VOLUME 3, ISSUE 339 | September 23 -29, 2004


Dirty, But Fashionable Waters

The auteur of outrage begins to wonder how far sexual (in)tolerance can go


“I thought it would be fun to make a sex movie because I had never made one,” John Waters said about his new film, “A Dirty Shame.”

Set in Baltimore, naturally, the film is the instructive fable of a dowdy couple (Tracey Ullman and Chris Isaak), who must contend with a daughter (Selma Blair), who calls herself Ursula Udders, and entertains the local low-lives by displaying her humongous breasts. Into their lives splashes Johnny Knoxville, a veritable saint of sex, who transforms their peaceful neighborhood into a rutting, sweating hotbed of licentiousness where no perversion is foreign.

“I had this idea about sex being ludicrous, in a way,” Waters said, “and how far can tolerance go? In the end, I don’t even know that myself. There’s no normal sex in this movie. The missionary position is completely verboten and, while it’s concerned with, say, the rights of the adult baby community, I personally am glad I’m not an adult baby. Life’s hard enough.”

Waters highlights sexual phenomena such as felching, sploshing (“That’s sex with food, an English thing. There’s a whole magazine about it.”), and tromboning (masturbating while on the toilet). Of that last, Waters admitted, “Well, I’ve heard about it. Remember this is a vocabulary lesson. It is a sex education movie, after all. Today, we’re weirdly in a society that’s so free, yet sex is still the thing that America can’t talk about so I purposely picked things that were so ludicrous. If you think you’re uptight about sex, wait ‘til you see this one!”

Waters also looks at the bear phenomenon among gay men.

“There are so many books about it. In Provincetown there was Bear Week and I saw Bear Quake in San Francisco when I was there,” he explained. “It’s huge and Middle America has no idea about this ever-growing community. There’s probably a bear living on your block! However, unlike so much gay culture, I don’t know that it will cross over. There are certainly many straight bears. Most straight men are bears. In fact, most 40-year-old men are bears, whether they know it or not. They just don’t know the lingo yet and that somebody’s masturbating, thinking of them. You look through the bear porn and think, ‘Well, that’s new to me.’ A new taste that is being developed; it may have already been there, but it was not yet tapped.”

Waters praised his star Ullman, who buried herself in her role. “It was brave of her to do this about a very plain, neutered woman, when in real life, Tracey’s gorgeous,” he said. “She’s fearless about disappearing into a character. She brings wigs and loves to do that; her career has been that, so people forget that she’s really a beautiful woman. In her big orgasm scene, we thought about the cliché in all sex movies when a man goes down on a woman. You just see the woman’s face, panting, and we wanted to do that. But I never thought she’d rip off her headband and bite it. From the beginning, she talked about wanting that headband as a prop.”

Baltimore has never looked better than it does, as sunnily presented here, replete with annoying yuppies who gentrify old, beloved neighborhoods.

“It’s true,” Waters conceded. “All the yuppies come to Baltimore now and build rooftop decks on houses that are totally architecturally incorrect. That’s the new home improvement, the new siding, the new formstone: roof decks. It’s good for the city, but the Baltimore I make movies about is vanishing a little.”

At the first test screening, the first audience reaction card read, “Please keep all the frontal male nudity in.” Waters did, and the film got an NC-17 rating.

“I’m very happy with this film,” Waters said, “but that was a shock. We didn’t expect it, but New Line’s been great about it because of my history. When it comes out on video, there are stores that won’t carry it, and we have three different ads, because they will only approve Selma’s breasts in some parts of the country. They have to be smaller in Utah than in Manhattan. This country loves violence and hates sex. For an NC-17 there’s no violence in this movie, not a drop of blood.”

Not surprisingly, Waters is voting for John Kerry. “I’ll be in Europe but thank God I have my absentee ballot,” he said. “I can’t stand Bush’s arrogance, but I did get some lovely mail from this major in Iraq, whose troops were watching ‘Pink Flamingos’ and how great it was. This was many months ago, when it all started, and very moving and amazing to me. When people ask me who I’m voting for, I really say, ‘Kerry’s wife.’”

Waters still calls Baltimore home, with a Manhattan place he enjoys, happily solo, and frequent jaunts to Provincetown, which he loves because he can hitchhike to the beach.

“No partner,” he admitted. “I don’t want one and am not looking. I can’t live with them. I’ve had great boyfriends in my life and am still friends with all of them, but I don’t want to be married, join the army or have children. I’m old school. Everybody has a right to do things, but I like the privilege of being gay. It was Gay Family Week in Provincetown and everyone had the perfect vintage station wagon with the perfect amount of rust on it. It’s so 50s and what I want to see is the rebellion from it. It will be the same average with straight people—good kids turn out, as will kids who go crazy, good and bad gay parents. Dr. Spock didn’t write that chapter, so it’s gonna be a new generation and very interesting to see, as no one really knows.”

Waters also commented on the crystal meth scourge in the gay community. “I used to take diet pills, black beauties, which I loved as a teenager. I used to be a speed freak, but what I don’t get is that crystal meth when I grew up was what bikers in Baltimore did,” he said. “And now when gay people do it, they have that same look in their eyes that is so scary, like ‘Night of the Living Hard-ons.’ Who am I to criticize, but I certainly am not going to try it. I don’t have the right outfits. They’re like a tribe of ghouls, they’re muscle-bound, they’re horny, they have no brain cells left and they want to talk about it.”

Busy-busy would definitely describe Waters’ schedule right now, with his photography show about to hit the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and then the Orange County Museum in California, and work on the Broadway musical of his wonderful film “Crybaby.” The film’s director’s cut is coming out on dvd, which he’s says he’s happy about—“I hate the version they show on TV. They took stuff out and padded it with other stuff, so I’ve put in a couple of musical numbers you haven’t seen. We’re just now waiting for Johnny [Depp] to do the interview.”

“Hairspray,” the stage adaptation of his film, is still going strong, with three companies afoot, and a movie version adapted from the adaptation in the works—“with a great director whose name I can’t mention yet.”

Waters said his long-suffering parents are particularly thrilled with “Hairspray’s” success.

“My mother could finally say she loved my work, and didn’t have to lie,” he related. “I’m thrilled that they were alive to see it. They were very supportive, but we went through many rocky times, you can imagine. My mother says, ‘Well, you growing up to be known as the Puke King wasn’t exactly what we had in mind,’ but they’re proud now. They’re coming to the premiere of ‘A Dirty Shame’ in Baltimore, a big benefit for AIDS Action Baltimore. She said, ‘Is the family going to sit together?’ I said, ‘No one’s going to want to sit next to you in this movie. You think we all want to sit there with you and watch this movie?’ She says at every weird part in my films, everyone turns around to look at her because they know she’s my mother. When she first asked me what this one was about, I told her ‘Sex addicts,’ and she said, ‘Maybe we’ll die first,’ and ‘Is this going to take away all the goodwill that ‘Hairspray’ brought you?’ Yes. My halo was getting a little tight.”

One little known fact about Waters is what a superlative clothes horse he is, really the bomb, wearing, for instance, a fab Miyake jacket during our interview.

“The ones I like the best are Comme des Garcons, Yohji, Paul Smith, Agnes B and Miyake,” he confessed. “Rei Kawakubo of Comme des asked me to model for her. It felt like ‘Don Knotts Meets Mahogany,’ but I had a good time. She’s so severe, though. I think she’s probably locked away in a cell right now, thinking of another way to fuck up her new line because everything I wear in Baltimore gets a reaction like, ‘What a shame about that coat!’ I have to get things cleaned outside of Baltimore because the cleaners there always try to fix them, and say, ‘This had a stain on it, you know.’ It was supposed to! My father always says, ‘They saw you coming, boy. You bought that?’”

“A Dirty Shame” opens this Friday in Manhattan.

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