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John Waters on the art of shocking audiences

This weekend, a major retrospective of filmmaker John Waters' work, titled “Indecent Exposure,” opened in his hometown at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Often satirizing violence, celebrity and sexuality, the cult film director has long pushed limits of cinematic decency with hits like Hairspray and Cry-Baby. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker sat down with Waters to talk about his process.

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  • Christopher Booker:

    There was a time when it wasn't safe to like John Waters. Once dubbed the Pope of Trash the writer and director spent years pushing the boundaries of cinematic decency.

    Film clip from Multiple Maniacs, 1970 "You're sick, repulsive! "You my dear are dead!"

  • Christopher Booker:

    His incendiary films from the 60's and 70's satirising violence, celebrity and sexuality, shocked audiences around the world. Films like Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos – his 1972 underground classic starring drag-queen icon Divine, were censored and banned in some countries. But audiences couldn't get enough.

  • John Waters:

    I try to eavesdrop and spy on people. That's my job is to– go out and report to the unwashed public, my fans, the– unfathomable behavior of Americans.

  • Christopher Booker:

    By the end of the 1980's, the world of John Waters had started to attract a more mainstream audience, driven in large part by the 1988 release of PG rated – Hairspray.

    But even though his work had expanded beyond the underground, Waters never stopped trying to antagonize our taste's, and not just in the movies. He has challenged America's palette of decency in books, on Broadway, even on the walls of the contemporary art world.

  • John Waters:

    Oh good they are going to put one here. Lets see. So this is a self portrait.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And now for the first time, some of this work has been collected for a major retrospective for the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's appropriately titled "Indecent Exposure."

  • Christopher Booker:

    A lot of these pieces you haven't seen in years?

  • John Waters:

    No, because they have been in collectors' homes, so we had to find them to get them back. It is amazing to walk through it. I haven't seen any of them really until after I had the show.

  • Christopher Booker:

    With over 160 photographs, sculptures, soundwolrks and videos – "Indecent Exposure" includes all the idiosyncratic subversiveness synonymous with John Waters.

    Film clip Kiddie Flamingos, 2014 "Eat these gosh darn chickens!"

  • Christopher Booker:

    There's 'Children who Smoke' – a montage of some of Hollywood's most beloved child stars as cigarette smokers. Or 'Sneaky JFK' – a replica doll of America's 35th president wearing one of Jacqueline Kennedy's gowns or 'Beverly Hills John' – a reimagined self-portrait of Waters… had he elected to have plastic surgery.

  • John Waters:

    I think people are going to say 'oh, he got work' They are just goign to think I look like that now. (Laughs) I believe there will be pet face lifts, if there isn't already. They would have made Lassie get one.

  • John Waters:

    I was never frightened to– to try new stuff because that's what people would expect if they come to see my show. They want to be taken sometimes into a world that they might feel uncomfortable with. And I'm their guide, though. 'Cause I don't think I'm mean. I might ask you to consider something but I don't think, if I'm trying to shock, I'm trying to make you laugh at the same time. Because I'm still amazed by things that I don't understand. That's what always interests me, that there is no clear answer to it. It's easy to shock people. It's much harder to make 'em laugh.

  • John Waters:

    So when I was in Catholic school I was obsessed with writing 7734 over and over. So you can have this on your wall, it is like a mood ring, you can turn this upside down to hell.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The retrospective moves between the mischavus and the macabre. Some of the work offer reimagings of some of our culture's shared tragedy.

  • John Waters:

    This was such an innocent childhood memory, this movie that I loved as a kid were flying saucers attack Washington, but now when you put it with 9/11 it makes it very, very terrible that it could happen today in a completely different way.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But a constant throughout the exhibit is Water's continued appetite to prod and provoke our love of film, telvision and celebrity. Mass media is his medium.

  • John Waters:

    And that's Elizabeth Taylor getting a facelift where her mustache turns basically into my mustache, so I am just writing with different images from different films to tell a completely different story that wasn't there.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you find a greater supply of motivational fuel, given the expansion of media and unbelievable explosion of pop culture, and celebrity culture?

  • John Waters:

    The media to me is my soap opera. Every day I watch it and I still get six newspapers delivered every day. I still– consume the news a lot, which I think if you write comedy in any way, you have to be on top of what the news is. It's fun to me– I like writing, I like telling stories, even in the photographs from the artwork I do, and I– I even hate to call it artwork, 'cause that's up to others to say, not to me. I always say when people say, "I'm an artist." Oh really? I believe history will be the judge of that. But– at the same time, you know, I'm gonna say, I'm a photographer, then it sounds like I'm Ansel Adams. You know? I have a piece called, Cancel Ansel, which is actually where I screw up his photography, by putting in his beautiful scenery, like cruise ships, and– and you know, litter, and naked people swimming, and that kind of thing.

  • Christopher Booker:

    There is– an intimidation, especially as it relates to the contemporary art world, if– and you know, if you're not in the club, it's frightening to try to– to get in?

  • John Waters:

    Well, I liked that about it, that it's a secret biker club that hates you. I even have a piece that says, "Contemporary Art Hates You." because it does, if you hate it first. It's a thin line. You can't have contempt about it and go in, but you have to learn, you have to study a little. You have to figure it out. Why these things happen and then suddenly this whole world up– opens up to you. You can see it in a completely different way. It's like, you were blind before.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you think it would be hard to set out on your course as young person now?

  • John Waters:

    It might be easier, because– to start out today, because every Hollywood studio is looking for the next kid that made a movie with a cell phone. They weren't when I was. It's– it's still tough. It's always gonna be tough, and If you have to ask how can I do it? You'll never do it. You have– the whole thing is to figure out how to do it. (LAUGHTER) How to get in there, and figure out how to do it.

  • John Waters:

    And this one is to inspire order. Every day of my life I have a file card that I write down what I have to do and I cross it off. So get busy.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The thing is, they are all crossed off! So you did them.

  • John Waters:

    I did em all, yeah!" And so, this is called 300 days, whatever its called, its 300 days.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Were you orderly as a kid?"

  • John Waters:

    No! I took LSD every day!" I wasn't orderly! If you want to be in– an artist, go to all the art shows, read the art magazines, figure out which gallery would be the best one for you, that shows work you like, that maybe might do it, you know? You have to learn how the whole thing works, and have an interest in it. Which I– I always did.

  • John Waters:

    And this is another tabloid one if there were a tabloid for intellectuals.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Yeah

  • John Waters:

    It is certainly an intellectual's secret life.

  • John Waters:

    I never understand when people say, you're bored– you're bored. Just walk outside and watch people. Sit in an airport. I make up a story about every single person as they're getting off the plane– instant bio, (SNAP) in one second, you know.

  • Christopher Booker:

    What do you think will last longer, your– your visual work, or– or your films?

  • John Waters:

    I don't know, you know.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you even think that way?

  • John Waters:

    Well you think that way, sure you do, that's why you keep working in a way. I think that maybe my whole– it would be all remembered as one thing that I've done, you know. Because my books, and my spoken word shows, and– it's all telling stories. Generally, you know, when I– die, (SIGH) Pink Flamingos will be in the first– first paragraph of my obituary, and Hairspray, before this probably. If they write it! Who knows, you– you can go out of fashion really quickly. You know, and people– you know, forget. I mean, it depends how much longer I'm– not gonna live that long, really. To live down the trouble I've left!

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