John Waters is an American filmmaker, writer, and artist who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films, which have earned him the titles "pope of filth" and "prince of puke." Waters's 1970s and early '80s trash films feature his regular troupe of actors known as Dreamlanders, most famous among them being the drag queen Divine. In 1988, Waters had his biggest mainstream hit with "Hairspray," which was turned into Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 2003 and then remade as a movie musical in 2007. In 2010, Waters published the unorthodox memoir "Role Models," in which Waters interviews and writes about his influences as a means of telling his own life story.
Question: Next month in Canada you are presenting Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film “Salo,” which is considered one of the filthiest films ever made. What makes it great?
John Waters: “Salo” is a beautiful movie though. I mean, “Salo”, that last shot of the two soldiers dancing in that beautiful set. I mean, Pasolini, I mean, he’s a Catholic saint to me, I mean. I want my gravestone to look like his. I pray to Pasolini. I mean, so I think that movie is a beautiful movie, a beautiful movie. And unfortunately, you know, he was murdered by a hustler almost right after he made that movie. So, he died for our sins.
Question: Why should filmmakers make obscene films like “Salo”?
John Waters: Well, to me Pasolini is not... I don’t think “Salo” is obscene. I think it can use obscenity in a way to make a point about fascism, I mean about fantasies, about power, that’s a movie about the pornography of power really. So I think it uses the very extreme sexual subject matter in a very intellectual way.
But I think even the worst porn, which is usually heterosexual because it’s very anti-woman. I read somewhere, somebody said, "They don’t make love in those movies, they make hate.” And that is true. But I think for the freedom of the press, we have to put up the worst of pornography because though, artists when they’re young don’t have the money to fight the law, but pornographers' mafia lawyers do. So they fight the law and change it so artists can use the same subject matter. I think we have to put up with the limits of freedom. I mean, burning... you know, the Bible, the Koran, everything. I think you should be able to burn anything you want actually. I actually think you should be able to yell, “Fire” in a crowded theater.
You know, these people that do it are just publicity hounds. It’s like Fred Phelps, that group you know, that god hates fags and then he goes to Marine’s funerals that aren’t gay, which I understand the rage of those parents. However, he came to Provincetown, a very gay place, and just had signs “God hates fags” and not one person, just everyone passed him and no one said one thing and he left. No one complained, no one did anything, no one reacted. He’s there for you to react to. The same way these people, these tiny little crackpot evangelists like Elmer Gantry types that go and do this, they want you... that’s the only way they get noticed. So you’re rising to the bait if you flip out about it.
Question: What are the most “obscene” films ever made?
John Waters: Certainly, probably “Salo,” probably either an early Kenneth Anger movie or an early Jean Genet movie, “Fireworks” or Chant d’amour those movies which were so beautiful, they were like poetry and illegal and so great. I guess you know, the early porn that changed everything, like “Mona,” which was a heterosexual movie that... just the title makes me laugh. It was the first movie that legally showed penetration in New York City that wasn’t in a documentary. The law was changed by a movie called “Pornography in Denmark,” that was a documentary. So things had to be, at the time, socially redeeming. So that was the ludicrousness of it, that’s why even Warhol did "Nude Restaurant" where everybody sat around nude and talked about Vietnam, which was very funny.
I don’t know, I don’t think any of those movies are really obscene, but certainly there’s a movie, “Salo” some people would certainly think, there’s this other one about... what is it called, oh I’m just forgetting... but there was this kid that fantasized about his torture in the concentration camps... what’s that one called? That’s a shocker. There are shockers, certainly, I think “Irreversible,” I think is a great, great shocker. That’s a great movie. I’d put that at the top of my list.
Recorded September 10, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller