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"The Right People Win in My Movies": John Waters on Liarmouth, Self-Deprecation, and Florida Politics

John Waters
Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images
John Waters
John Waters is tired of self-righteousness.

With more than 50 years of artistry under his belt, the multidisciplinarian best known for directing transgressive cult films like the 1972 shock-comedy Pink Flamingos, just presented his first novel, a self-proclaimed "feel-bad romance" titled Liarmouth, last Sunday at the Miami Book Fair. His most recent appearance at the Magic City's annual event (his fourth since 2014) is but one instance that speaks to the Pope of Trash's recognition as one of the past century's great American artists.

Last December, the Library of Congress inducted Pink Flamingos into its National Film Registry. And earlier this year, it was announced that he would be getting a star on Hollywood Boulevard, just as the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures announced a retrospective exhibition of his work scheduled for 2023. They're honors he doesn't take lightly, but in a phone interview with New Times, he spoke on the irony of being recognized so late into his career when, in fact, his career has not changed.

"The most ironic thing about my career is I'm now, I'd say, respectable," Waters says. "All those things are very flattering, and I preserve them with no irony, but it is the exact opposite of how my career started when I got all bad reviews and was arrested for making the movies — and they're the same. I'm still doing the same thing. Nothing's changed. I haven't changed, but society has, and humor has, and American humor has."

Indeed, it would have been hard to imagine a film about a drag queen — who, in an effort to upstage her neighbors during a "filth contest," eats literal dog shit — getting honored by some of the country's most prestigious arts institutions upon its release. But as any of Waters' fans know, the provocateur has done everything but sacrifice his art for the palatability of general audiences since 1972. Serial Mom (1994) is about an unhinged suburban housewife who gets addicted to killing. A Dirty Shame (2004) stars Jackass alum Johnny Knoxville as part of a group of sexual deviants who search for an opportunity to commit the "ultimate sex act." Liarmouth, which Waters is currently working on adapting into a film, follows three women: a grandmother who owns a plastic surgery clinic for dogs; her daughter, a robber and misanthrope on the lam; and her granddaughter, who runs a trampoline park outside of Waters' native Baltimore. In typical Waters fashion, they all conspire to kill each other.

"I go to Los Angeles all the time, and people are more and more extreme every time you go there. They all look alike, like one race of aliens. I think there probably already is pet surgery. It's not so far in the future," he says matter-of-factly about the inspiration behind that part of the novel. "The book is even more crazy than my movies, maybe," he adds, giggling. "It is a pretty crazy book, and every sentence is pretty crazy. So a lot happens. You can't say nothing happens in the book."

When asked how he feels about returning to the Miami Book Fair for the first time since 2019, he says, "It's always a great audience, and by the book, and I'm in good company, so I'm looking forward to it even though coming to Florida after the election is not my top choice of states to go to."

"We have to make fun of ourselves, or else we become self-righteous, and that is when we lose the battle."

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The openly gay filmmaker is well-aware that 2022 is set to be one of the worst legislative years for LGBTQ people on record. The Sunshine State has faced its share of national backlash, with Gov. Ron DeSantis signing his infamous "Don't Say Gay" bill into law in March, claiming that it "protects" kids from being "indoctrinated with transgenderism and R-rated lessons about sexuality." This stigmatization of queer and trans identities is something Waters' films tackle head-on. Just look at the opening scene of 1970's Multiple Maniacs, Waters' feature-film debut, which begins with a crowd of onlookers observing a circus of sideshow composed of queer people performing same-sex acts. The voyeurs seem repulsed but cannot stop themselves from staring when they're suddenly taken hostage by Devine, who robs them all at gunpoint. At first glance, it may come off as a caricature of queer and trans people, but it's really a satire of how the community is viewed through the eyes of social conservatives.

"I always think that I got away with it for 50 years because I make fun of the rules that people believe outsiders live by — not the rules they've led," Waters tells New Times. "We have to make fun of ourselves, or else we become self-righteous, and that is when we lose the battle. Everybody goes to the other side."

Waters says satire can be as easy as knowing when and how to make fun of yourself.

"I made fun of myself from the beginning by calling my movies trash.' I based careers on negative reviews that I got. So I made fun of myself from the very, very beginning, and one critic said to me, 'You beat us to the typewriter. We can't say anything 'cause you've already said it.' But I was embracing words that they used against me the same way all minorities do — they take back that word," he explains.

"I think that is the one thing that some of the overly politically correct don't ever do: make fun of themselves. And I think I actually am politically correct, which makes people choke when I say that, [but] the right people win in my movies," he notes. "But I do think that we have to be able to not be so self-righteous about it. I don't think I've ever been self-righteous. I think that's the downfall. That's why your governor wins."

However, this "political correctness" isn't something Waters attributes to any particular generation or time period. He cites Criterion's restoration and physical release of Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Polyester as a major catalyst for younger audiences discovering his films, which he says is "a great compliment."

"When I toured with Pink Flamingos, the audience was like 20 years old. They've never seen it. So that's exciting," he says. "You know, I'm infecting a new generation  — not with COVID; with humor."