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Indie Film’s Bad Boy John Waters Talks About His Foray Into the Art World

Indie Film's Bad Boy John Waters Talks About His Foray Into the Art World

Indie Film’s Bad Boy John Waters Talks About His Foray Into the Art World

by Tony Phillips

John Waters’ “Change of Life” show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art” includes his 1995 photograph print series “Zapruder.” Image courtesy of New Museum.

Filmmaker John Waters understood competitive edge at an early age. “I had seen ‘Chelsea Girls,’” the director admits when discussing his own rarely screened film, “Roman Candles” from that same era. “Certainly it’s an insult that they had two screens. So I had three.” The “they” in this instance would be Andy Warhol, who had risen up through the art world’s commercial ranks before establishing a foothold in its loftier fine arts echelon. It was only then that Warhol shifted gears to become the toast of the American Underground with his split-screen trash heroin opus “Chelsea Girls.” Waters started out where Warhol ended up. Fans of his earlier work regard both the box office and Broadway successes of “Hairspray” with suspicion if not outright contempt. It’s as if Waters adopted Warhol’s strategy of moving through the commercial toward the esoteric and is trying to do the opposite, backwards and in heels and all the while piling on more.

In comparing the burgeoning scene of Warhol’s legendary Factory to his own native Baltimore on the set of “Roman Candles,” Waters laughs, “We were trying to be depraved, but it was hard to be depraved in Loserville, Maryland, at my parent’s house.” Long before he picked up a camera though, Waters embraced “the power to make regular people angry through contemporary art. It was a great comfort to me.” At age 10 he discovered a Miro print he purchased at the Baltimore Art Museum’s gift shop made his friends uneasy. “I realized that art could be yet another thing I could use against society,” the director jokes. As for the film itself, Waters describes “Roman Candles” as “really juvenile.” He explains, “It’s really just three 8mm movies shown side-to-side. Of course, now it’s on DVD. You see Divine in it, but Divine was not my real star then. Maelcum Soul was and she was an artist model and very much a bohemian. She also lived in New York and Baltimore. I still lived with my parents and it’s shot on my their front lawn or in my bedroom at my parents’ house. There’s no narrative at all, it’s just random footage.”

Yet “Roman Candles,” along with Waters’ debut “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket” and third film “Eat Your Makeup” are all enjoying a resurrection of sorts. However, don’t look for midnight screenings or double bills with more popular Waters’ fare. These films will be receiving the typical art-world video treatment: a darkened side gallery where they’ll play on a continuous loop. Waters’ Change of Life show, featuring his photographic works, no-budget early films, and ephemera, is now on at the New Museum in Soho, running through April 15. [For information, visit] So if you want to see a teenage Divine in a pillbox hat and gore-splattered flannel doubling as pink wool, comfortable shoes are in order, as you’ll have to stand. Still, you’ll be more comfortable than Waters’ suburban neighbors, who “were kind of horrified one Sunday morning to look out and see the Kennedy assassination with Divine hauling ass over the trunk of he car.” Or the film festival that accepted the film and then shut it down in the middle of its only screening. “They said it was pernicious and called the IRS so I couldn’t charge admission in the church where we were showing it,” Waters beams. But it’s hard to tell if it’s because after more than a decade in the darkroom his photographic work is finally receiving its first major museum show or he’s just remembering his own “badly filmed Kennedy montage that was shot only two years after it actually happened.”

After more than 40-years as a maverick of the American Underground Cinema, Waters is finally ready for some close-ups. And who can blame him for bringing along his homemade Zapruder film. He’s even happy to trump the Warhol comparison, reminding me that “Richard Prince re-photographed pictures.” Nam June Pak, Cindy Sherman, Robert Rauschenberg, Sam Taylor-Wood; the contemporary scene is littered with artists exploring the film still, but to Waters it’s the more the merrier. His show, entitled “Change of Life” at Soho’s New Museum, legitimizes photographic work that an accompanying catalog essay by Marvin Heffernan surprisingly refers to as “demure.” Water’s mentions his photograph “Grace Kelly’s Elbows” to explicate, but then mentions a piece even he considered so shocking he outfitted it with its own red velvet curtain which could be opened and closed. “I wouldn’t call ‘Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot’ demure,” Waters says, “But you could close that curtain when your parents come over and they wouldn’t be mad.” He takes a beat to reflect on his own parents, who famously financed his early films and were paid back with interest. “Mine were still mad,” Waters laughs.

When you consider all the indelible images he’s generated over the course of his career — delivering highs like his greatest discovery Divine aiming a gun at her audience screaming “Who wants to die for art?” to even the occasional low (Kathleen Turner, you know who you are) — it makes perfect sense that Waters would take to the gallery. Over the course of his prolific career he has produced art at the dizzying speed of 24-frames per second. Even his salon stacking contemporaries like Nan Goldin and Larry Clark would kill for that kind of output. Of course, it doesn’t hurt his transition to photographer that most of the show is on loan from the likes of photographers like Goldin and Clark. “It’s always the most flattering when an artist buys the work, “Waters says, “To me, there is no better collector than a fellow artist. I own a Larry Clark, I own a Nan Goldin. I bought their work and they bought mine, it’s a great compliment.” Indeed it’s his penchant for collecting that landed him in the gallery in the first place. A Cy Twombly series circles his dining room and a Gregory Greene bomb factory is installed in the attic, while a rubble piece is now in storage because Waters spent more time fretting that someone would step on it or the cleaning lady would throw it out than admiring it. “Cleaning people are the enemy,” he jokes.

All this collecting had Waters making the rounds on the New York gallery scene long before contemplating his own art. There’s an insider’s thrill to the art world Waters captured in his film “Pecker” and delights to it even now. “Did you know that most art isn’t sold at openings,” he asks, “It’s sold later. It’s like a hunt. It takes place in what they call the killing room. That’s the word you’re not supposed to say out loud, but that’s the back room at an art gallery. When they take me back there I always say, ‘Oh nice killing room’ and they look at me in horror because you’re not supposed to say that, but they know what I mean. For his own New York gallery, Waters simply identified the place he liked best — American Fine Art — and kept current with their shows. His ingenuity suggests that if gallery owners culled solo shows from drugstore counters, he’d have been there too, having a Coke. When AFA’s late Colin De Land got around to asking Waters if he’d ever tried his hand at painting, he was ready. “By then I had been doing it for a couple of years and had sent stuff out to France,” Waters remembers, “I had a body of work done. I don’t know if I would have eventually sought out having a show, but luckily it just happened before I had to start taking my slides around.”

Waters’ process, which he calls “marring the perfect moment,” is no less ingenious. He received a request for a specific film still of Divine from 1970’s “Multiple Maniacs.” After discovering there was no photograph capturing Divine’s face in this “moment between rape and miraculous intervention,” he decided to make one himself. With his point-and-shoot aimed at the television, Waters rolled the film. Thousands of shots later, 1992’s “Divine in Ecstasy” emerged from this DIY red-hot camera session and a star was reborn. “I use a Nikon,” Waters boasts, “I don’t do digital.” And for a moment, the 57-year-old evinces the youthful bad-ass of Pecker. “I’m a fan of the dark,” Waters says. Indeed, shooting at a large screen television in his home in the dark has produced mixed results. “Sometimes I miss and you can see part of the television in the early work, which I like. There are a certain amount of mistakes because of jiggling and you can never get the exact picture exactly the same. Sometimes a piece of light — anything — can change it. There is some chance involved which I also like.”

And forget editing software, which would make his task not only more precise, but less Herculean. Waters won’t even freeze frame to get his shot. “If I want it, I have to rewind, rewind, rewind.” To Waters, it all adds up to the “imperfect moment.” The work is as obsession as it sounds, but who would expect less? When not dealing directly in filmic ephemera — Waters has shot everything from trailer leads to actor’s marks — the work still stays celebrity-based. Witness descriptive titles like “Liz Taylor’s Hands, Hair and Feet,” “Movie Star Jesus,” “Ann-Margret,” and “Dorothy Malone’s Collar.” Waters isn’t employing metaphor, he’s describing exactly what’s shown. He’s much too utilitarian to be coy. Even “Seven Marys” is practical, stacking six stills of various movie star Madonnas horizontally butted by Paul Lynde. But is it gay art? “I’ve been lucky,” Waters says, “I always said I was gay therefore it was never a big deal that I was gay. It was never news, certainly. I was never pigeon-holed as a gay artist. And it is pigeon-holing. My work isn’t about only homosexuality.”

“It’s conceptual art,” Waters explains, “I think up the pieces before I do them. And then it’s a snipe hunt. I have to find the images. If I’m doing drunk DWI, I try to find every picture of a celebrity drinking and driving.” And like most directors, Waters insists the real work begins in the editing room. “Somewhere on my floor I line the pictures out in different orders and sometimes things don’t work, but I keep the pictures.” Waters, a notorious filer — relying on both filing cards and folders — has unlimited material at his fingertips. “I can pick pictures from six different files and think up a new movie. It’s almost like doing a rewrite on a script in Hollywood or punching it up, as they say.”

But that’s as close as he’ll let the wolf come to his door. Though it’s been suggested that the advent of his photography coincided with the loss of his muse Divine coupled with an increased reliance on legitimate actresses (Kathleen Turner, you know who you are). There’s also been a longer wait for greenlights as projects become larger scale, putting that artistic fix farther off. The photography, then, becomes a quick and dirty way to get from point a to point b. Whatever the artistic process releases in Waters is replicated many more times with the photographic work. It’s the artistic equivalent to sitting in a dark room flicking a lighter. Or your Nikon, for that matter. The only problem with this theory is Waters thinks it’s bunk. First of all, he rejects the notion of his films mainstreaming. “My last film was about a group of terrorists,” Waters says proudly. “I think when people talk about my work mainstreaming what they really mean is that it’s not still being shown in church basements.” Finally, he says, “The movie career and the art career are so very different that I really don’t think that my movie career has one thing to do with this. I think them up in a different place.”

That’s not to say one doesn’t become fodder for the other. “Hair in the Gate” — Waters’ one foray into the digital realm — was a series that “took the biggest money shots of the most expensive movies and put a hair in it. It was like they didn’t check. All you have to do is blow in the camera lens, which you do on every big shot. If they hadn’t, can you imagine what a nightmare? They’d have to re-shoot it.” Waters was only able to achieve this effect digitally, so he bit the bullet. But he’s quick to point out that human hair wasn’t working either so they had to go with horse. “I’m not around horses that much,” Waters laughs, “So that became part of my process. Finding someone who had a horse and getting the hair and taking it to the lab.”

“I read an interview,” Waters — who subscribes to 118 magazines — begins, “Where Julia Roberts said ‘I look at pictures of myself and it looks like I have a coat hanger in my mouth.’ Then I found a still from a horror movie called “Mr. Sardonicus” where you see this really scary mouth and juxtaposed it.” Viola, “Julia” is born, the first of many William Castle films to inspire Waters. “I guess it’s about beauty and horror being so similar,” Waters says of “Julia,” explaining that as a child he found the Sardonicus image beautiful, but also asking what people in the ’30s, with their images of Clara Bow, would have made of Julia Roberts.

His works is as concerned about celebrity, even when he’s working outside the film still medium. His series “Return to Sender” even folded the Post Office into his process. Waters would mail a letter to a deceased celebrity and that envelope, as returned by the Postal Service, became the art. Some were never seen again. Lana Turner, Andy Warhol and three separate pieces to Jacqueline Kennedy are still out there. Waters imagines Kennedy’s old doorman employing a raised hand and “You’ll understand” — her standard response to autograph hounds — when the postman tries to deliver it. Of those that returned, his favorite is from President Kennedy. “It had come back in two days and the postman had written on it “deceased.” Then he had written “died,” in case I didn’t know what deceased meant.” The letters, which contain a blank piece of paper, are return addressed en verso.

He’s just as cagey about his upcoming film. He’s hesitant to talk about it as he’s just wrapped shooting and believes firmly in the bad luck inherent in talking about something before it’s completed. When pressed, he does offer that “A Dirty Shame” is a film about sex addicts and “It’s one of the craziest movies I’ve made in a long time.” New Line, which will release the film in July, got a sneak peak the other day. “They liked it,” Waters offers. After a little more beating around the bush, he finally says, “It stars Tracy Ullman as a convenience store owner who gets a concussion and turns into a sex addict. Johnny Knoxville is Ray-Ray, the leader of the sex addicts. Chris Isaak is in it. Selma Blair. Jackie Hoffman, who is in “Hairspray, The Musical” on Broadway plays a chronic masturbator. Mink Stole is Marge the Neuter. Suzanne Shepherd, who you’ve seen in a lot of movies, plays Tracy’s mother. She’s also a Neuter. They are the anti-sex people in the movie. Patricia Hearst is in it. Jean Hill is even in it. Somebody that’s coming back from ‘Desperate Living’!”

“I’m working on it every day,” the tireless director continues of his own desperate living, “That’s why we’re doing this at 8:30. I’m in the editing room by 10 and I’m there all day.” One gets the feeling that whatever he’s doing — film, photography, magazine journalism, he even tours a one-man-show — the answer to this next question will always be the same. It’s that moment where the television reporter asks Pecker what’s next and Pecker replies “You know what, I’m thinking of directing a movie.” Waters rises at 6 a.m. and is in bed by 10 p.m., a time most would assume he’s just slipping into his smoking jacket. “10 a.m. is right when the real world starts,” Waters says, “So everything I’ve thought up is usually done for the day. Then I have to figure out how to sell it and live with it, so I don’t have to get a real job.” But before we can wrap up, Waters is back on “Twelve Assholes and A Dirty Foot.” For the third time today. What’s with this guy? But the question about gay art has been weighing on his mind. “The three collectors I know that bought that piece are gay,” he offers. “I don’t think that many straight couples are going to have it in their living rooms, but most gay couples wouldn’t want it in there living room over the couch either.” The critic Gary Indiana suggests that the word gay is just not extravagant enough to describe what’s going on in Waters’ work. “The gay thing is a good start,” Waters echoes, “It’s just not enough.”

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