PopCult: The Obsessive Journal of Quality Pop Culture
Publicity photo for "A John Waters Christmas" by Greg Gorman

John Waters explains the aesthetics of trash, and what separates good filth from bad

John Waters’ next films after this interview appeared were Pecker and Cecil B. DeMented–all quite fair, though perhaps lacking in the full-on trashy delight of his earlier works. Nevertheless, you could never call his later movies “mainstream.” Waters is still the connoisseur of good trash, and his aesthetic is important to keep in mind as our pop culture trash gets ever trashier. More recently, he’s been performing a one-man show about our nation’s most beloved holiday: “A John Waters Christmas.”

Originally published Sept. 9, 1994

* * *

It is Friday, September 2, 1994, and John Waters has just returned to his comfy Baltimore home from the arid gulch that is Los Angeles. There he experienced two pleasant shocks, the kind he lives for. First, he did a cameo for a new Danielle Steele mini-series, typecast as a sleazy director. Second (and more importantly), he met Merv Griffin. But there is something even more pressing on his mind today, as he cleans out his office of Serial Mom paraphernalia and prepares to begin writing his next feature film:

“My new obsession lately is the capture of Carlos the Jackal. I follow that story as closely as most people are following O.J. Simpson, because–if it’s true–I love the fact that he was caught in a hospital getting liposuction on his stomach. And if you’re a terrorist, I’m all for that–that’s my kind of terrorism.”

There was a time, not so long ago, when stories of celebrity sex scandals were considered to be in bad taste. Not to mention tales of women freshly impregnated by Elvis. And psychic predictions regarding Cher’s ass. Why, as shocking as it may seem today, readers of tabloid newspapers were actually sneered at.

Thank heavens all that’s changed now. These days we have O.J. Simpson looking stoically disinterested on Court TV as his genetic strands are exposed, unshaven couples from the hinterlands videotaping their sex acts for resale, and Oprah earnestly interviewing porn stars and their mothers. And what’s more, we really care.

We live in a media wonderland of trash, enjoying an ever-growing appetite for entertaining filth. Although, admittedly, not all of it is high quality stuff, it nevertheless has permeated our national consciousness in films, television, magazines, newspapers. And John Waters couldn’t be happier.

“I’m a pretty modest person, but the one thing I think I have done is made trash one percent more respectable,” he says, his voice warming with glee.

Of course, defenders of rectitude would condemn this sort of thinking, believing that if it weren’t for the likes of John Waters and those despicable movie execs and depraved rap stars and degenerate TV programmers, society wouldn’t be wallowing in the filth it is today. We would be clean-living, respectful sorts with good table manners. But there’s one problem with this theory: we’ve always been filthy. The current demand for trash culture is not so much a lowering of morals as it is a ‘fessing up–we’ve always secretly liked trash, it’s always been out there, and now we’re simply admitting it. Let the sun shine in.

Waters, Baltimore’s semi-underground film maker and the world’s foremost expert on bad taste, has been leading the way since the early ’70s. His first films were exercises in just how disgusting cinema could be–most notoriously in Pink Flamingos (1972), which featured the monumental transvestite Divine as leader of the Johnson clan, who vied to be named “the filthiest people alive” by indulging in bestiality, incest, and coprophagy. (Look it up.) Variety declared Pink Flamingos to be “one of the most vile, stupid, and repulsive films ever made,” and it was probably right. But that isn’t to say the crude film didn’t serve a purpose–Waters created his own genre of “good” bad taste. There is a difference.

“Good trash is, you never look down on it. You look up to it,” insists Waters. “I’m in awe of really bad taste because I don’t have that freedom. I’m not talking about hip bad taste–that’s a completely different thing. I find it offensive that yuppies would have pink flamingos on their front lawn.

“But at the same time, if someone goes out and buys them because they think they’re beautiful and puts them on their front lawn–to me, that is amazing, and I respect that. I find true bad taste freedom for many people. I don’t look down on them, and I think that’s the difference between ‘good’ bad taste and ‘bad’ bad taste (in entertainment)–that you don’t feel superior to what you’re satirizing.”

In later films such as Female Trouble, Desperate Living, and Polyester, Waters reveled in even more filth, making audiences face their worst fears–ugly people living ridiculously ugly lives–but he did so with respect, even reverence. He never descended into merely making fun of his grotesques, or getting “campy.” This would not make for good bad taste.

“Camp is a luxury,” he declares. “You cannot have the luxury of irony if you’re poor. If you don’t have something to eat, nothing is so bad it’s good. Basically, there’s no such thing as ‘camp.'”

Now society has caught up with the obsessions of John Waters, and trash has gone mainstream, particularly in film. Witness movies by Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodóvar, Sam Raimi, heck, even Oliver Stone, all purveyors of a new trash esthetic with financing straight from establishment Hollywood. But it wasn’t always like this, obviously.

“You know, when I went to film school,” Waters reminisces, “you couldn’t say that you wanted to make a trashy film. You couldn’t have said, ‘I love Russ Meyer.’ You couldn’t have said, ‘I love Herschell Gordon Lewis.’ They would’ve nailed you.

“Now you can make a film even more insane than that and they will applaud you. It has changed radically. I mean, in the old days, no one except Variety reviewed those kinds of movies, so no one even knew about them.

“I got my film education by going to see the artiest of movies–which were Bergman and Fellini and all that, which were then incredibly popular. But I also went to see all the bad drive-in movies, and put the two of them together to come up with a kind of humor that I wanted. So my influences were always high and low, and never in the middle. And I still have trouble with the middle. I love extreme tastes.”

In a sense, however, Waters has turned mainstream himself, creating such well-received fare as Hairspray (a PG-rated bit of bubbly about ’60s dance shows), Crybaby (a ’50s juvenile delinquent parody starring Johnny Depp), and, most recently, Serial Mom, with bona fide Hollywood star Kathleen Turner as a murderously vindictive suburban mother.

Entertaining though they may be, all of them still contain Waters’s trademark “vision”–squirming gross-outs (i.e., the skewered liver scene in Serial Mom) and “normal” characters who are much more deranged than the supposed “sick” ones. While none of the films were hits of Spielbergian dimensions, it is irrefutable that audiences have come to appreciate Waters’s good bad taste. And what’s good for Waters is good for America.

“The Golden Age of Trash has been over for 10 years,” he admits. “It has become mainstream, yes–which has been good for me, I’m not against that. I think the effect of that is the American public has a much better sense of humor than it did 10 or 20 years ago. They’re willing to laugh at themselves, which you have to be able to do to appreciate trash culture. You have to feel a little bit guilty about laughing because everyone, underneath it all, has some kind of trash.”

And what’s more, now that trash has gone Hollywood, he’s actually become respected as a film maker, with showings at reputable film festivals (Cannes, Rio de Janeiro, Reykjavik) and with young, new directors who cite him as an influence. After so many years of being a literal outsider to the film community, does this evolution to respectability disturb Waters?

“No, it doesn’t frighten me, it’s just a new kind of irony, really. I think certain people always respected me–I always had enough respect. I think people were fair to me.

“The one good thing about my career for the last 30 years is that it’s been very gradual, nothing’s happened overnight. I’m still doing what I like doing. So nothing has jarred me with sudden change–everything happened a little bit at a time. I think that’s kept me at what my version of sane is.”

Another of Waters’s obsessions that has become popularized is his fascination with murder trials. For years, Waters would travel across the country, attending “hard ticket” trials of famous killers, claiming it was “the best theater in the country.” Now that his taste has been vindicated by Court TV, however, he faces an impasse: “The O.J. Simpson case has finally ended a 30-year obsession with court rooms. I care not one iota about that trial. And I doubt I’ll ever go to a trial again,” he staunchly declares.

Not all trash is created equal, particularly in tabloid TV, which Waters finds unappealing. In particular, he loathes the over-reporting of the Simpson case, which he discounts as “a very average crime.” Although he admires Court TV (despite spoiling the cache of his court room attendance), he strongly dislikes the hordes of tabloid shows crowding television airwaves: “I’m not a tabloid TV fan at all–I think it’s ‘bad’ bad taste because they tsk-tsk exactly what they’re doing, and I hate the hypocrisy of that.”

So even in a new world of trash, there are prices to pay.

“There are no taboos left in movies,” despairs Waters. “Hardcore pornography ended exploitation films because, basically, exploitation films were about how that was the one thing you couldn’t do. Once you could do that, there were no taboos. I mean, the studios make movies today that would’ve been exploitation movies 20 years ago, only now they give them big budgets and take all the fun out of them.

“But,” he says, drawing a hopeful breath, “there will be new trash.”

Amen to that.

Free Associating Trash with John Waters

MICHAEL JACKSON: “Well, it shows just how sick heterosexuality can get.”

TABLOID TV: “Never watch TV, I read. I know that sounds so offensive, but it’s the truth. Tabloid TV I don’t watch–I’m against it because they’re always saying ‘Isn’t this horrible?’ and doing something worse.”

TONYA HARDING: “Little interest, and everyone thought I would love her. They were wrong. She was ‘bad’ bad taste.”

TATTOOS: “Looks so bad when you’re 50. Someone’s gonna make a fortune taking generations of it off, ’cause, boy, when you’re 50 and in a bathing suit with a tattoo, does it look bad.”

PIERCING: “I get it–it’s a good way to get on my generation’s nerves. If you have parents you live with, it’s a good one. I think next is having your ears or lips removed–surgery for style.”

PRESIDENT CLINTON: “I was really in love with his mother. I really voted for him because of his mother’s eyebrows. They looked like they were stenciled on. I would still vote for Clinton again–I mean, he’s trying, I wish he was better at politics to make things work, but it’s tough. I don’t know if anybody could do what I want them to do as president. I do want to have sex in a voting booth. That’s one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.”

LOUNGE MUSIC: “I know, that’s the new thing–all these kids are sending me tapes of Martin Denny and all that kind of stuff. Well, I liked it the first time around so it’s a little perplexing to me now that it’s back. But I always liked it, so fine, it’s more available–all that stuff in Incredibly Strange Music is incredibly interesting. It’s good, I’m all for it. That’s a trend I never would have predicted.”

And On His Contemporaries:

KEVIN SMITH’S CLERKS: “It should give all young people incentive because here’s a movie that cost $27,000 that is great–it’s really a great script. And that’s what it’s always about–scripts. It’s not about camera angles and it’s not about technique–it’s about a wonderful script. And this is very, very funny and very new. And I always like directors who take you into their own world, even if it’s a world you hate. This is a director to watch.”

QUENTIN TARANTINO’S PULP FICTION: “It’s a great movie. I’m quick to praise other directors’ work. I’m not the kind of director that resents younger directors’ success. I think it’s great. I think Quentin Tarantino makes wonderful, knowingly good, brilliant trash. I was with Pedro Almodóvar and Quentin at this festival in Italy–we were kidding Quentin: How could you make such a great movie? But of course we were both generally happy to see a great new movie by somebody.”

OLIVER STONE’S NATURAL BORN KILLERS: “Well, I think it’s certainly worth seeing. I think Oliver Stone ruins his own movies every time, though. I think there’s great stuff in it. I think technically it’s one of the most adventurous experimental Hollywood movies we’ve ever had. But then it becomes preachy and bombastic and too obvious. Of all the things Oliver Stone has done, I think he made one brilliant movie, which was Salvador. He is too bombastic for me, although I certainly think he’s a good American film maker.”

RICHARD GERE’S INTERSECTION: “The best kind of trashy movies are certainly the ones that don’t know they’re bad. I think my favorite good trash movie of the year was Intersection with Richard Gere–yeah, I liked it a lot. No one but myself did.”

John Waters, illustrated by Stan Shaw

Coury Turczyn

Coury Turczyn is a concerned consumer of popular culture. Got an interesting story idea or an amazing financial opportunity to share? Contact him at coury@popcultmag.com.

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