Sex Education

Interview with John Waters

by Todd R. Ramlow


John Waters

Photo credit: Seth Kushner

Ever the “controversial” director, John Waters’ new film, A Dirty Shame is his first in over twenty years to receive an adult restricted rating. Waters isn’t one to court controversy merely for its own sake though (as directors like, say, the Farrelly brothers do). As he discussed with PopMatters, Waters is acutely attuned to the cultural zeitgeist and he sees A Dirty Shame in relation to recent trends in U.S. cultural life. Not the least of which is the rise of sexual orthodoxy connected to other social, economic and political conservatisms of all sorts.

PopMatters: So, first things first. With A Dirty Shame was it your intention to make a movie this time that would garner and NC-17 rating from the MPAA?

John Waters: I didn’t pick that, are you kidding me? I didn’t expect it. My contract said it was an “R,” I pitched it as an “R.” I think it is an R rated movie. I think that if we had a different administration or it were three years ago it would be an R rated movie. But I don’t care that it’s NC-17, my fans love the fact; they’re like “Yeah!” But we haven’t lost any theaters from it or anything. Luckily, New Line was okay with it and it didn’t make a big, big difference. It could have meant the movie wouldn’t come out. It could have been a real nightmare for me. I even asked what I could cut, because you always do that. [The MPAA] said, “There’s a million brushstrokes in the movie [and] you can’t cut [enough].” So the only way to cut it would have been to make a totally “neuter” version.

PM: Which would have totally defeated the entire point and satire of the film. While A Dirty Shame was certainly conceived, produced and filmed before, I can’t help thinking of the film as a response or reaction to Janet’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Howard Stern’s recent travails and all the FCC bullshit since January of this year.

JW: Well, this was all finished before that. The MPAA basically said to me there was no way to cut this and that it was 100 percent from the first vote. No way was it going to get an R. They said, “Our job is to say what most parents would think of it.” Well, if you really took every parent, [many] probably would be horrified. Only a small percentage of parents even go to the movies, or know anything about them. But for me, yes, there are many parents who wouldn’t take their kids, but there are some. And that’s what an R rating is for. But I don’t care, really. I’m not gonna get on my high horse about it, or even make it the focus of the campaign. Because then people will come in saying, “Well, they’re not all nude, having sex.” That’s what NC-17 kind of reads to me. You think, these days, what could be so shocking, anal bleaching or something?

PM: I was looking back over the production details of your previous films, and 1981’s Polyester was the last adult restriction that you’ve had.

JW: Well, when Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974) both came out again they were re-rated NC-17.

PM: Right. I love the MPAA caution, that Pink Flamingos is rated NC-17, “For a wide range of perversions in explicit detail.”

JW: I think with A Dirty Shame, they were being nice. They knew we were going to accept the rating, so they just put “For pervasive sexual content.” Which I think was them trying to be nice, rather than putting something like, “Because of felching.”

PM: In which case the litany of sexual acts depicted that would have to be listed would be larger than the promotional poster.

JW: If you look at the original poster for Female Trouble, back when being rated X helped my movies, the poster had a huge inset that said “About this X! Due to the extreme nature of this movie…” But you know ratings trends come and go as well. There’s really no G rating anymore. That’s what maybe I should do next. It’s the only rating that I’ve never had. And there’s no real difference between PG and PG-13. I used to think there was between R and NC-17, then a New York Times article came out saying how “liberal” the ratings board was. If it’s about sex there’s a difference, but not about violence. And I like violence, too, don’t get me wrong. But there are movies that I like and I think, “They got an R and I didn’t?” I’ve been on my best behavior, because I have to go back there the next time. There’s no point. You can’t win. It’s like answering your critics. You just keep going.

PM: In the Washington Post the other day, your mother was quoted as saying that with A Dirty Shame, you’re trying to get back to your old reputation.

JW: I think that was a very media-wise quote. I wasn’t really trying to do that with this movie. People said that about Cecil B. DeMented (2000). I guess what that means is, no, no one is ever going to eat dog shit again. So if that’s what you’re looking for, move on! My father’s was the best response. He said, “I thought it was really funny, and I hope I never see it again.” So my parents aren’t going to be going to midnight screenings, dressed in the outfits, shouting out the dialogue like at The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I promise you. But they were good sports. I mean they’re 86 and 87, they wouldn’t see this movie if it wasn’t mine.

PM: But I do think it’s interesting just how very wide your fan base is. I know people in their 50s and 60s who love your films.

JW: Well that’s amazing, because it used to be that people’s parents just really hated my films. But I guess the parents who hated me are all dead, and their kids, who loved my movies, have the houses and the kids now. But rest assured: parents of people my age hated my films.

PM: What do your parents think of your films in general?

JW: Well, they had a lot more fun at Hairspray the musical than they did at A Dirty Shame, because it’s less threatening. My parents are pretty conservative. They’ve gotten less so because of me, still they are who they are. I tell them they don’t have to come, but they say, “Of course we’re coming.” Actually, I have to tell my father to stop upstaging me, because everybody wants to talk to him. My mother said, what she hates is that everyone turns around and looks at her at screenings to see her reaction, because they know she’s my mother.

PM: Or because people have to look at your parents to gauge what could have possibly produced you.

JW: People ask me that. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s my job to think up ideas like this.

PM: You’ve called A Dirty Shame a sex education film, why so? Why do you think we need broader avenues of sex education in the U.S.?

JW: Because there are none left. It used to be mostly just AIDS that could kill you. Now we have Hepatitis-C, and in the gay community there’s a rise in syphilis. It used to be at least safe to get blown. Now even that isn’t safe anymore. So we have to pick up the pace, there’s very little safe sex education left, and kids are going to experiment, and they should, because that’s part of being young. But it’s scary. So if all of the acts [in A Dirty Shame] are not against women and they are safe, then hopefully we can laugh and learn about the necessity of safe sex. Although laughter is the true enemy of “serious” sex, unless you’re like a tickle top, which I really don’t get. Tickle porn is all about being tied up and tickled until you have an orgasm. And they’re very serious about it all. But I’m glad for them. I’m not really going to try it, but it seems to work. I guess my repertory is a little limited on some things.

PM: I’m curious how you choose the fetishes and practices to include in your films. I caught an episode of CSI that was all about furries, which you haven’t addressed.

JW: I haven’t done that because Vanity Fair had that big article about it, and I never really believed it was true. I think that most people became furries after that article. But it just looks too hot for me. I have to pick fetishes that could be funny and that you could describe quickly. But I completely believe in safe sex education. If we could just talk about it more. I mean the mother-daughter scene in the film is ridiculous, you would never have a mother saying to her daughter “I’m a cunnilingus bottom.” But at the same time, if you could… I mean, there have been billboards all over Baltimore from the mayor’s office, reading “Talk to your children about sex, somebody else is.” And that’s from the government.

PM: Right, but we can’t talk about it in schools, which goes back to your comment about this administration, which has tied federal funding for sex ed. in public schools to “abstinence only” curricula.

JW: Abstinence is a “neuter” movement. The movie may be made up, but what it depicts is not too far away. There are “neuter” movements, like the purity movement, where you sign a pledge card and all that.

PM: Yep, “Virgins for Jesus.”

JW: And they have a right to that too. I’d say that’s just another extreme fetish. So that’s okay. Just don’t make me do it. I don’t care what people do in bed, or if they don’t do anything. Just don’t think that everybody else has to feel how you feel about it, whether it’s sex, religion or politics.

PM: I’d like to talk about Johnny Knoxville, a bit. In your production notes you say what drew you to casting him was seeing Jackass: The Movie and having seen the MTV show and loving the anarchy that both represented.

JW: I also thought it was great that he had male nudity in a show geared towards straight boys. It was so confusing, and they loved it.

PM: And it was so genital-obsessed.

JW: And they were always shoving things up their asses. It was funny. It was anarchy. Johnny gave me a tape, “Too Hot for MTV,” which was all the stuff they wouldn’t let him show. Like two of the guys jerking off in front of each other, but at the same time being all “Eeeeww!” And another guy pissing on an electric fence, not realizing the electricity would travel through the pee.

PM: Taking these questions of politics on a different tack, you’ve always been associated with and represent Baltimore. A Dirty Shame shame is set in the Harford Road community, and in the production notes you suggest that the area represents a Baltimore that isn’t so much around anymore.

JW: Well, it’s vanishing and the more upscale neighborhoods are taking over. I’m not opposed entirely, it’s good for the city, it’s good for property values. It’s not great for the residents, they have to pay the taxes and they’re not moving. It’s interesting to see though. Suddenly people are moving to Baltimore from Washington, DC. Why now? It just must have gotten so expensive to live in Washington that no one could stand it.

PM: It’s interesting to me that while you and Baltimore have one sort of reputation together, the other version of the city that you see is on Homicide or The Wire.

JW: Or Barry Levinson’s movies. And it’s always about murder or drug addiction. But Baltimore’s never tried to appeal to anyone, really. The people don’t leave Baltimore; they don’t understand people that do. They don’t even leave their neighborhood. And every neighborhood has its own really strong identity. Baltimore is different in that way, it’s not a trendy city; we don’t even have a gossip column in the local papers. And no one would even care if we did. One of the bikers at the Holiday House [in A Dirty Shame] said to me, “Why do people care about celebrities? It’s not like we know them.” It was a very fair thing to say and I never quite thought of it that way.

PM: What I love about Baltimore is that it seems to have a similar tradition of a generalized tolerance that comes out of a strong working-class economy, in which people don’t much care about individual differences. So long, of course, as it doesn’t affect them directly.

JW: There is something of that tolerance. I do think that now there are racist problems, certainly. It’s such a melting pot. But even all those neighborhoods are now getting infiltrated, and what used to be lower-income white neighborhoods are now becoming yuppified. And that’s why I have the joke in the film about the yuppie couple from Washington who moves into the neighborhood.

PM: One final question, as I was doing my prep for this interview, I came across a small but heated debate on the internet about which director has had a bigger influence on you, Russ Meyer or Tinto Brass, with a vocal minority pushing Doris Wishman.

JW: Oh, Caligula was horrible. It was even a letdown then. So Tinto Brass isn’t one of them. Of those three, I guess I’d say Russ Meyer. Though really it would be Walt Disney, because he had great villains, and his face became like a brand name. A Walt Disney villain is what I wanted to be as a child.

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