John Waters on Zen and the art of filth, and 'Pink Flamingos' 50th anniversary

  • by Mark William Norby
  • Tuesday June 21, 2022
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'Pink Flamingos' "barf bag" BluRay wrapper; director John Waters
'Pink Flamingos' "barf bag" BluRay wrapper; director John Waters

When watching "Pink Flamingos" you can't escape one of the final scenes with protagonist Babs Johnson, played by queer icon Divine. "Kill everyone now," says Babs from behind a smoking gun after shooting Connie and Raymond Marble in the pursuit of the crown for The Filthiest Person Alive. The scene stuns audiences leaving them in silence. Completely disgusted, all you can do is throw your hands up in the air and you're left in utter stillness.

Recently included in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, the newly released "Pink Flamingos," is only one part of the still-evolving art world of John Waters. In May he appeared with Mink Stole in a new Calvin Klein ad campaign titled "This is Love."

He just released a new novel, "Liarmouth," for which he's on his way to Europe for book signings. He's doing his rapid-fire one-man spoken word Vaudevillian act, "False Negative," and he's back in San Francisco in early July to host the punk festival Mosswood Meltdown.

I wanted to know when and where he finds a moment of stillness, so when I called Waters at high noon in Provincetown for a one-on-one interview, what I found was that the "Filth Elder" and self-described "Prince of Puke" is always up for a challenge. At 76, he's as bulletproof as ever. Here it is, with John Waters in a new Bay Area Reporter interview.

Mark William Norby: I wanted to let you know that when you called me yesterday to set up the meeting, I was in the middle of a zen meditation.

John Waters: Well, good! I think it's probably good to have a zen interruption! I've never had a zen moment in my life.

How is that possible?

Easy! I'm not much for any religion of any kind. I wish I believed in them, it would probably make life a lot easier, but I don't.

But I find zen meditation creates a kind of stillness.

Maybe there's a point of stillness, whatever makes you feel good. But I'm all about the opposite. What makes me feel good is a whole lot of action.

The main cast of 'Pink Flamingos' on set with John Waters (2nd right)  

Does your writing create stillness?
Stillness... No. And I don't think stillness is good for a writer. I think you always want to have a lot going on, you want to keep ideas always churning. In 'Liarmouth,' there's no one that sits still for a single moment. I mean, if all this stuff happened to the characters they would've had a heart attack. So much happens in four days.

I don't think there's much stillness in my writing or in my movies... Well some of my old movies, there was stillness that I should have cut down. The only person that made stillness work was Warhol in his movies when he had people on speed talking real fast and he'd shoot it real slow. That was really radical.

I talked to Chi Chi LaRue just before calling you. We've been friends since 1980 when I was 15 years old.
I haven't seen Chi Chi in years! I like him (Larry Paciotti). I wondered what happened to him. I think my Christmas cards to him long came back so I don't have his current contact or anything.

I let Larry know we'd be chatting. When I was 15 in Minneapolis, Larry introduced me to a double-header of "Female Trouble" followed by "Pink Flamingos." He wanted to get me warmed up for what was coming in "Pink Flamingos."
See, and you turned out fine.

Well, maybe. But the problem was, I went to a conservative Catholic high school and ditched classes, obviously I was gay and all the bullies slammed me into lockers and called me faggot and weirdo. But they didn't know that I had intentionally cut and safety-pinned the legs of my jeans.
They had several reasons to attack you. That's always good, because sometimes you don't get attacked because they're confused. They don't know how to divide homophobia from racism and punkism, so they get confused. Sometimes they leave you alone if they can't pick out one thing to pick on.

I was the kid in isolation. Which brings me to the question, is writing in isolation radically different from being involved with a large cast in your movies?
No, it's not that different because I had to go into that room and write all my movies alone and do it. That's what my job is. During the pandemic, I knew a lot of writers who said they couldn't write because they thought it was distracting, but they didn't have any more excuses not to do it. It [the pandemic] was neither pro nor anti for me. I still had to go into the same room and write no matter where I lived.

Divine in 'Pink Flamingos'  

To me, being still, I do have to have quiet, I can't have distractions, I can't have anybody else in the room, even if it is a big room. I can't function. I don't answer my phone, I don't check my emails, I don't do anything like that. I just go in there and zone out... I guess you could call that zen, that's as close as I can get. I'm in the world that I'm creating and I become all the characters. That to me is... Well, writing is never fun, but it is satisfying when it works.

I read a lot of writers published by the hothouse of fiction Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (FSG). "Liarmouth" was published by FSG...
As was Susan Sontag!

And in contrast, rewatching "Pink Flamingos" last weekend with some friends...
But you haven't seen the new version! [released June 15, 2022]. It's the new Criterion Collection. It comes with the original barf bag, all beautifully restored, new clips, new commentary, interviews, all that sort of thing. I'm very excited about it and everybody should see it.

Rewatching "Pink Flamingos," I saw Elizabeth Coffey in between her gender transition. She's sitting on the fence, she flashes her male genitals at Raymond Marble. I totally forgot about that. And all over again it was so completely ahead of its time. Still is. And it's validating to the queer community!
She got the transition three days later, after the release of the movie [in 1972]. Then you can see her new vagina in "Female Trouble" when she's in the [prison] cell with Divine. We wanted to keep the audience up on her progress.

Amazing transformation and I had also forgotten about her new vagina in "Female Trouble." In "Pink Flamingos," it's breasts topside, cock and balls below.
Oh, yeah, Elizabeth, she's great. I don't know if you saw the thing online where I gave my entire art collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art. They wanted to name the rotunda after me. But instead, I insisted on the bathrooms, and they thought I was kidding. And they made it the first no-gender bathroom and Elizabeth came down and took the first pee with the dedication and all the press and everything. It was a political moment.

You still have your place in San Francisco.
Yeah, I was there during the pandemic. But now San Francisco is like Baltimore.

John Waters hosting a recent Mosswood Meltdown (formerly called Burger Boogaloo)  

It's changed a lot. When I go back I always notice my old favorites are gone, the restaurants, the clubs.
Yeah, but it's still beautiful, and there's still crazy people living there that I like. I had my wild youth there but now I'm having my wild senility there. No, I'm not senile, yet. That's why I do 70 words every day, it's my anti-Alzheimer's exercise.

Are you still doing the pencil mustache yourself or do you have a makeup artist?
Oh, yes! Do you think I have a makeup artist? Nobody else is going to do it! So I just pencil it on every day and do my thing.

I wanted to mention "Walking through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black" by Cookie Mueller (Read the review in this week's issue). Everybody who's seen "Female Trouble" remembers her so well as Concetta.
Cookie's new book! Yeah, Cookie, she's great, and I love the new Semiotext(e) release. Cookie is a great, great writer who really isn't lauded enough as she should be for her writing. Cookie was the greatest slum goddess. And like I said, she was straight, but she wasn't that straight!

Like a woman I met recently said, 'I was always straight,' she said, 'but it wasn't that I was straight it was that I was just horny all the time. That's a new way to put it. It doesn't matter why you like to do what you do in bed, or it just comes naturally. Or you've chosen it with a radical choice. I'm not recruiting. But you know, in "Pink Flamingos," the baby that gets sold to the lesbian couple from the dungeon?"

Baby Noodles!
Right! Baby Noodles. That's Cookie's son, Max Mueller. I see him in Provincetown. He lives here and he's doing great. Now they're talking about making movies about Cookie. You know, Cookie was the only one of the "Dreamlander" crew who had a girlfriend for twenty years. I mean, she was basically straight but she had a girlfriend for twenty years and I still see Sharon [Sharon Niesp, Cookie's girlfriend], and she's great.

Who had more of an influence on whom, you on Divine, or Divine on you?
No, well, I think it was, I had more of an influence on Divine. I created Divine.

But Cookie was originally Cookie Divine.
Yeah, she was Cookie Divine in "Multiple Maniacs." But ultimately it was Divine who was Divine. He [Harris Glenn Milstead] was very different from Divine, that character. He was a kind gentle man and very, very different from the monster Divine and I created. We were hippies basically, in San Francisco.

What can you share about your next job?
The next big job I have is, I'm hosting the San Francisco big punk festival [Mosswood Meltdown July 2 & 3], I do it every year. it's the fifth year I've done it. Two days of great punk rock. The punk rock world is always down low, it always has the best gays. I'm leaving this week for Madrid and Barcelona, then I'm doing my show "False Negative" at the Barbican in London. I'm a busy boy.

We ended our interview with friendly goodbyes. There is no other "Filth Elder" but he is a man of integrity. It's hard to get a word in edgewise and he won't stop until the big wide Waters' show comes to an end, and that's a long way off. Catch him now and find the new Blu-Ray of "Pink Flamingos" online in packaging that looks like the original barf bag.

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