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Love that Dirty Waters
by James Ireland Baker

From Time Out New York April 10-17, 1997

In the 70's, John Waters went beyond the 60's counterculture to create the counter-counter-culture. His early films turned the utopian hippie ideal of "peace and love" on its head, presenting instead anarchic celebrations of reckless disregard, random acts of meaningless violence - and filth for filth's sake. The ne plus ultra of Waters's aggressive vision was perhaps Pink Flamingos, the 1972 movie (dedicated to the Manson family about "the filthiest people alive." It featured a gift-wrapped turd, a "singing" asshole, a chicken crushed in a sexual act and, of course, Divine's infamous dog-shit-eating scene.

Twenty-five years later, on the occasion of the film's rerelease (with additional footage), the movie seems as punchy - and perhaps as shocking - as ever. But only in retrospect is it possible to truly appreciate the youthful exuberance and abiding joy with which the film was made. Although Flamingos doesn't exactly wear its heart on its sleeve, it certainly has a heart - if a diseased one. And so, as it turns out, does its genial, downright civilized creator, who spent an evening chatting with TimeOut-NY in his New York apartment and, later, over vodka martinis at Les Deux Gamins.

Pink Flamingos is about "the filthiest people alive." So tell us what's filthy in New York these days.

Nothing - that's the problem. This mayor has ruined everything. He's turned New York into Baltimore - suburban Baltimore. I'm always very sad when I go to 42nd Street now, because there's no filth left. It's been replaced by fake filth. But fake filth doesn't work here. You can't have purposely "filthy," low-class bars in New York, because the very fact that you're living in Manhattan means that you know about irony. Manhattan is a city of irony. You could never have a true redneck bar here, for instance. If you ever did have a genuine redneck bar in Manhattan, Bruce Weber would be photographing it in five minutes. Like that phony biker bar, Hookers and Hoofers - or whatever it's called.

Hogs and Heifers?

Sure. If I go into any biker bar in the world, I get beaten up. If I go into Hogs and Heifers, they call the Post. That's irony.

And what about sex?

Well, sex in New York used to be filthy, but AIDS changed everything, of course. In sex clubs, they now have fluid patrols - guys walk around making sure that men aren't spilling fluid in the wrong places. They're just like the monitors who were supposed to stop the violence during riots in the 60's. I hated those monitors, because I went to riots for the violence. That was the fun part. [Laughs] But I can't go to sex clubs anyway now, because if there's an appeal to having bad sex, it is the anonymity - and I'm not anonymous anymore. Someone always walks up to me and says, "I have an Odorama card!" It puts a damper on things. When someone starts quoting lines from Divine, it ruins everything.

So has celebrity been a sacrifice for you?

Sacrifice? No sacrifice. It's what I always wanted. I don't understand people who bitch about it. Why did they go into show business? Isn't celebrity the point? It's been said before, but I'll say it again: Nobody who's truly happy ever went into this business. For the rest of your life, you rely on the approval of strangers. And you think that this approval will make everything all right, but it just shifts the problems. It solves some of them, and then it creates new ones. But I'm not bitching. All of my movies are, to some extent, about how public life impinges on private life. And my feeling is that, while fame can be a minor annoyance, it's also a great help.

You've managed to avoid many of fame's pitfalls. For instance, you've been open about your drug use - of poppers, speed and pot in particular - but it never became a problem. Have you tried designer drugs?

I have no interest in ecstasy - I'm certainly not going to take a drug that makes me love everybody - and being in a K hole in the autumn of my life is not something that I look forward to. I did a lot of speed when I was younger, but I'd hate to think what it would be like to do it at my age. One disreputable friend of mine was at my house with a pipe and I thought that it was pot, so I said, "You know, I haven't smoked pot in 20 years." I took a hit, because I was feeling so nostalgic, but it turned out to be crack. I immediately thought, Oh my God, I'm an addict! I'm gonna rob my parents!

I've noticed that you've stopped smoking cigarettes.

I've been smoking only on Friday nights recently, which is really dangerous, because I also drink on Friday nights. I have hangovers planned on my calendar. I'm a workaholic six nights a week and an alcoholic on Friday, when I become like a coal miner with a paycheck: Hey, let's go out! And that's a shame, because - except for Squeezebox - Friday is the worst night to go out in New York.

Why? Because of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd?

Oh, I'm not against the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. If there's anyone "filthy" left in New York, it's them. And I mean "filthy" in the best sense, because they lead their lives without this terrible search for irony.

Is irony really that bad?

No, of course not. My life is an endless stream of irony. But it can be wearying. That's why I live in Baltimore - I need to be around interesting people who aren't so goddamned witty all the time.

You created an acting company out of many such interesting people, some of whom are now dead - of drug overdoses, AIDS or, in Divine's case, heart disease. Is it sad for you to watch these people during screenings of Pink Flamingos?

Well, I certainly miss them, but if I'd never made the movies, I wouldn't be able to see them - and no one else would, either. I'm happy they're in the can and that you can put them in a projector or a video machine, or whatever. Whether the rerelease of Pink Flamingos is a hit or not, a laserdisc is coming out and the soundtrack is coming out. And my friends are still alive in that way. That's the greatest thing about the movies. They don't grow old and they don't die and they're still there the way it was on that day. God knows that when we filmed it, I never thought I'd be 50 years old.

So how does it feel to be 50?

Well, I think that my generation is terrified of growing old, so we're trying to find a way to eroticize it. The technical term is gerontophilia, which means "attraction to older people." I'm all for it and, if young people have it, well, I hope I meet one. But I see this magazine called Bear, for instance, which is all about fat and hairy 50-year-old men, and I want to puke. My theory is that pretty soon there's gonna be pornography about people in nursing homes. What will we call someone who's attracted to that? An Alzheimer's hag?

You were a rebel when you were younger. Do you still consider yourself a rebel - and, if so, what do you rebel against?

Well, Brigid Berlin, my favorite Warhol star, once asked, "How can you be bad in your fifties?" It's a valid question, because anybody who's ever slightly creative wants to be a bad boy or girl. There's a sexy appeal to it. I mean, I go to this grunge bar in Baltimore where everyone's cute, but you can tell that they drink too much, and you think: In 20 years, all these people are gonna be in AA. When you're 20, you can be drunk every minute and shoot heroin and it's cool. But at 50, it's pitiful. As for myself, I think that the only way I can truly be bad now is through my work.

But you haven't made a film since 1994's Serial Mom, which many found disappointing. How do you respond to people who say that your recent films - beginning with Polyester - haven't been as edgy, or as good, as your earlier films?

Maybe I'm like Father Flanagan, because I think that there is no such thing as a bad movie - except maybe Forrest Gump. No one sets out to make a bad movie. The first day, everybody thinks it's gonna be great. If you didn't believe in it, you wouldn't even try to get it made.

There are bad movies - and then, of course, there are bad movies. People thought Pink Flamingos was bad. One critic wrote, "Like a septic tank explosion, it has to be seen to be believed." Variety called it "the most vile, stupid" film. What did your parents think?

They never saw it. And they were upset when I told them that it was coming back -they never though they'd have to go through it again 25 years later. So I thought, Why make my parents, whom I love dearly, watch this? My father is 80 years old. So I called them and said, "I don't want you to see this movie." I talked to Divine's mother the other day, and I told her that she's not allowed to see it either.

Why not?

Please. Be realistic. What mother wants to see her son in drag, blowing another guy and eating dog shit? I don't care how liberal she is. Mrs. Eldrige Cleaver wouldn't want to see it. Angela Davis wouldn't want to. Mao Tse Tung's wife wouldn't want to see it, either.

What are you working on now?

I've finished a script for a movie called Pecker, about a boy who works in a sandwich shop in Baltimore and takes pictures and gets discovered and turns into an art star in New York - and how it totally screws up his life. But it's very hard to get movies made these days unless they cost either one million or 80 million.

A critic recently told me that Christopher Reeve might possible reprise Jimmy Stewart's role in a remake of Rear Window. I said that it would only work if the Raymond Burr character were played by O.J. Simpson - and if you were the director.

But why remake Rear Window? Why remake on of the few movies that actually works? Why not remake a bad movie?

What movie would you most love to remake, then?

Ice Castles - it's on of my favorite bad movies. But Boom! is my favorite bad movie, ever. In it, Elizabeth Taylor plays the richest woman in the world, and she wears the most dreadful outfits. And Richard Burton plays the Angel of Death, who comes to visit all rich ladies right before they die. Noel Coward plays the Witch of Capri, a role that was originally written for Katherine Hepburn, but she was offended and turned it down. Shocking! There's nothing better than really bad arty movies. It's not even camp; it's a whole other realm of weirdness.

What movies do you actually like - unironically?

I loved Everyone Says I Love You, because rich people being unabashedly happy is something you never see in films. I'm a big Woody Allen fan. I think he has the most enviable career of any director - ever. But when the day comes that he finishes a script and they say, "No, we're not making your movie," I think that he'll call M-i-a. Now there's a movie I'd love to see: Woody directing Mia again! Well, I think that she should do it. [Laughs] Just think how much money she'd make.