Is anyone having more fun than John Waters? Having spent nearly a half-century fighting against “the tyranny of good taste,” the cult filmmaker, actor, writer and artist has managed to earn fame and respect of the fully above-ground variety without losing any of his subversive sensibilities: last year, the Lincoln Center celebrated Waters’ career with a retrospective, “50 Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” and he recently received a Grammy nod for the audiobook of his bestselling “hitchhiking memoir,” Carsick
At 68, Waters’ appetite for the absurd has hardly abated. He still enjoys refracting American culture through his own funhouse mirror. For example, in his latest solo art exhibit, Beverly Hills John
, the title piece is a photo illustration of Waters with a hideous facelift.
“I’m still interested in human behavior that I can’t understand,” Waters said during a recent phone interview from his home in Baltimore. “I’ve always been interested in people who have lives more extreme than I do.”
Waters is equal parts curious and generous about people living on the edge – even when, or maybe especially when, they’re in the middle of nowhere. “If I ever hear another elitist jerk use the term flyover people, I’ll punch him in the mouth,” Waters writes in “Carsick.” “My riders were brave and open-minded, and their down-to-earth kindness gave me new faith in how decent Americans can be.”
In his first-ever Mississippi appearance, Waters will close out the Sarah Isom Student Gender Conference this Saturday with a performance of his one-man show, “This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier.”
“I’m so excited to be doing this with the gender studies department,” Waters said, adding with uncharacteristic understatement, “I’m a huge feminist.”
You seem like you have a genuine appreciation for American regionalism. Do you think of Baltimore as being Southern?
Yes. I think of it as more southern than northern. I think I joked once that Baltimore is because everybody was moving to the North from the South and they ran out of gas.
Did I identify as Southern? No. I identified with Yippies, and punks, and juvenile delinquents. I didn’t identify geographically. But with Baltimore itself, I most certainly did identify. Everything I was about, in a way, was reflecting that.
Baltimore has very much changed – I don’t think Baltimore has an inferiority complex at all anymore. Not because of me. For many reasons. It’s still a city where they’re not impressed by anything. They never ask me, “What’s Johnny Depp like?” They don’t care.
You’ve never been to Mississippi before — what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mississippi?
Freedom Fighters. I was in high school then, and I remember being so impressed with all those college kids getting on those buses and going to the South. I’ve been through the South now, and it’s radically different. It’s almost like they really have tried hard to make up for it! But then you see something like what happened last week [at University of Oklahoma] with the fraternity brothers screaming racist songs, and you think, maybe nothing has changed.
The scarier thing, I think, is a racist who’s still racist but they don’t say it out loud. They are more dangerous than the Ku Klux Klan, because they get in power…The ones who are the closet liberals—no, fake liberals—who know that it’s politically incorrect to say that stuff, but they still think it, they’re the scary ones.
The solution to all racism, I think, is travel. Because you can’t be a racist and travel. I know I’d have a hard time selling that to the courts as punishment for a hate crime—“You are sentenced to three months in Europe!” It’ll never get proven. But I know I’m right.
You’ve said that the reason you wanted to hitchhike across the country was because you’re not on social media, and this would be a good way to meet people.
I’m on my computer all day long, it’s not like I’m a luddite. I’m not on Facebook because I work 10 hours a day, and I’m not bleeding my material. I put that in a book where you have to buy it — I’m not giving away my good jokes.
And I have enough friends. I don’t want new friends. I want to be harder to reach.
You wrote in Carsick about what a challenge it was for you to decide to do something so risky, where you had to give up control. Do you think people would be surprised to learn how regimented you are in how you approach your work?
I don’t know that people would be surprised. I think in the beginning of my career they thought, yes, I took dope and lived in a trailer, which maybe I did. But they thought my movies were how I lived my life. None of us were like that at all. We were playing parts.
I don’t think, anymore, people think that. I think people generally understand me. I’m hardly a misunderstood artist who’s gonna cut off my ear. I’ve been doing this for 50 years. So, I think I am understood. Nobody gets mad at what I say anymore, no matter what I say.
I’m not mean. I don’t get busted anymore. Well, still the MPAA gave me an NC-17 rating for my last movie…so still that was a hassle, the same old thing.
What astounds me is parents now come to my shows with their angry fucking kids as a last-ditch effort to bond, and I find that very moving. I don’t know if it works.
I wouldn’t want to sit next to my mother during the show…I think it’s a very uncomfortable show to sit through with your parents. But people have changed—people are much more open about everything. But I still think it would be difficult to sit next to my mom, if she were still alive, and have her hear my whole show.
You’re a voracious reader and writer – you said in your book Role Models that “being rich is the freedom to buy any book you want without looking at the price and wondering if you could afford it.”
There’s two things I think being rich is: It’s being able to buy every book without looking at the price, and never being around assholes. And I have worked that out. I am NEVER around assholes. And that’s rich.
How did you work that last part out?
It took me years to figure out how to do that. Slowly. It’s a slow process.
But you do it by making your own rules and being successful enough that you don’t have to deal with people who want to stop you. And by choosing where you go, and doing research, and knowing how to stay in a life that is what you want.
I always wanted bohemia. But I realized a long time ago that the only way left for me is to be an insider, not an outsider anymore. Because everybody now wants to be an outsider. I’ve switched. When I was young, nobody said they wanted to be an outsider—that was a dirty word!
But today, every single person thinks they’re an outsider. So now I want to say, “I’m in power.” That’s the only perverse thing I have left.
Waters will perform his one-man show, “This Filthy World,” at the Gertrude C. Ford Center at the University of Mississippi on Saturday, March 28th at 7:00 p.m.
Tickets are free and available through the UM Box Office. Call: 662-915-7411