The Brilliance of Bad Taste

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Bookshop Santa Cruz partnered with The Nickelodeon Theaters to bring writer and director John Waters to the Del Mar on May 19 to promote his recent book “Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America”. Photo by Stephen De Ropp.
Bookshop Santa Cruz partnered with The Nickelodeon Theaters to bring writer and director John Waters to the Del Mar on May 19 to promote his recent book “Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America”. Photo by Stephen De Ropp.

The last time John Waters visited Santa Cruz was in 1970.  “I came — this is a terrible thing to say — to ride on the roller coaster the day after somebody died on it.”

Clearly, the filmmaker and self-proclaimed “filth elder” doesn’t fear risk. He’s become a megaphone for the underground, drawing out the most uncomfortable and filthy aspects of our world and throwing it on the screen, page or stage. Waters’ body of work — which includes films, books and visual art — employs humor to complicate the dichotomy between good and bad taste.

At age 12, the Baltimore native was orchestrating violent puppet shows and by age 16, he was making films, 8mm camera in hand.

His early films in particular, like 1969’s “Mondo Trasho” and the famously filthy “Pink Flamingos,” are rough and campy. They grate against conventional morality and artistic censorship with the kind of cringe that makes audiences wince and then stick around for more.

The “Pope of Trash” also made a name for himself for his use of nontraditional, if not controversial, actors known as Dreamlanders. Recurring faces included childhood friend and drag queen Divine and former porn star Traci Lords. Waters also frequently featured Patty Hearst, a newspaper heiress who gained notoriety after being abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army and convicted of bank robbery.

His films have a life beyond the screen, as 1988’s “Hairspray” and 1990’s “Crybaby” were both turned into hit Broadway musicals.

Waters, now an art world veteran at age 69, stopped in Santa Cruz for a conversation with printmaker Jim Winters while on tour in support of his newest book, “Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America” The novel details Waters’s less than glamorous 21-ride hitchhiking trip across the country.

Winters was picked up while hitchhiking in Maryland by Waters himself in 1991. He probed the filmmaker about his journey from Baltimore to San Francisco and about his affinity for true crime and the nature of famous criminals.

Prior to a talk he held at the Del Mar Theatre, Waters talked with City on a Hill Press about his start in filmmaking, the culture of midnight movies and why “Pink Flamingos” hasn’t lost its appeal more than 40 years later.

CHP: To start off, let’s talk about your book Carsick. Why hitchhiking?

John Waters: Well, why not? I hitchhiked when I was young, most people my age never hitchhike but they all did and most people your age never hitchhiked but want to.  Have you ever hitchhiked?

CHP: No — actually, yeah I’ve hitchhiked like a mile on my way up to campus. It was scary.

JW: Scary? Did you have a scary ride?

CHP: No, I guess it was all that —

JW: All the movies and all the TV shows … it’s never portrayed in a nice way, hitchhiking. I’ve hitchhiked my whole life and I’ve never had a bad experience. I’ve had good experiences, and it’s green.

CHP: What was your best experience?

JW: Well the book has all the experiences. I’ve tried to imagine the very best, which is all ridiculous fantasies, stuff that’s never happened. And the worst, which is what everybody fears — diarrhea, getting murdered, bad driving, bored talking to you, animals that bite you.

CHP:  Did anything change after the band [Here We Go Magic]  picked you up and tweeted about it?

JW: No, because they tweeted about it and it went viral but it didn’t affect me because I didn’t know where I was. I would look on my BlackBerry and see all these news stories but I’m still standing there, I don’t know where I am, I can’t say, “Come get me.”

It only helped me when I was in this one rest area and this guy, I was trying to talk him into giving me a ride and he was sketchy and then I showed him that I was in SPIN magazine. He sort of thought it was real and did give me a ride. So it helped once but it didn’t help me because I didn’t know where I was, and even if I did, just because somebody reads it online doesn’t mean they’re going to drive 2,000 miles to give me a ride. By the time they’d get there, I’d be gone hopefully!

CHP: How did people respond to you once they found out who you were, if they didn’t know already?

JW: Most people, if they didn’t know who I was and I told them, they either didn’t believe me or they weren’t that impressed by celebrity anyway. Many people tried to give me money, they thought I was a poor old man. They thought I had delusions of grandeur if I said I was a film director.

CHP: In your film Cecil B. Demented, one of the characters says, “Technique is nothing more than failed style.”

JW: Well, I believe that. It shows when you make a movie if the first thing people say when they come out is the camera work was good, that means it was not a good movie.

The movie is about a story. You can have great camera work in a movie, but you can also have bad camera work and make a great movie. I don’t think you can have a bad story. I don’t think you can have all bad actors, well, you can have all bad actors with the right kind of actors. But to me it’s not a science project, it’s an art project. Although, most movies today are beyond science projects, they’re business projects.

CHP: What is it about filmmaking that drew you to it in the first place?

JW: Just to tell a story. I’ve always been a writer so I’ve only made movies I write. I’ve written all my books, I’ve written all my stand-up shows, so all I really have ever done is be a writer. I’ve just had different ways to tell a story.

CHP: Were your parents or friends supportive when you were young and making films?

JW: My parents were horrified but supportive. I started doing this when I was 12, I had puppet shows where I would put fake violence in them and my parents would get uptight. I wrote this book called Reunion that I read at camp every week, it was a horror thing and the end had this gory climax. All the kids had nightmares and their parents went and complained, so I was always doing it. My parents were supportive yes, they just wished my subject matter was different, but they got sort of used to it. They were proud.

They were just so happy I at least had one thing I was interested in otherwise I would go to prison or a mental institution or something. They encouraged my interest even though they would have preferred I had other ones, but they knew that I had no interest in what the other kids were interested in.

They worked with what they got, which is a good advice for parents. You can’t order up your kids.

CHP: A lot of your films, like Pink Flamingos in particular, are known for their boldness, gutsiness and shocking nature.

JW: Yeah, it still works. It didn’t get nicer. It’s amazing that film was made four generations ago and each new generation finds it and it still works. They don’t think, ‘Oh, this is old hat.’ It still works. That’s because it’s not just shock value, it’s funny. People laugh and they’re amazed by it and it’s technically not very good but it doesn’t matter because it looks raw. It looks like it’s a snuff movie or a documentary.

CHP: Do you think that art or film nowadays is missing some of that gut?

JW: No, there are still great movies being made. There are still kids making great movies, usually foreign though, I like foreign films better. But certainly in America — they’re still doing it.

CHP: I’m also curious about the culture of midnight movies and how that has evolved.

JW: The only movie that has had any success as a midnight movie in the last 20 years really is the, what’s the one called where they’re all hooked up with their assholes?

CHP: The Human Centipede.

JW: Yeah, that’s a very great movie, it’s a great midnight movie. See, midnight movies were popular when there was no video. As soon as video came out, it ended it because you could never see a video at home before, you had to go to a movie theater at midnight. There was this group of people all together on marijuana, celebrating and laughing at movies.

Today, everyone has their own midnight movie at home in their home entertainment center or on their phone. When midnight movies were at their peak, there was no video, there were no DVDs, there were no computers — you could only go to a movie theater.

Pink Flamingos played 10 years at a midnight showing in Los Angeles. Then you could go to each community and open it one night a week, then it would go two nights a week. It would take three years to even go around the whole country, you opened each market at a time. Today if Pink Flamingos came out, it would play at the Landmark Theater chain, it would open in 20 theaters and if it didn’t do well the first weekend, it would be gone.

Also, an NC-17 today is the kiss of death. In those days, an “X” was great to have when it first came out.

CHP: Can you speak to your evolution from an outsider to now, as more of an insider?

JW: That’s ‘cause I’ve been doing this for 50 years. If you do anything for 50 years, you’ve had to have some kind of success or you can’t get away with it. Eventually, if you keep doing something long enough, you get power, you know more people, people come to you for advice, so yes it’s a natural progression and the final irony in my sake.

I always say I’m a filth elder, but I think a certain amount of people trust my taste.

CHP: A filth elder? What does filth mean to you?

JW: Filth is like — I would never use the word trash anymore because it’s outdated — but filth is more of a powerful word. It’s like extreme humor with a little bit of punk thrown in, a little bit of anarchy. But I’m too old to be an anarchist. I have three homes, how can I be an anarchist with three homes? That’s rather pitiful.

CHP: A lot of your films are rooted in counterculture and a resistance of the norm. What would you consider to be the counterculture now?

JW: Hackers who are shutting down the governments of foreign countries in their bedroom of their parents’ house.  They’re doing the same thing the hippies did, they’re comic terrorists.  There’s no fashion for hackers, they have bad posture. They stay home too much. You’ve never met a hacker with a suntan.

CHP: So, is that what we rebel against now?

JW: The hackers have certainly thought up a new way to cause trouble, the next thing is, you’ve got to think it up. That’s the challenge of the next generation, to think up things that will get on the nerves of the generation before them — that will unnerve them, that will make them reconsider what they thought and realize that nothing’s new. The next generation is always going to come up with something that you at first don’t like and then it takes over and you grow to use it and then the next one has to come along.

CHP: Do you plan on making another film?

JW: I’m working now on a script. I have a development deal for a TV show, we’ll see if it happens. I’m not allowed to talk about it so I don’t want to curse it. Who knows if I don’t make another film, I’ve made 13.

The independent film world as I know it is kind of over — for now, it could be back. Now television — way more people see it. Television is kind of better than independent film, not that there aren’t some great ones but every time I go to the movies, everyone is 50 or older in art films. Many of the big Hollywood movies I have no desire to see. They’re all the same, there are no stars in it, there’s no dialogue, it’s just special effects and money. I always think now trailers are like warnings, ‘Don’t see it.’

When I was young, every trailer was like, “I’ve got to see this” and now it’s like, “Well, I’m glad I saw that.” It tells the whole movie in order. It’s the pitch. That’s how you pitch the movie  — so you have seen the entire movie, the best parts.

CHP: What is it about television that’s more interesting or more subversive?

JW: They have more freedom to write. They go for something more original, they’re looking for original programming which I’m not so sure movies are. They’re looking for tent poles. They want one hit and do 10 versions, mostly for China.

CHP: There’s even more freedom now with the expansion to Netflix and Hulu.

JW: That’s the thing, it’s changing so fast nobody knows how to measure if it’s a hit anymore. The Nielsen ratings? I don’t know why anybody pays any attention to them anymore because how people watch television is so radically different. Nobody stays home on Wednesday because their show is on. That’s kind of rare. There’s the best television there has ever been, but I still don’t watch too much of it because I like to read at night. I can’t do both, I can’t read as much and binge-watch.

CHP: Did you take any books with you when you hitchhiked?

JW: I did but I didn’t read as much because I was so exhausted when I got to the hotel room at night. I took one and I didn’t even finish it because at night I had to write my notes about what had happened during the day and I was so tired. I certainly would never read in the car with people — that would be bad hitchhiking manners.