t a thing anymore and that could be why bars are struggling. It’s like people aren’t going out to look for someone to date, they’re staying in and talking to people on their computer. Some don’t even meet the person they’re talking to, they just have sex with them over the computer! [ Laughs ] That’s not great for the bar business.

BLVR expressed their opinion that this was not good for people.

JW: Absolutely. Now I’m seeing images of these humanoid robots for sale for intercourse that appear and feel incredibly realistic. I even read about someone who tested them and said that, apart from the heat, it was indistinguishable from an actual human. That is an alarming development.

BLVR: I saw a documentary, I’m not sure if it was on Netflix or not, that included a creepy doll with a hole in its mouth that you could actually put your face in.

JW: There are various openings present; any kind of access point exists.

I was particularly fond of Grim Reaper, a piece I really enjoyed.

JW reflected on Ingmar Bergman’s death, a moment he has always had an affinity for. He spoke of his own movie, Eat Your Makeup, which depicted the Kennedy assassination with Divine playing Jackie. Though some may not have found it humorous, the image of the day was powerful. He went on to state that thousands of people have portrayed her in movies, and to him, no other image could capture the weight of the day as well as Bergman’s death symbol.

BLVR: What criteria do you use when deciding between manipulating photographs and constructing a narrative through composition?

JW initially altered Dorothy Malone’s Collar by adding an apostrophe with Wite-Out. Subsequently, he started using Photoshop to add death to his works. His early efforts were all about commemorating a scene from a favorite film. Later, he sought to combine different elements in order to create a new kind of motion picture that conveyed an alternative message. Eventually, he even made up stories and used images.

I created a work titled Sophia Loren Decapitated which involved me taking off her head. This was a representation of the fear that everyone feels; the fear that the next person might do something to them and they don’t know what it is. It’s a way for me to showcase the anxieties that come with the industries I am involved in and the hidden protocols. In the piece Artistically Incorrect, there are several expressions one of which says “All photographs fade.” My dealer Marianne Boesky also commented that it couldn’t be a full-page ad in Artforum which is what I wanted for the show. She said that it was what I was selling. [Laughs]

I’m constantly exploring the possibilities of both art and film, and I appreciate the mistakes and what can go wrong. I deliberately put “a hair in the gate” in the scenes I shoot. This is something most people aren’t aware of, where the assistant cameraman always checks if a hair got into the shot and ruined it. I’ve never had a shot ruined by a hair in the gate in my seventeen movies, but I daydream about what would happen if they didn’t check and it ruined the most expensive scene. I’m always imagining the worst with a positive outlook.

BLVR: The third element that ties together your work between the art and film sectors is likely your own story.

JW: Absolutely, and I make fun of my own fame and persona too. I make self-portraits where I appear as Don Knotts or Elizabeth Taylor’s scarf in a facelift or I’m transforming into–

The individual responsible for apprehending dogs is called the dog catcher.

JW: Yeah, I’m turning into the dog catcher. I’m always picturing myself in a different light, which is quite simple to do since I have a mustache. [ Laughs ] So I often attempt to joke about my own self-image. In one take it was a series of close-ups of me, and I just altered them in various ways; I put washed-out stickers over them and stuff like that. I am trying to poke fun at my own celebrity as well.

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