Being an Outsider Isn't Cool Anymore, John Waters Says So
The filmmaker has a message for the would-be John Waterses of the world: Assimilation is the new transgression.
John Waters might be the last person you'd expect to preach the gospel of assimilation. But there it is, on page 29 of his new book, Make Trouble (out today from Algonquin Books): "Isn't being an outsider sooo last year?" he asks. "I mean, maybe it's time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy: The Insider. Like I am."
"Insider" might be a stretch. But even if his films are known for singing assholes and shit-eating grins, it's not far off—today, Waters's work is canon, taught from coast to coast. He may be a "filth elder" or the "Pope of Trash," and he may have been kicked out of every post-grade school he's attended, but he's also inspired academic works that have reshaped modern gender theory, and Make Trouble, after all, is a transcript of the 2015 graduation speech he gave at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Full of pithy quips and contrarian insights about what it means to be a modern artist, it's the kind of gift a grandmother could comfortably hand over. Waters's wisdom repackaged as a Hallmark-style graduation present: That's what it means to be an insider.
That Waters is now graduation-speech fare is nothing shocking, but it does merit asking: What would shock a future John Waters today, and what does "transgressive" art look like in a post-Trump world? The august crudmonger answered those questions and more during a recent phone conversation with VICE.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: This wasn't your first academic speech.
John Waters: Oh, I've been doing colleges for 40 years. But this was the first time I ever did a graduation with parents. The only school I ever graduated from was grade school. I didn't realize how long they are. Oh my God... but it wasn't torture for me, because I had never been. It was just amazing to me how many people did their homework. That's what I kept thinking: These kids should be out rioting, not studying.
Especially at a school like RISD.
It was great there! Colleges were different when I was young—they wouldn't let me do anything I wanted to, and I was bored to death. Then boredom turns to anger, and anger turns to drugs, and drugs turn to excitement! Or death. It depends on your constitution.
When they asked you to speak, did a lightbulb go off? "Oh, this will be great!"
No, I was wondering why nobody had ever asked me! I wanted to do it when I was going to NYU, but I was thrown out of the dorms! It was their first pot bust ever. And they should have thrown me out. I only went to one class, and I stole books from the bookstore every day and sold them back to get money for the movies, and I snuck pot and LSD into the residence halls.
And they would not have let me make Pink Flamingos there, in 1966. Today, you could go to NYU and make a snuff porn film and get an A if you couch it in art talk. Which you should be able to do! As long as it's a fake death—I guess there's a line.
"It was just amazing to me how many people did their homework. That's what I kept thinking: These kids should be out rioting, not studying."
That's an interesting point—for a young artist, what does it even take to get noticed now? You might actually have to murder someone.
No, you don't. Look at Todd Solondz; he teaches at NYU, and he's done amazing. And he still makes people nervous, and they still use boring words like "edgy" and "transgressive" to describe his films. But his actually are.
I saw his last movie, Weiner Dog, and there was a dog lover couple in front of me who came to see it because of the name. Before the show, they were handing pictures of their dogs to anyone who would look. And then, in the middle, the dog gets killed—but it's funny how it gets killed. The dog doesn't really die; it's not a documentary. But they were clutching their hearts. One of them was on the floor. They were really overreacting. And I thought, Well, let's not say that films don't make people crazy anymore.
One of the overarching themes of the book is that being an outsider isn't radical anymore. You're almost preaching the gospel of assimilation—that it's one of the most radical things you can do at this point.
People always say Hairspray was the most radical movie I ever made, because it snuck in. You know, it was preaching to the converted—you can be a Trump supporter and like Hairspray. Racists liked Hairspray. Which is odd, because that whole movie is anti-racist. But they don't realize it. They just think it's a pro-fat movie.
I'm playing a horror convention soon. For the first time, I think I will have Trump supporters in my audience. I've played them before, and I know the crowd is more blue collar. A lot of my show mercilessly makes fun of Trump, so we'll see how it goes—I'm curious, because you have to make Trump supporters laugh, too, if you want to change their mind. I'm trying to get them to at least consider something different. I'll listen to what they have to say, too. I get why they voted how they did; I just don't think Trump's going to do what they think.
Why do you think they voted for him?
People are angry and felt powerless, and he made them feel powerful. But he doesn't care about the little people. He won't care for one second. I hope we don't get rid of Trump, though, because Pence is way worse. He's scarier because he can act normal. And his politics are worse.
I always thought that Trump was kind of campy. Do you think that at all?
No, I don't think he's campy. There's not a bone of irony in his body. You think that hair is ironic? I don't. He's not doing what Warhol did—Warhol, before he needed a wig, started wearing his hair to make it look like one. Trump is not doing that with any intelligence. That's one piece of hair that reaches the floor, sculpted around. His enemy? Not Democrats—the wind.
What's funny is that he used to hang out at Studio 54.
But he was always a hair-hopper—he was always tacky. What I do think is that he never took drugs or drank, and maybe he's taking them now. Wouldn't that be funny? Doing crank in the White House at 4 AM, tweeting. He's doing poppers!
How much of this speech was about your legacy? Do you believe in legacies and leaving them behind for younger artists?
Well, I wouldn't be so lofty as to call it that. But certainly, I have a film archive at Wesleyan University. Those films have lasted a long time and all my books are still in print. So, yeah I care about it. More than anything, the one thing you can't buy is a younger audience, but I keep getting one. So that is the best review I can get.
What do you think drives their interest in your work?
Because I pull the rug out from under them in a way they might expect, but at the same time, I make fun of the way their parents believe in political correctness. That said, I do think I am totally politically correct.
Really? How so?
Well, because I mind my own business, and I don't judge other people. How could I not be politically correct?
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Make Trouble is available in bookstores and online from Algonquin Books.