DATE February 25, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Waters discusses his career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "The Tingler")
Mr. VINCENT PRICE: Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic, but scream,
scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater, and if you don't
scream, it may kill you!
(Soundbite of screaming)
Mr. PRICE: Scream! Keep screaming! Scream for your lives!
Unidentified Man #1: It's here! It's over here! Oh! Oh! Oh!
Unidentified Man #2: Look out! It's under the seats!
Mr. PRICE: Ladies and gentlemen...
Unidentified Man #2: Oh, my God, it's under the seats!
Mr. PRICE: ...the Tingler has been paralyzed by your screams. There is no
more danger. We will now resume the showing of the movie.
GROSS: That's Vincent Price in a scene from "The Tingler," directed by
William Castle. Castle's low-budget shock and hype made him a hero to
screenwriter and director John Waters. Waters has become one of the icons of
the independent film world. This Saturday, for the fourth time, he will host
its version of the Academy Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, produced and
televised by The Independent Film Channel.
Waters started his own filmmaking career setting new lows in bad taste, most
notably with the cult classic, "Pink Flamingos." His film, "Hairspray," which
was adapted into the hit Broadway musical, was an affectionate and funny
homage to the teen dance show he used to watch in Baltimore. His next movie,
"A Dirty Shame," is scheduled for release later this year.
In the meantime, he has an exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in
New York of the photographic series he began in the early '90s. A companion
book, called "Change of Life," has just been published. Many of--photographs
in the book and exhibition are tributes to Waters' favorite films, which, not
surprisingly, include many old exploitation films and tawdry melodramas. I
asked him to describe the photographic series in the exhibition.
Mr. JOHN WATERS (Screenwriter/Director): Basically, it's sort of like a
story board, if you know what that is, what you do when you're planning a
shot, when you do a drawing of the action of each shot in a row, where you
sort of read it left to right, and all the photographs--many of them were
taken off the TV screen, in the dark, not with digital cameras, not with
freeze-frame, just like a crazed fan in the dark with a camera. And then I
take images either from my own movies, or others, many other movies, and put
them in order as if I'm writing a new movie with those images.
GROSS: How did you start doing this?
Mr. WATERS: I started doing it because I wanted a still from one of my own
movies that I didn't have. I wanted this shot in "Multiple Maniacs" where
right after Divine is attacked and raped by a female impersonator, and one
second later, the Infant of Prague, a Catholic saint, very popular in
Baltimore, appears to him, and I wanted a shot of that and I didn't have it.
So then I realized I wanted stills from other movies, ones that they would
never release, like in a movie called "Susan Slade," a movie I liked very
much, a Troy Donahue-Connie Stevens kind of teen shocker that I saw when I was
12, and I remember the one scene, her illegitimate baby catches on fire in it,
and I thought, `Oh, my God!' I was so shocked. So I wanted a still of that,
even though, of course, they would never do it. So I started making stills of
movies that would never, ever be done, and that led to making my own little
movies out of many tiny parts of other people's movies, sometimes a close-up
of a frame of a movie.
GROSS: Now you also have a photographic sequence of stills from the movie
"Peyton Place." Would you describe how you chose the stills from the film?
Mr. WATERS: Well, "Peyton Place" was the first dirty book I ever read. I
love Grace Metalious. She's an author...
GROSS: How dirty was it? I've never read the book.
Mr. WATERS: `The V of Betty's crotch.'
GROSS: Uh-huh, OK.
Mr. WATERS: About that dirty. But in 1956, that was pretty dirty, and oh,
it's a great--you ought to read "Peyton Place."
Mr. WATERS: There's many sequels to it. It opens up, `Indian Summer is like
a woman.' That's the first line. But Grace Metalious, you know, has that
famous author shot of her in the lumber jacket and the dirty pony tail,
sitting at the typewriter, and I was so obsessed, I even went to her grave. I
went in her house where she wrote the book.
But "Peyton Place" itself, when the book came out, I remember the ad campaign
as `How did they make a movie out of "Peyton Place?"' or something like that.
But whenever they got to a sexual scene, they would cut to a cutaway shot of
symbolism, like if someone was frigid, they'd have a frozen lake, or if
somebody was getting turned on, they'd show a blossom in spring. So it was
all corny nature shots, and it looks like bad National Geographic shots, but
actually, it's dirty shots. It's what they couldn't show then. So I tried to
concentrate on what was thought of as sexy then and to show today how
ludicrous but maybe even sexier if you don't see it, because we're so used to
seeing everything today.
GROSS: That's really funny. And you also have a series of stills of Dorothy
Malone, who starred in the TV series, "Peyton Place," with her collar turned
up. What is it about her collar that you find so absorbing?
Mr. WATERS: Well, I like to do a star's career, their biography, by a tiny
detail in their life. I did one called "Grace Kelly's Elbows," where
basically I noticed she had the most beautiful elbows, so I just took
photographs of her elbows, like an elbow stalker. But Dorothy Malone always
seemed to have her collar up. It was her signature in all the movies, so I
started photographing just her collar. Now I really hated it when she was in
a period movie, because period costumes, she couldn't wear her collar up.
And I finally met Dorothy Malone, and I had dinner with her and she didn't
have her collar up, and I was so disappointed, and I tried to tell her about
the series, and she just looked at me like I was crazy and turned her collar
But I think you can find any star and zero in on the one tiny thing you like
about them best, and then watch the movie only looking at her collar. It
makes the movie so different.
GROSS: When you were growing up and you started to watch films passionately,
who were your first favorite movie stars?
Mr. WATERS: My first favorite movie stars, hmm. I guess Elvis Presley. You
know, I liked directors when I was young. I liked William Castle. I liked
Kroger Babb, the one that they told us we'd go to hell if we saw his movies.
GROSS: Who's that?
Mr. WATERS: Where he did "Mom and Dad." He showed the birth of a baby for
the first time. And he was a carny. He later even made a movie called "One
Too Many," that he only showed at AA meetings, which I really liked. That's a
new kind of exploitation that I'm all for. I'm a carny, too, basically.
GROSS: What are the movies that you used to watch over and over again as a
kid on TV, or going to the movies time and time again to see it?
Mr. WATERS: Yes. Certainly "The Tingler," all the William Castle movies,
and I did a piece in the show that shows William Castle's face--no, it shows
William Castle's face, and then it has Alfred Hitchcock next to him, because
everybody accused William Castle, who was king of the gimmicks in his films,
of ripping off Alfred Hitchcock, but in a way, it was the other way around,
because Alfred Hitchcock, people forget, when "Psycho" came out, the big ad
campaign was that no one can enter the theater once the feature has begun,
which was unheard of at the time. We forget people used to go to the movies
at any time and just stay through to the next part of the film. They never
cleared the theater. So there was a clock in every box office so you'd know,
and it was a big, big gimmick. So in a way, he was king of the gimmicks also,
and he copied William Castle, who, in a way, did it first.
So I've always, in a way, liked the second-rate better. I mean, William
Castle I liked more than Alfred Hitchcock, Jayne Mansfield I liked more than
Marilyn Monroe. Sal Mineo, I liked him really a lot, though. I didn't feel
he was inferior, but he was maybe--I liked Sal Mineo even more than James
Dean. I always liked the wrong person. I always rooted for the wrong person,
and I always thought that the people that other people thought were ugly were
better-looking. That's always been my life, and my career has kind of been
based on that.
GROSS: I know you really like the carny pitch for a movie, like the William
Castle come-on, but were there movies...
Mr. WATERS: Right.
GROSS: ...that you felt really cheated by because they promised like sin and
sex and sleaze, and they didn't deliver?
Mr. WATERS: I never feel cheated when I go to the movies. Even if I hate
it, it's an experience, it's a cinematic experience, and that's why I started
taking these pictures. There's no such thing as a bad movie if you go to a
movie watching detail only. If you really hate the movie, just look at the
lamps in it and pretend the movie is about lamps, and then never is it boring.
It's always exciting and it's always surprising. You can even see continuity
mistakes within the lamps.
GROSS: You also have a series called "Inga" that are--this is stills from a
Swedish, quote, "art" film?
Mr. WATERS: Well, art meant dirty when I was young, and that's the way it
should stay. "Inga" was one of the--Sweden--you know, the Bergman movies,
when they first came out in Baltimore were sold as sex films because they had
a little bit of nudity in them, and Sweden became a code word for dirty.
Still the dirty book shop in Baltimore is called the Sweden Book Shop. I'm
not making this up. So I loved the idea. I tried to put "Inga" in, but I
just showed the back of somebody. I showed no nudity. I showed the one shot
in a sex film that you would never reproduce, that would never become a still,
is the sexy girl walking away from you out of focus, a shot that no one would
All the stills in this show are ones that would never be produced. I did a
whole series called "Marks" where I just took photographs of the floor when I
was making my movie "Pecker," of the tape marks that the crew puts down that
the actors have to hit to stay in focus, and that's the only thing in the
shot. Everything that would be in a movie is gone, the actors, the costumes,
the props and all that's left is the one thing you can't show in a movie
GROSS: Since a few of the shots in your book allude to, you know, erotic
movies or porn movies, I'm wondering how you discovered pornography as a kid?
Mr. WATERS: Gee, how did I discover porn as a kid? "Peyton Place" was the
first dirty book I had ever read, and I had heard about it, certainly.
"Mandingo" was another one, and that's like kind of a great movie. And
Playboy; I mean, Playboy was the first thing that you could ever really see.
Now gay porn was a very, very different thing. There was a store called
Sherman's downtown that had those magazines like Vim & Vigor, and they were
supposedly muscle-man magazines, but it was kind of a coded thing. It was the
first gay magazines I ever saw.
GROSS: Did your father have pornographic books or men's magazines around that
you could sneak peeks at?
Mr. WATERS: No, he didn't. But he did have "Peyton Place" and I did read
his copy of "Peyton Place."
GROSS: Did he read that because that was the kind of book he liked, or
because that was the only kind of like legitimate erotic literature he could
pretty much find?
Mr. WATERS: You know, I don't know that. You'd have to ask my father that,
and I doubt he'd answer, but everyone had "Peyton Place." My grandfather had
"Peyton Place." "Peyton Place" was the biggest number-one best-seller for
weeks and weeks and weeks, and it led to Jackie Susann, it led to Jackie
Collins, it led to that entire genre of work. But she did it first, and she
did it best and she had such great titles. Another one of her books was "The
Tight White Collar," about a priest. That's such a good title.
But she didn't handle success so well. I mean, she divorced her husband, she
moved to the Plaza Hotel and she drank too much and died, basically, so that's
not the best success story. But the book was so famous that when I went back
to New Hampshire, or where she wrote the book, they still talk mean about her
there in the town, and the library only had one tattered copy. But I did go
to her grave, and Grace has been a great heroine of mine, and actually
Roseanne Barr should play her in the movie, because she could really play her
GROSS: What was her grave site like?
Mr. WATERS: Ostentatious, and much larger than any of the other gravestones
there, and people leave liquor bottles near it sometimes.
GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director John Waters. The exhibition of
his photographs is at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director John Waters. His new museum
exhibition and companion book are called "Change of Life," and they collect
the photographs of movies that he's taken off his TV screen.
When you started finding pornography, straight pornography, what was it like
reading or seeing photos that were fetishizing women's bodies when women's
bodies weren't what it was about for you?
Mr. WATERS: Well, when I looked at those pictures, I always looked at it in
a way to see how far it could go, the same way I went to heterosexual
sexploitation movies all the time that had no male nudity, to see how far it
could go. I was interested in how the taboos would fall, how it started with
nudist camp movies, were the first things I saw, and you would see bare
breasts on women and sometimes asses, but--once in a while a male ass--but
they had to be playing volleyball, so you know, that was not so erotic to me.
And it's hard to imagine even on your horniest night a sexy volleyball
fantasy, a naked volleyball fantasy. I've never had a night where I'm that
horny, let's put it that way. So I just kept watching them to see how far it
could go. Each time something crumbled, no matter--I guess certainly in the
heterosexual world where sexual imagery, when that began to crumble, you knew
that the homosexual imagery was not far behind. But the heterosexual had to
GROSS: How did you get to see the nudist camp movies? And these were movies
that ostensibly were supposed to be documentaries about healthy alternative
lifestyles and so on.
Mr. WATERS: Yes.
GROSS: But they weren't really about the nudity. Where did they play? Where
did you get to see them?
Mr. WATERS: I can tell you right where one of my favorite theaters, the Rex
Movie Theatre in Baltimore, which is now a church. Yet, when I was young, it
started out--and I saw "The Wizard of Oz" there, but it later became a nudie
movie theater, where I not only saw nudist camp movies, I saw the early Russ
Meyer movies, I saw the ghoulies and the roughies, and it was one man who
owned it who fought the censorship board. We had the Maryland censorship
board, and censorship has always been something I've fought and I even have a
piece in the show where a curtain goes over the imagery for censorship, in
case your parents are coming over, but you can close it. So I've always dealt
with censorship. So the Rex Theater was where I got a lot of my film
education in Baltimore.
GROSS: Did you ever feel guilty for your tastes though--or about violating
all the standards of decency?
Mr. WATERS: No, I never felt guilty. I always knew--I told this story
before. But, when I was young, I heard my parents talking about me--you know
how you listen at the top of the steps--and my mom said, `Well, he's just an
odd duck.' And I thought, `Well, that's it,' you know, so I didn't really ever
care that the other kids weren't interested in what I was in, because as
long--I had a very rich fantasy life, and my parents allowed that. I had a
little stage, even, as a kid. My parents bought me a reel-to-reel tape
recorder so I could tape songs. I was the first downloader ever, because I,
with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, taped songs off the radio. But then--so I
could sing them all and lip-sync them basically.
So I always--I was the puppeteer as a kid. I had a job. I had a career when
I was 12 years old, as a puppeteer. So I always had an outlet for this, that
was encouraged, even though the work I was doing was probably, to this day,
horrifying my parents. It was not exactly the work that they wished I was
doing, but I guess they figured it was this or nothing, maybe, or prison. But
they were very supportive, which was very encouraging. And I always say that.
If you've got a kid that doesn't fit in, is rebelling in any way, encourage
it. If your daughter comes home and she's just had her entire face tattooed,
what can you do? Maybe she'll open a tattoo parlor that will do well. That's
all you can do. You've got to deal with what you got.
GROSS: Since you didn't feel guilty about watching things and being
obsessively interested in things that weren't supposed to be healthy, did you
go the other direction, figure, well, I might as well play it up to the hilt
and, you know, take on the pose of the pervert?
Mr. WATERS: Oh, I never thought of it that way. I took on--I had to create a
persona for myself in the beginning when we made these movies because I didn't
have any advertising. No one knew who was what. We had to think of a way to
publicize the movies. And Divine and I did that sort of as--I was the
director, and he was the insane movie star. And certainly I dressed weirdly,
but it was always confusing. I never--my audience in the beginning was never
gay or straight; it was gay people that didn't like other gay people. It was
hippies that didn't like hippies. It was always the outsider of another
outsider group. That's what my audience began with.
And certainly I encourage that, but it seemed to work because, yes, in the
beginning underground movies, when I made them--and three of them are showing
at the New Museum show--they've never been shown ever except the one time I
made them in 1964, 1966 and 1967. But they were made, in a way, to offend the
very people who would come there in a humorous way, though, always, by doing
the whole Kennedy assassination, which we did, and Divine plays Jackie
Kennedy, and it was shot in 1965 and came out in '66. Believe me, that didn't
go over very well at the time. But at the same time, it was a liberal taboo.
I mean, I liked Kennedy. I loved Jacqueline Kennedy--or Jacqueline
(pronounced jack-leen) Kennedy, how she pronounced it. So I was always making
fun of things that I really, really liked and respected.
GROSS: Why don't you describe what you did in your version of the Kennedy
assassination with Divine in the role of Jackie Kennedy?
Mr. WATERS: Well, this was in a movie called "Eat Your Makeup," and it's
about people that kidnap models and force them to eat their makeup and model
themselves to death. And Divine was not the star of it. He was a supporting
player in it. And there's a scene where Divine is in drag, just weird drag,
but with no wig on because we were trying to even offend, I guess, drag queens
at the time by not taking it seriously. And he starts looking through all
these Jacqueline Kennedy magazines--there were many out at the time, fan
magazines. And he starts to imagine himself as Jacqueline Kennedy in the
And we have the whole thing, the cavalcade, I mean, a pitiful version. But we
have the chauffeur, we have all the people that were in the car, we have
Secret Service agents. And Divine is waving to the crowds. There are no
crowds; it was filmed on my parents' street in Lutherville, Maryland, Morris
Avenue. And then it is scored toward classical music, where there's one note
that is the gunshot. And then Divine crawls over the trunk of the car with
the blood and everything, and it's quite graphic. But it was filmed so
primitively--that's a nice way to say badly: black and white, 16mm, grainy,
overexposed--that when I took pictures of it 25, 30 years later, it began to
look like the real Zapruder film, one of the most famous 8mm movies ever.
So I did a photo piece based on that, pictures of something I did a long time
ago. And it goes around a corner of the wall because I always joke that I'm
carny. Well, I believe in the art world that the frame is the hype. The
frame is the advertising campaign. So to me it was too big for one wall, and
it has to go around the wall.
GROSS: (Laughs) And for any of our listeners who are unfamiliar with Divine,
who in this film that you're referring to played Jackie Kennedy, Divine was,
you know, a very heavy man who usually played a woman in your movies and
patterned himself in some of those roles on Elizabeth Taylor.
Mr. WATERS: Yeah.
GROSS: And what did you think of real drag queens at the time?
Mr. WATERS: Well, they were square at the time. You know, I think Divine
helped make drag queens a lot hipper. They all wanted to be Bess Myerson.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WATERS: So they were really square. They weren't hip ever. Now all
drag queens are hip. I mean, you see them at Wigstock, and they're all really
funny and they have a sense of humor, and they have funny names and
everything. But then, they were very, very serious. I remember in
Philadelphia, there's a great movie called "The Queen" about a drag beauty
contest in Philadelphia, "I Know Where You Live." And Harlow was the winner
and a very, very famous drag queen. But we used Elizabeth Coffey who was, at
the time, much more ludicrous and much more funny and had a sense of humor
about it and used being a drag queen as being a comedy terrorist, which I
think was much more useful in film than just a man trying to be a pretty
GROSS: John Waters' exhibition of photographs is at The New Museum of
Contemporary Art in New York. He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: It's Madison time. Hit it.
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with John Waters. We're
listening to a record on the soundtrack of his film "Hairspray." And David
Edelstein reviews Mel Gibson's new film "The Passion of the Christ."
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: I want you to go two up and two back, with a big, strong
turn and back to the max. Hit it. You're lookin' good. Now when I say `hit
it,' I want you to go two up and two back, double cross, come out of it with
the right foot in. Hit it!
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: I said--now when I say `hit it,' I want the big, strong
M, erase it and back to the Madison. Hit it! Walk on. You're lookin' good.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: Now then when I say `hit it,' it'll be tea time. Hit it!
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with screenwriter and
director John Waters. His movies include "Pink Flamingos," "Polyester,"
"Hairspray" and "Pecker." This Saturday, he'll host the Independent Spirit
Awards, produced and televised by The Independent Film Channel. Waters has an
exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York featuring
photographs of movies that he's taken off his TV screen. The exhibition and
companion book are called "John Waters: Change of Life." They actually
include more than the photos he's taken.
You also have in your show stills from your collection, publicity shots and
things, shots you didn't take yourself but that you really love for one reason
Mr. WATERS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: One of them is a real cheesecake photo of Jayne Mansfield. Describe
the pose that she's in.
Mr. WATERS: I'm trying to think--I do have a piece in the show called
"Jayne," which is Jayne Mansfield and a man's eyeglasses cracking when he
looks at her, which I love that, you know. And we--because Divine was my
Jayne Mansfield. We tried to put Godzilla and Jayne Mansfield together to
come up with Divine. But Jayne had that great scene in "The Girl Can't Help
It" where she's walking down the street and the iceman is unloading a big
block of ice and all the ice melts when he looks at her. So I love that, you
know. And I actually was with Divine before when Divine was walking down the
street and caused a car accident from people gawking and smashed right into
another car. I've seen that happen.
GROSS: You know, early in your career you said--and this is quoted in the
catalog for your show--that your work is really about the "sadness normal
people feel because they're not involved in show business." I love that.
Mr. WATERS: Well, somebody said that was the snottiest thing I've ever said.
I didn't mean it to be snotty, but I believe that, that most everybody
secretly imagines themselves in show business and every day on their way to
work they're a little bit depressed because they're not.
GROSS: Well, do you think that explains the obsession with celebrity in
Mr. WATERS: It explains why people are on Prozac. It explains...
GROSS: Well, there's more reasons than that.
Mr. WATERS: It explains why now if you go to a psychiatrist, they don't talk,
they offer you pills. I believe in the talking cure, and if they did more of
the talking cure, they would find out that it's all one reason people are sad,
their nothingness in America.
GROSS: I guess you really needed to be famous.
Mr. WATERS: Well, I certainly can't complain about it. I hate to hear people
that are in show business that complain about any of that kind of thing.
Well, what in Earth did you pick that field to go in for if you didn't want
people to recognize you? I've always said that show business is filled with
the most insecure people of all, that we base a life on having to get approval
of strangers from everything we do over and over and over on each project.
GROSS: You know, in your book, there are lots of stills of movies and lots of
stills from movies that were transgressive in their time or, you know,
violating some taboo in some small way. You also have two...
Mr. WATERS: Or failed, or just failed. Yeah.
GROSS: Or failed, yeah. But you also have a couple of photos of Clarabell,
the clown from Howdy Doody, who's not known as the most--but, OK, next...
Mr. WATERS: Clarabell.
Mr. WATERS: He was psychotic. Look at him. It was the first thing--and I
was on the "Howdy Doody Show." My parents took me; I was on the Peanut
Gallery at NBC Studios. Clarabell was a psychotic clown who never spoke, who
honked a horn and shot you in the face with seltzer water. And, you know,
Captain Kangaroo and Clarabell were the same person. Imagine that life.
That's almost like the holy trinity. All he needed to be was Mr. Rogers. He
had gone to the next generation, he could have been all three things. I think
Clarabell was frightening in the best sense of the word. It was the first
psychotic person I remember from my childhood, his character.
GROSS: Did Bob Keeshan pay Clarabell?
Mr. WATERS: Yes.
GROSS: Oh, if I knew that, I'd forgotten it.
Mr. WATERS: There was a couple Clarabells, yes. He was the first Clarabell.
GROSS: Huh. So you really saw Clarabell as this psychotic character?
Mr. WATERS: Well, to me, he was, but I loved him. I loved Flub-a-Dub; was my
first fashion influence, too. Flub-a-Dub was very cum du garcon(ph), if you
look at his outfits.
GROSS: I'm sure Flub-a-Dub felt the same way.
Mr. WATERS: Well, thank you. When he saw me as a child watching him lovingly
in the Peanut Gallery.
GROSS: So was that your first brush with real show business, being in the
Peanut Gallery of the "Howdy Doody Show"?
Mr. WATERS: Yeah. And I saw it was fake. It was all a lie. And rather than
be the disillusioned child, I was in on the secret, and I wanted to stay in on
GROSS: So you did puppet shows as a kid?
Mr. WATERS: Yeah. For a long time.
GROSS: What kind of characters?
Mr. WATERS: Well, hand puppets, and I did "Cinderella," and then later Punch
& Judy. But at the end I would come out from behind the stage, which is like
breaking the third rule of puppetry, and say to the kids, you know, `Stick out
your hand and the dragon puppet will bite it for good luck.' Three-fourths of
the kids cheered and they loved it and would go crazy. The rest of them had
nervous breakdowns and started sobbing. And this is basically what I still
GROSS: When you did your puppet version of "Cinderella," Cinderella wasn't
like a drag queen or anything, right?
Mr. WATERS: No, it's hard to have drag queen puppets.
Mr. WATERS: No, Cinderella was drab. It's the dullest part in the play. I
mean, I love the stepsisters. I probably hovered on the scene too long when
they rip her clothes off when she's all dressed for the ball. I always loved
that scene. I even think I did that scene in "Munder Trasho" later. I always
like the villains. I love the stepmother. I love the wicked witch. I always
like the villains. So in all my movies and in all my photographs really there
is no such thing as a villain. The ingenue is the villain.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Waters, and he has a new
show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. The show is called
"Change of Life," and it features his still photographs from movies rearranged
to tell his version of the story, or at least a new story. There's also a
companion book called "John Waters: Change of Life."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is John Waters, the screenwriter and director, and he has a
new museum show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. It's
called "Change of Life" and it features still photographs that he's taken of
many of his favorite movies. There's also a book of the same name, "Change of
In the catalog, you know, in the book that is a companion to your museum show,
you're quoted as saying, "I don't think there's anything that's trash anymore.
The golden age of trash has long been over because irony ruined it."
Mr. WATERS: Yeah.
GROSS: How did irony ruin trash?
Mr. WATERS: Because good exploitation never was so bad it was good. It was
not made for the intelligentsia. It was not made to be ironic. It was not
made to be so bad it was good. I always wish my films could play at drive-ins
and exploitation houses, but they never did because of irony. Those movies
were made to be sexy for real or to be violent for real. They were never
meant to mean something else or to be so bad they were good. So now everybody
has irony. I don't think you can make--even horror films now are ironic.
There is no such thing left as true sexploitation or exploitation because
irony has ruined it. Everybody's in on the joke now. Everybody's hip.
Everybody has irony. No one takes anything at face value anymore. I'm guilty
of it. I deal in irony like a drug dealer, that everything I do is based on
irony. I'm an irony addict.
GROSS: Something else that you've said that's quoted in the catalog that I
want to mention--now this is in reaction to a quote from the Warhol star
Brigid Berlin. She said, `How can you be bad in your 50s?' And you said in
response to that, `Taking drugs when you're young can be mind-expanding if it
doesn't kill you, but if you're still doing it in mid-career, it's called
addiction. Being insane when you're young is sexy; insane at 50 is pitiful.
I'm glad I got to be bad when I was young.'
Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Mr. WATERS: The only way you can be bad later in life is to do it through
your work, I mean, through your films, your artwork, your photographs. Then
you can be bad. I have some bad pieces in my show. There's a piece called,
well, "Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot." And that's certainly being bad.
But at the same time, what I said there is true. It's only fun if you're
beginning to be a big rebel. I think if you haven't learned something and
refined it and kept going with it and using humor and hopefully went with it,
being shocking's easy. That's not hard. But being shocking in a way that
makes you laugh and maybe makes you look at something in a different way and
change how you see it is much harder. And I think that is sort of your duty,
if you're using humor as you continue on in your career.
GROSS: Can I ask you what your impressions of aging are so far?
You're--What?--in your 50s now?
Mr. WATERS: Yes, 57.
GROSS: Yeah. So, you know, you were so long known as like the young
subversive filmmaker. And now you've kind of come into a different identity
which is more like the mentor and the icon for a lot of independent
Mr. WATERS: A filth elder.
GROSS: Oh, couldn't have put it better myself.
Mr. WATERS: I'm fine. I still feel like I'm 12 years old, basically. When I
do video signings and I go to colleges a lot and speak, my average age of the
kids today that come see me is like 22. That's the thing I'm the most proud
of. I do have youth spies, people that tell me new groups and stuff. I think
that's important. But I do keep up. I don't think my day was better. I
don't think the old times were better. I think tomorrow's always going to be
more interesting to me. But at the same time I'm still doing what I've always
done, but I've changed with the times. I'm certainly not going to make an
underground movie when we don't have them anymore. I'm not going to make a
midnight movie when we have independent films. I've tried to keep up with how
the films are shown and who they appeal to.
But basically I probably am the happiest I've ever been right now in my life.
I think everything is going very, very well. So it's not like I'm sitting
around wanting to get a face-lift. I mean, I see pictures and I think--God, I
mean, everybody looks in the mirror and, you know, pulls to see what it would
look like. But it doesn't look like that. Even good face-lifts of people I
know, they just look like somebody else. I don't want to look like somebody
else if I'm younger. I would have liked--or they look--like the scary ones
when you go to Los Angeles the first couple days, I'm always like, `Ahh! Nice
to meet you,' because--but they all look like that. It's cubist. They look
like Picasso prints.
GROSS: What about your body? Does your body still feel like a 12-year-old or
are you noticing a difference there?
Mr. WATERS: Well, I was never known for being Mr. America. You know, if I
could go to the gym to have the body of a junkie, I'd go. I'm probably the
only gay man, you know, that's never been to the baths or the gym. I like
skinny, you know? I think skinny looks good.
GROSS: I was thinking of, like, aches and pains of aging and how...
Mr. WATERS: Oh, I thought you were talking about the body meaning, like, how
GROSS: The look. Well...
Mr. WATERS: Yeah, yeah. Well, let's just say I haven't been to a lot of nude
beaches lately although if you go to nude beaches, everyone's ugly. Have you
ever been to a nude beach befo...
GROSS: I have not.
Mr. WATERS: ...the ugliest people. I'm telling you, please, put your clothes
on. It's never the cute ones. It's all the ugliest people that are nude and
I feel like calling the police when I go to a nude beach 'cause no one's cute.
I'm for nudity if you're cute.
GROSS: Now what about the aches and pains of aging? Does that get in your
way? Do you obsess on that at all?
Mr. WATERS: I don't have that many aches and pains. I walk a lot. I'm--no,
I don't have--I go to Provincetown in the summer where I ride my bike, I go
swimming every day. I don't have that many aches and pains, knock on wood.
GROSS: Good. Now you're going to be hosting the Independent Spirit Awards
which is the Independent Film Awards put on by The Independent Film Channel.
That's great. My guess is, though, that you probably--I don't mean to project
thoughts on you, but let's face it, like with all genres, there's a lot of
independent films that are great and a lot of independent films that are
Mr. WATERS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...like with everything, right?
Mr. WATERS: Yeah.
GROSS: So what are your feelings now about the independent film world and the
direction that it's heading? I mean, some people say independent films are
becoming more and more like other films.
Mr. WATERS: Well, I believe still, though, the best are the kids that have to
think of a way to get on the generation before theirs' nerves with whatever
movie they make. "Blair Witch" was the last one that came out of nowhere that
really did do that. It was almost like an underground movie. The difference
was it grossed more than the Hollywood movies, and that scared the whole
Hollywood movie business a lot and they all tried to repeat that which, of
course, they never could because when these movies come along that are as
original as that, you can never copy them or repeat them.
I think there's some really, really good films nominated this year. I think
you look at "American Splendor," a lot of the ones that--even "Monster," you
know? Have you seen "Monster"?
GROSS: I did.
Mr. WATERS: Well, it's a female-female impersonator movie. I think lesbian
killers should all come and dress like her and yell out the dialogue like
"Rocky Horror Movie Picture Show." It's the kind of movie I go for. Let's
face it. You know, there's a documentary about Aileen Wuornos out now that's
really good, too, part two of it actually. I followed Aileen Wuornos', if you
could call it, career for a long time. She was--you know, I'm against the
death penalty. I'm very against the death penalty. And I think it was--that
she was insane at the time. I'm very much against the death penalty 'cause
I'm afraid I might get it. You never know. I told them in prison. Nobody
that's on death row thought they were going to get it either. I mean, we have
GROSS: You have a movie coming out in the fall.
Mr. WATERS: Yup, I do. It's called "A Dirty Shame," and it stars Tracey
Ullman and Johnny Knoxville, with Selma Blair, Chris Isaak. And it's about a
woman that runs a convenient store that has an accidental concussion and turns
into a sex addict, and it's--other sex addicts who have infiltrated her
neighborhood in Baltimore and plan to take it over.
GROSS: And why are you making a film about sex addicts...
Mr. WATERS: Well, I read this...
GROSS: ...like I need to ask?
Mr. WATERS: Well, no. You know, people say to me on the studio, `Oh, is it
about me?' I guess everyone thinks they're a sex addict. I don't actually
even believe in it, to tell you the truth. I read this little thing in a
medical journal how a tiny percentage of head injury sufferers have a carnal
lust they cannot control. So, of course, I exaggerated it into an entire
GROSS: Before we have to end, I want to ask you what you think about the
controversy now over gay marriage and what...
Mr. WATERS: Well, I've always--in my college lecture, I do this joke where I
say basically, `I'm from a generation of gay men where the privilege of being
gay was that we didn't have to get married or have babies.' Now gay people
have more children than Catholics. It's amazing to me. I think people have
the right to be married, certainly for taxes and everything. It's not
something I want to do. I don't want to imitate a fairly corny heterosexual
tradition. I'm not a fan of weddings of any kind. Going to them, I never
have that much fun. I go to Provincetown every summer. Now it's going to be
this Niagara Falls of gay weddings. However, for the people that want to do
it, I'm for it.
Now do I believe it's the most important campaign issue? I do not. I believe
Iraq is more important and I think they're going to turn it into one against
the Democrats. And I think we have to be careful with that. I think
everybody that wants to be married should be able to. The sanctity of
heterosexual marriage when you can get divorced 10 times, when Britney Spears
can get married in one day, I don't believe in that either. So I'm certainly
for the right of it, and I think it should be legal. Personally, I'm not
looking to walk down the aisle. Are you kidding? I would be the last thing I
would ever want to do.
And as far as going in the Army, you know, it's important. I have always been
for an all-lesbian volunteer army and I think we would win any war.
GROSS: John Waters, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. WATERS: Good talking to you, Terry.
GROSS: John Waters' exhibition of photographs is at the New Museum of
Contemporary Art in New York. The companion book is called "John Waters:
Change of Life." Here's a scene from one of the films represented in his
exhibition, "Peyton Place." Lana Turner plays a widow who hasn't been with a
man in many years. Lee Philips is the town's new high-school principal. He's
just kissed her.
(Soundbite of "Peyton Place")
Ms. LANA TURNER: (As Connie) All men are alike. The approach is different,
but the result is always the same. Sooner or later, we get around to this.
Mr. LEE PHILIPS: Now, look, if all I wanted was a woman, I could get one
anyplace, in a bar, in a hotel lobby, on a street corner.
Ms. TURNER: (As Connie) Or in my home.
Mr. PHILIPS: I'm not going to let you make anything dirty out of this.
Ms. TURNER: (As Connie) Then what do you call it?
Mr. PHILIPS: I'm going to tell you a hard truth about yourself. It isn't sex
you're afraid of, you can say yes or no to that. It's love. That's what you
Ms. TURNER: (As Connie) And that's what you're offering me with your hands
all over me.
Mr. PHILIPS: That's only one expression of it backed up by many things.
Ms. TURNER: (As Connie) Well, I haven't asked for any of them.
Mr. PHILIPS: You better understand what you're saying no to. When I take you
in my arms, I'm committing myself to you not just physically but all the way.
That means that I intend to worry about you, to take care of you, to stand in
front of you if there's trouble and that's what I want back from you without
any reservations or shame or embarrassment. Now you're either up to that or
Ms. TURNER: (As Connie) I have my standards and my pride.
Mr. PHILIPS: And not enough, not for you or for anyone else. You need
someone to trust, to love.
Ms. TURNER: (As Connie) No, I don't. I don't. Now just leave me alone.
Mr. PHILIPS: I can do that, too, but I don't want to. Connie, let me help
you. I don't care if you hang back. If it takes time, I'll give it time, all
Ms. TURNER: (As Connie) I can't.
Mr. PHILIPS: The offer's always open.
GROSS: Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews Mel Gibson's "The
Passion of the Christ."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Director Mel Gibson's new film, "The Passion of the Christ," was made with $25
million of the star's own money and shot with English subtitles. It shows the
trial and crucifixion of Jesus in graphic detail. It provoked a firestorm of
criticism even in production for allegedly favoring those Gospels that blame
the crucifixion of Jesus entirely on the Jewish people. Shown to select
church groups over the last several months, the film was finally unveiled for
critics over the last week. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
Mel Gibson had an ingenious idea for promoting his movie, "The Passion of the
Christ," as the film that the Jews don't want you to see. Bad reviews?
They're not going to matter either since Gibson has called his critics the
forces of Satan or, more charitably, the dukes of Satan. Now after Gibson's
pre-emptive blasts, an attack on his "Passion" is going to be interpreted by
some as an attack on their religious beliefs instead of on filmmaking that is
theologically, morally and, by the way, artistically suspect. "The Passion of
the Christ" recounts the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth with
flashbacks to the Last Supper and shots of the little boy Jesus being hugged
by his mother, Mary. This, incidentally, while she watches spikes being
hammered into his hands.
The lashes of the Jewish priesthood soldiers begin about 15 minutes into the
film. By the time Jesus is dragged into the presence of the Roman governor,
Pontius Pilate, his face has already been smashed to a pulp. Pilate, whom
historians identify as a surpassingly cruel ruler responsible for crucifying
tens of thousands to maintain his authority, is portrayed as a sorrowful,
even-tempered man whose wife shows acts of loving kindness towards Mary and
Mary Magdalene. Pilate is shocked by the Jews' brutality and by the
determination of the priest Caiaphas to see this so-called blasphemer
executed. While Pilate wrinkles his forehead, searching his tender
conscience, sundry Jews lean into the camera and hiss or keen through rotted
I know. It sounds like a Monty Python movie. You're thinking there must be
something to "The Passion of the Christ" besides watching a man tortured to
death, right? Actually, no. This is a two-hour and six-minute snuff movie,
`The Jesus Chain Saw Massacre' masquerading as an act of faith. For Gibson,
Jesus is defined not by his teachings in life, by his message of mercy, social
justice and self-abnegation, some of it rooted in the Jewish Torah, some of it
defiantly personal but by the manner of his execution; his execution, that is,
as reported in the Gospel of Matthew, the anti-Semitic tone of which reflects
the tension between Jews and Christians 50 years after the crucifixion when
the church's early proselytizers were trying to convert rather than incite the
Gibson uses every weapon in his arsenal to drive home the agony of those last
12 hours. Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, is lashed to the point where his
entire body is covered in bloody crisscrossing canals, when he rises, amazing
the Roman soldiers. They go for the scourges which rip and puncture his flesh
in slow motion, all while the Romans and the Jews cackle wildly. Forced to
carry his own cross, he falls again and again in slow motion on his battered
body with heavy Dolbyized thugs. It's almost a relief when the spikes are
driven into his hands and feet. At least we know the pain will eventually
What does this exercise in sadomasochism have to do with Christianity? I
don't know. I do know that Gibson is an angry man with a victimization
complex. Look at his work. At the "Mad Max" and "Lethal Weapon" films, at
"Conspiracy Theory" and "The Patriot" in which he's beaten and mangled and his
loved ones murdered. Look at his agonizing martyrdom in "Braveheart" which
ends with its hero yelling `Freedom!' as he's drawn and quartered. Gibson
took the film "Payback" away from its writer-director to make the scenes in
which his character is tortured more explicit. He added shots of his toes
being smashed by a giant hammer. Payback, that's what all his movies are
Gibson has said that he's fascinated that Jesus was whipped and scourged and
mocked and spat on and had spikes driven through his hands and feet and left
to die on the cross and that he didn't think of payback, he thought of
forgiveness, but by wallowing in Jesus' torture and death for two hours, the
director of "The Passion of the Christ" is thinking of anything but. When
Jesus is resurrected, his expression is hard and he moves off screen with the
camera lingering on a hole in his hand that goes all the way through. Mel
Gibson's Jesus reminded me of "The Terminator" heading out to spread the
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for FRESH AIR and the online magazine
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with Bill Evans playing his composition "Sugar Plum" recorded in
(Soundbite of music)
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