PRINT March 1994


JOHN WATERS’ NEW MOVIE, Serial Mom, is not what you would call an especially plot-driven narrative. In the gentle language of literary criticism, the diegesis is subsumed by the rabid, frothy-mouthed semiosis. From the very first scene, which shows Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner), the serial mom of the title, stalking a pesky fly through her exquisitely hygienic kitchen, it’s abundantly clear that this woman is totally wacko. Establishing her, uh, dark side early on, the film provides not the usual pleasures of fear and suspense but a series of increasingly ornate vignettes of mayhem. And since Mrs. Sutphin’s adorable teenage son works in a video store and is a confirmed addict of cinematic blood-naughtiness, Waters has ample opportunity to tip his hat to the kinds of films that nourished his own sensibility—stuff like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1963 Blood Feast, and the evocatively titled The Gore Gore Girls, of 1972.

Our hearts aflutter with admiration, our psyches overtaxed by fears of making a dorklike impression, we visited the supreme arbiter of the weirdo element in the fabulous Baltimore minimal where he was shooting Serial Mom, surrounded by stores like Scan, Hair Act, and Kitson Chiropractic Center. At the risk of marring his rep as an expert in the creatively nauseating, we would have to describe him as a gracious man. Tastefully attired in an ocherish linen suit (which nicely complemented his pinkish complexion) and an ocherish-and-white-striped T, he was totally charming to us, not at all mean. He let us sit right behind him as he directed Sam Waterston in a dentist scene by video monitor, answering our irritating questions so politely and brilliantly that we suspect a turnip could have interviewed him with equally successful results.

We rejoice that since Hairspray, 1988, Waters’ sordid, life-affirming vision has infiltrated mainstream distribution outlets and studio budgets. A prodigy who, as an exuberant youth, masterminded such cinematic milestones as Divine’s delicious shit-eating coda to Pink Flamingos, 1972, Waters has blossomed into a polished paragon of the perverse. The ravishing fruit of his maturity remains true to his trashy vision as he injects exquisitely rude aperçus into the flabby butt of mass-market consciousness. Serial Mom contains graphic murder scenes worthy of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but it is unmistakably and deliberately a mainstream product. Just five years ago it couldn’t have been, but such is the pervasive influence of Waters’ anarchic sensibility that he must be reckoned an early enabler of our current cultural classmate,with its chronic appetite for transvestism and white-trash cretinism. In an era when mere transgression, my friends, has gone toothlessly main stream—when drag queens are talk show staples and the vicissitudes of camp, via the “gay studies” industry, have acquired academic exchange value -we asked John Waters, the maven of maladjustment, how best to behave badly.

David Rimanelli/Rhonda Lieberman

David Rimanelli: Does camp still exist?

John Waters: No, I think camp is a very old-fashioned word. Basically when I think of camp I think of Tiffany lamp shades—the things that were “camp” when the term first came out in the ’60s. I have a book I bought back then called The Camp Followers Guide. That was in about 1965.

Rhonda Lieberman: Things like Mae West?

JW: Well it’s more Judy Garland, Tiffany lamp shades. I think the word is very old-fashioned; it’s used today, but mostly incorrectly. When people say “camp” today, what they mean is “trash.” Camp became trash but they’re two different things. They’re both positive words to me, but today there’s enough camp in the world—we don’t need more.

DR: Recently, there seems to have been an extraordinary effluence of subcultural stuff breaking into popular culture that probably gets mislabeled “camp.” You’d characterize it as “trash”?

JW: “Trash” is old-fashioned too. I don’t use that word anymore either. But “camp” belongs to a whole different generation. The camp appreciators—the fans of camp—belong to an older generation than mine. My generation liked trash. Then trash became punk, and then punk became sort of normal. . . .

RL: Then the pathetic thing came in.

JW: Pathetic is almost over too. Once it’s been identified it’s over. Grunge was a little “pitta.” That’s the word our friends in Baltimore had for it—we called it “pitta” for “pitiful.” Ricki Lake would say, Want a little pitta in this shot? I think pitiful works best as a look if you’re very young and very good-looking. If you purposely look as bad as possible—if you can get through the pitiful look and still look good—it means you’re even better-looking than can be imagined. This I’m impressed by in youth today.

RL: Yeah, part of the grunge thing was like totally oppressive—the reemergence of the Twiggy thing.

JW: In terms of weight?

RL: Like the worship of untouched flesh.

JW: I like the weight thing because all the models finally got silicone tits and now that’s completely out. They’re stuck with last year’s tits. And they’re so obvious. They weigh 80 pounds and have these enormous tits. It’s impossible; it looks ridiculous. I like ridiculous, but it looks dumb ridiculous. It doesn’t look good ridiculous.

RL: Well, there’s definitely good and bad ridiculous. What about the difference between Divine and RuPaul?

JW: When Divine died, my interest in drag ended. I would never use a man playing a woman in my films again—ever—because I feel it would be disrespectful to Divine. I did drag, it’s been done. I think it’s great. New kids are doing it now, but to me it’s over as an interesting subject. I mean I can still find it interesting in real life. When I see drag-queen hookers, I think they’re amazing-looking, but what I want to know is, Who finds them sexy? I’ve been to that bar in New York and that hotel by the New York Times building—

DR:Sally’s II?

JW: —but I don’t look at the drag queens. I look at the men who pretend they’re straight who are attracted to the drag queens and pick them up. It’s the drag queen’s public that interests me, that I don’t get and am fascinated by—men that are like Jersey types, bridge-and-tunnel straight macho men who go to these bars and this is what they’re into: chicks with dicks. Drag queens I get. I think it’s fine that drag queens are becoming mainstream, but I think the cutting edge of drag’s been over for quite a while.

RL: RuPaul’s kind of interesting.

JW: I don’t want to single him out. I like him fine. He’s said lovely things about Divine in interviews. I’m glad he has a hit record and has a video that MTV plays and all, but it’s very different from what Divine was doing. Divine was a more homicidal version. He had more of an edge. RuPaul looks great; he has a great body. Divine did not have what is generally thought of as a great body. That’s why I think there was a little more of an edge to him.

DR: As always, what used to be underground, subcultural, or marginal is now mainstream. What does that mean for you?

JW: One thing that I find fascinating, now that my generation has kids and those kids are rebelling, is that if they’re white the only way they can rebel is to be black. My generation marched for Martin Luther King, Jr., but they didn’t want their kids to be black. That’s the difference between my generation and their kids. And so acting black is the only way for them to rebel against liberal hip parents from the ’60s. I’ve seen it a lot, and it does get on liberal parents’ nerves—when they talk black, and only listen to rap music.

DR: What about rebelling by being conservative?

JW: That doesn’t count. I’m talking about real rebellion!

DR: What about turning away from the hip culture of ’60s parents, taking the high ground—identifying with high culture, listening to classical music?

JW: Yeah, but that’s not going to start any new movement. I always listened to classical music at the same time I was doing my stuff, but I’m talking about things that change things. That kind of reversal will change nothing. What will change things is white kids wanting to be black. That is fairly new—trying to be black and affecting black behavior. In a way I think it’s kind of great. What I really love though is black rap that tries to sound white. That’s my favorite new thing.

DR: God, I hadn’t caught that.

JW: There’s a group called Baseline that I know. I couldn’t tell if they were black or white when I first heard them. They are black, but it’s sort of like blacks sounding like Lou Reed rapping. Confusion has always been sexy to me. I always like what I don’t know; it’s a reverse cliché. I like to be confused by things. If there’s confusion then it’s new.

RL: I guess there’s always a downside in all of these things. I have this hideous image of Ivy League students chaining themselves to a fence because of apartheid.

JW: That isn’t what I mean. I’m against that too. I’m talking about poor white kids in neighborhoods where blacks are hated, who now dress with scuffed-out shoes and listen to rap music and hang around with poor ghetto blacks because it’s cool. That is very scary to white neighborhoods, especially to poor white neighborhoods. I love to see that, you know, white kids hanging out with ghetto blacks; that’s never happened before.

RL: So it’s not the liberal P.C. thing.

JW: No, in Baltimore they don’t care so much about politically correct. It’s not oppressive here. You sometimes wish there was a little more of it actually, in certain neighborhoods.

DR: I think it’s sort of interesting the way you can live and work in Baltimore without being infantilized by it—to be an adult in the place where you grew up.

JW: Well, I mean, I went away a lot at first. I always went to California and to New York. I still have an apartment in New York. But I would always come back here to make the movies because this is where the people who ran with me, the people who worked with me, were. This is my base. Here is my home.

See, in New York I can’t find places to go that are unaffected. I go to a real biker bar here, not a gay biker bar. It’s like Scorpio Rising: a little door slides back before they decide to let you in. I go to a really scary hillbilly after-hours bar that you can’t get in unless you live in this one neighborhood. I couldn’t get in for a year, and I was so impressed because in New York they usually let me in right away. There’s also a lesbian biker bar that just opened. There are a lot of places that are really real. I like to go explore in those kinds of places; I get a lot of ideas that way. At the same time I love to go to all the big places in New York. But I like having a choice. That’s one of the reasons that I live in Baltimore. Baltimore does low great, but when it tries to be chic, sometimes it doesn’t work. You know what I mean. All the places that are the real thing in terms of chic, where everybody has to affect their style, they don’t even know about here. That’s why I don’t ever want to live in L.A. because I would never meet anyone that doesn’t talk about movies. I know people here who don’t ever go to the movies, who don’t know one thing about that world and they don’t care. They’re not impressed.

DR: On a different note, is fat the last taboo?

JW: When Divine died, fat was kind of over for me too. I did it a lot but even Ricki Lake isn’t heavy anymore. I don’t care what Ricki weighs she’d have the part, but I did tell her to lose weight because of what happened with Divine.

DR: So what would be taboo, then?

JW: Well, I don’t think something has to be taboo to be good. That’s trying too hard. There are very few taboos. White and black still are, even though people don’t have the nerve to say so.

DR: Fat for example is still a taboo.

JW: Gaultier has a fat model, there are fat models on runways now. It’s knocked barriers down. What’s the rock group one of the Beach Boys’ daughters is in?

RL: Do you think we’re experiencing rampant freedom now?

JW: No, certainly not with AIDS, but there aren’t many taboos left of the old school of my generation’s parents, which is, like, the last generation that had influence on all of us; the generation before that is too old, dead, you know. There aren’t many taboos left of the obvious sort; they’ve taken new mutations. They’re harder to identify but they’re certainly still there—that’s why I like these new kids who come up with these new looks. I think it looks great. I always react for a minute against art that I love, and the same goes for all the young kids. I’ll tell you one thing that I can’t stand is body piercing. I see so much of it right now; it’s really popular. There’s some doctor that’s going to make a fortune removing all these tattoos in twenty years because believe me, tattoos look bad when you’re 50. Tattoos on kids today is another new thing that I hate and that I think looks hideous. I don’t get it but I still keep thinking about it. It’s become really big now, and it is offensive to your parents.

DR: It’s like wanting to be lower class, having a walk on the wild side.

JW: Pirate’s earrings and piercing are one thing, but I’ve also seen tongues, noses. I saw a lot of women topless with pierced tits at the Gay Pride Parade. I don’t get it.

DR: John Waters is an old fogey?

JW: Yeah, I’ll be the first to admit it.

RL: So we can assume you have no tattoos.

JW: No, I would never get a tattoo. I was never tempted to for one minute; they look horrible when you’re 50 years old.

RL: And you were thinking that far ahead?

JW: Well, I knew that they really look bad when you’re old.

RL: They droop.

JW: They all do droop, believe me, especially all these macho ones. Everybody’s getting them, and it makes you look a hundred years older than you are.

RL: OK, we want to ask the art question.

DR: Since this is an art magazine.

RL: Do you buy any art?

JW: Yeah, I do.

RL: Can you share with us some of your collection?

JW: I hate to name-drop.

DR: Do you have any enthusiasms in art?

JW: I’ll tell you who I own. I have a Cy Twombly piece. My cleaning lady told me I should have a sign saying that it cost money, because otherwise someone might throw it out. I’ve got Warhol stuff from his really old days. I have a Jackie Kennedy thing I got in 1963 in Baltimore for $80. Mike Kelley, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Walter and Margaret Keane.

RL: Is there stuff you’d like to buy if it were in the right price range?

JW: If I was a multibillionaire, I’d buy a Robert Ryman.

DR: Oh really, why do you like Ryman?

JW: Oh, I just think he work is so beautiful. I would also like to buy Twombly’s A Letter of Resignation, but it's not for sale.

DR: Let’s hope your movies keep getting bigger and bigger.

JW: Yeah. I like Fischli/Weiss and Richard Tuttle a lot.

DR: A lot of art that interests you, based on the things you named, must be a kind of diversion from the movies you make. It’s very formal, beautiful stuff.

RL: I don’t think it’s a secret that you’re quite an esthete.

JW: Well, to appreciate bad taste you have to respect it, but you also have to have some sort of good taste to like bad taste.

RL: Is there any bad bad taste?

JW: Oh, yeah, most of it is I think. I’ve said this before, but yuppies with pink flamingoes on their front lawns really offend me. Purposely imitating what you think is more lower class than you and then laughing about it is extremely offensive to me.

RL: Well, I’m glad you went on record saying that. If anything, it’s a public service.

JW: It’s bad taste if you really don’t have some sort of respect for what you’re satirizing or collecting. The thing about my movies is that while I may mot like everything I make fun of, I am fascinated and intrigued by what I use. I don’t make movies about things I really hate, like sports.

DR: John Waters’ next project—a baseball movie.

RL: What was it like modeling for Comme des Garçons?

JW: Oh, God, it was fun. I felt like Mahogany meets Don Knotts. Comme des Garçons called me and said, like, Do you want to do this. I said, Yes, I love the stuff. I said, I wear the stuff. They said, We know, we have a file. It’s amazing, they’re like fashion spies. So I was honored. I said, Just don’t give me the most radical clothes. When I saw the clothes, I wanted to kill myself. I thought, I’m going to be on the cover of Spy magazine in bell-bottoms that came to here. But I said myself, Just shut up and do it; they’re paying you.

DR: What about the movie you’re actually working on? What do you think of the status of the serial-killer genre and what kind of contribution do you hope to make with the film?

JW: I don’t think there’s been a comedy yet about serial killers. The genre has been heavily seen on TV. Lately every time there’s a crime—even before the crime’s finished—they’ve sold it to TV and started shooting, so it’s certainly a satire of that genre. But as far as I know, there’s never been a comedy about a serial killer like ours, where we ask you, the audience, to root for her basically to kill more.

DR: Do you think that they asked you to maybe root a little bit for Henry the serial killer in that movie?

JW: Yeah, and I love that movie very much. But it was such a different kind of movie than ours. It was so realistic and truly scary and horrifying. My film is very different. It’s a comedy. Did they ask you to root for him? I certainly didn’t root for him. His victims didn’t deserve it. In my movie, as the killer’s son says, they sort of deserved it. He says, They were assholes, but they didn’t deserve to die. That’s the politics of this film, I guess.

RL: Actually we have a few “pitta” questions. We know you tried to get Mother Theresa in one of your films. Can you tell us about that?

JW: Well, I didn’t really try. It was that I wanted to like her, but she should keep her nose out of other people’s private lives like a good little religious person’s supposed to do, rather than nosing around. I have no interest in having her in any film. I hate Mother Teresa. I hate her politics.

RL: What are some of the things you like to show to your audiences?

JW: What I like to show is certainly the humor in all situations—when everything is just so terrible. Gallows humor—this movie really has a lot of it. I don’t think anybody’s seen Kathleen Turner have this much fun in a role in quite some time. I’m incredibly happy with the film. I think she’s very very funny and at the same time very very evil. I always like the villains best in movies—always, since I was growing up. So I make the villain star and the cliché good guy generally ends up the villain. I want audiences to laugh at everything they fear.

DR: Is that what makes you want to make films, fear?

JW: In some ways fears are the most interesting things of all. All psychiatrists should ask you about them first.

RL: Wow, that’s a great idea.

JW: Sure, what I’m most afraid of I put them in my movies. That’s what keeps everyone from going crazy—they know that everybody else is dealing with the same fears all day. People hide their fears but if they kind of discover and get used to them—if they realize you have to live with them for the rest of your life, that they’re not going to change—then that’s when all the tension goes away. That’s when you can laugh. Laughter’s much better than sex. It’s better than retribution. It’s the only thing that really works.