John Waters: Film-maker, bad-taste monger

Baltimore native John Waters, 65, with his trademark pencil-thin mustache, put a face to transgressive, shocking cinema in the 1970s when his film Pink Flamingos attracted a cult following at midnight screenings. Mainstream success followed in the 1980s with Hairspray. Now curating art and film programs and hoping to produce his latest film, the children’s Christmas adventure Fruitcake – his first since 2004’s A Dirty Shame – Mr. Waters recently released his sixth book, Role Models. On Aug. 27, he presents his one-man show, This Filthy World, at the Toronto Underground Cinema, 186 Spadina Ave., 7 pm. 

You visited Toronto recently to introduce Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo: or 120 Days of Sodom at TIFF Bell Lightbox. How does Toronto’s movie-going rate?

Toronto’s a great town for movies. I was really proud to introduce a film that has continued to cause so much trouble over the years. The last time I was there, I saw Buried in a nearly empty theatre and it was one of the best movie experiences I’ve had in a while. But I always say it’s so dirty in Toronto. Why don’t you clean it up a bit? I only say that because Americans always say how clean it is.

You’re presenting your one-man show as part of Rue Morgue Magazine’s Festival of Fear, but you’ve never made a de-facto horror film.

Oh, ask my mother – she thinks they all are. I think they do have horror in them. I’ve seen people react in horror while watching Divine eat dog doo [in Pink Flamingos] But horror films have always been important to me. I’ve always been trying to steal the career of Vincent Price.

What can audiences expect on Saturday night?

I have a new horror version of my show where I talk about horror remakes I’d like to do, horror in fashion, crime, and my own movies, and how it all really influenced me.

Did your parents take you to the movies as a kid?

The first film I ever saw was Cinderella, and I always loved the stepmother. To this day, I want the stepmother’s theme to play whenever I walk on stage. But the theatre my parents never took me to was the Rex, a dirty-movie theatre. The nuns would tell us about the movies we’d go to hell if we saw, so I’d clip those movie ads from the Baltimore Sun and just put them in a scrapbook, pretending I owned a dirty-movie theatre.

Did you ever own or invest in one?

Are you kidding? The porn business is a sinking ship. Even Larry Flynt had to ask Obama for a bailout. But about eight years ago, I visited the man who owned the Rex. He showed me his scrapbooks and they were just like the one I had when I was a kid. It was really touching.

Toronto’s only remaining porn theatre is the Metro. I assume they’re pretty scarce in the U.S.?

They’re really for those who are VCR- and DVD-player impaired. The last one to close in Baltimore was the Earl. I really wanted to lead a campaign of outrage, like when they want to close the old art-deco theatres. But some are still around, and it’s funny – what always confused vice squads is that the biggest gay sex places were always the heterosexual porn theatres.

Porn aside, did video make movie-going a solitary experience?

It certainly took the mystery away, like the magician showing the hand. When I was young, you had to wait once a year to see The Wizard of Oz on television. You couldn’t rewind and look at the tornado. Once you could rewind, it weakened the strength of movies for everybody.

Wizard of Oz was a favourite of yours growing up, wasn’t it?

It was, and you know, I recently introduced a screening and a child said to me: “It’s not that great. It’s just basically walking.” That kid will be a film critic some day. It’s the best capsule put-down line I’ve ever heard.

You’ve long advocated for literacy, especially in childhood. In your book, you mention that as a kid you were unable to check out Tennessee Williams plays because they were in a restricted section. Is it still the same today?

I think so, surely in some states. I’ve spoken at National Library Conventions and they all cheer when I say “give any kid any book he wants.”

We’re also seeing library service cuts all over North America. Even here in Toronto, libraries are part of an ongoing core services review.

That’s outrageous. Forget closing them, I think they should go further than just letting them read anything they want. Most libraries now have computers and you should be allowed to look at porn. Get them going with that, then they’ll start reading. It’s a loss leader.

This article originally appeared in the the Globe and Mail on August 26, 2012.

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