“Like Being Alive at My Own Funeral”: John Waters on 50 Years of Filmmaking


“I’d like to thank the Lincoln Center for really making me respectable and filthy at the same time.” And with those words, cult filmmaker, author, raconteur, and living legend John Waters kicked off “50 Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” (“I don’t know the answer to that!,” he joked. “How much of myself can I take?”), the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective of a half-century of perversion, transgression, and general bad behavior. “I’m not gonna get anything better than this,” Waters enthused, at Friday night’s opening event. “What am I gonna get, a Kennedy Center Honor? This is like being alive at my own funeral.”

This is, after all, a filmmaker whose aesthetic is one of grubby surrealism, and there is something decidedly surreal about a venerable cultural institution like Lincoln Center celebrating this particular body of work. And they’re not half-assing it — they’re showing pretty much every thing the man’s ever made, from his best-known features to his obscure short films (there’s even an evening dubbed “Celluliod Atrocity Night,” of films so old and rare that the prints are from Waters’ own collection; the bill is one night only, since they may not make it through the projector intact).

Waters has always treated his films as something of “a family-run business,” with the casts and crews — “the Dreamlanders,” as he dubbed them — comprised of friends and local weirdos from his hometown of Baltimore. And the films (particularly the early, micro-budget ones) often have the feel of home movies, albeit something like the Manson Family home movies. Friday’s opening night selection, 1974’s Female Trouble, is a fine example, gloriously grainy and low-rent, gleefully dispensing with the niceties of conventional narrative and the “well-made film”: the compositions are ugly, the edits are halfhearted, the camera movements are jerky, the focus is questionable, and the locations all seem to have a layer of grime over them. The “style” of these movies is utilitarian at best; they seem thrown together with Scotch Tape, spit, and desperation.

John Waters. Image credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

But there’s no denying their gonzo energy or scuzzy authenticity; these dirty apartments and trailers are lived in, and you can’t help but get into the geek-show spirit of a picture like Female Trouble, which is notable today for its surprisingly prescient satire of shameless fame-mongering (“Who wants to be famous?” demands Divine’s Dawn Davenport, at her climactic performance. “Who wants to die for art?”), as well as for Divine’s fearless, take-no-prisoners performance.

Most notably, though, the film — and much of Waters’ early work — mocks the desire for dull suburban normalcy, “this boredom that threatens us all.” That need is mouthed early on by Dawn’s school antagonists (“I’m trying to get an education so I can get into a good college, it’s not fair!”), and the fear of it is proclaimed by Edith Massey’s “Aunt Ida” (“I worry that you’ll work in an office… have children… celebrate wedding anniversaries”). Yet in the post-movie conversation, moderated by Midnight Movies co-author and longtime Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, Waters dismissed the idea that his films were meant to shock squares.

“No, it was to shock hippies!” he explained. “We were hippies, sort of. We were more Yippies. That’s what I believed in at the time, y’know, revolution, rip off the man. But I was in the fourth line, I didn’t wanna get hit by the cops, I would run.” That’s not the only surprise turnabout; he also spoke on the important subject of pink lawn flamingos, which supplied the title to his most notorious film. “I’m against them now,” he explained. “I’m for them if you’re 75 years old and you have the plaster kind, the original, that you’ve had since the ‘40s? I’m against it if you’re a yuppie with a plastic one on your front lawn to mock blue-collar people.”

J. Hoberman and John Waters. Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

Also on his current hit list: improvisation in film. “I’m in the writers’ guild, I’m against improvisation,” he told Hoberman. “Improvisation is like a facelift: if you notice, it’s bad. And I see a lot of movies today and think, ‘Oh, come on.’ Where they go on for 20 minutes improvising — I know that’s not in the script. I don’t have time, I’ve gotta make a film.”

Alas, he hasn’t been making many films lately — his most recent, A Dirty Shame, came out a full decade ago. Instead, he’s spent his time acting, doing interviews (he’s usually the highlight of any documentary he appears in, and he’s in a lot of them), and writing; his current book, Carsick , is a valentine to hitchhiking. He’s always done it, and always enjoyed those who do it (“My type is the hitchhiker with a birthmark in Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I thought he was kinda cute!”).

And he remains a movie lover, writing up a yearly top ten for Artforum, presenting favorite films at societies and festivals. One of his faves is Boom!, the famously panned Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton epic, which prompted one of the best anecdotes of the night: “I only met Elizabeth Taylor once,” he recalled, “and I told her how much I liked [Boom!], and she said, ‘THAT’S A TERRIBLE MOVIE!’ She thought I was making fun of her! I calmed her down… She looked exactly like Divine. It was at her house. She was serving hot dogs and candy. Just like Divine did.”

“Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” runs through September 14 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.