John Waters' Masterclass in Locarno

[…] «I didn’t get a good review for the first ten years, but it made people come and see my films, because we got reviews that said “the most repulsive film in the history of cinema”, which is something, you know. The best review was “where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn’t there a law or something?”»

[…] «But I guess I believe in the freedom of expression, I guess we have to put up with the worst of that to have freedom. Some porn is obscene, I get why it makes people crazy. But I miss the days of the porn stars, we don’t really have porn stars anymore. Amateur porn took that over, really.»

«I build my career on bad reviews» - A Masterclass with “the Pope of Trash“ John Waters

In 1972, the Australian avant-garde artist Mike Brown wrote in his manifesto, «I don’t know what to think about anything (It don’t matter nohow)», that anyone who hadn’t read Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was an ignoramus ill-equipped to survive the 20th century. “Peace anyhow“. In relation to the 21st century, you could argue that the same goes for the oeuvre of cult director John Waters. If you’ve seen any of his films, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen any of his films, you’re a bit of an ignoramus ill-equipped to survive the current century. Peace anyhow. Both Vonnegut and Waters are masters of irony, ridiculing society and authority by making use of an alienating form of humour. The 73-year-old “Pope of Trash“ (a name Waters is very proud of, as it was given to him by his friend the Beat poet William S. Burroughs) was this year’s Guest of Honour at the 72nd edition of the Locarno Film Festival and received the Pardo d'onore Manor award. In Locarno, Waters gave a masterclass that became a combination of a talk show and a stand-up performance, that was worthy of the master. This is an attempt at a report of that afternoon.

As Guest of Honour, Waters was given a carte blanche by the festival, to programme a film of his choosing, which he used to show King Vidor’s film Show People (1928) with live orchestra music. During the masterclass, Waters told us that he has never seen the film before. «I just picked the one I thought would work best. I chose it because I liked all the people in it, King Vidor and Marion Davies, the most famous mistress. How was it?» In an earlier interview (“Show People”, Locarno Film Festival), Waters mentioned that «any movie that satirizes Hollywood, makes fun of Gloria Swanson’s early career, stars Marion Davies, is directed by King Vidor (Beyond the Forest, 1949, Stella Dallas, 1937, being my favourites) and features cameos by Louella Parsons, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, can’t be all bad. Matter of fact, it sounds just plain perfect.»

«I call myself a trash director»

The controversial American cult director, who at the start of his career was treated mostly with disgust by the critics and the majority of the audience, has been embraced by the mainstream cinema industry. «I call myself a trash director, and the critics used to say, “you beat us to the typewriter”, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to change what people used against me. I embraced it and advertised it and that is why they can’t use it against me anymore. I built a career on negative reviews. I didn’t get a good review for the first ten years, but it made people come and see my films, because we got reviews that said “the most repulsive film in the history of cinema”, which is something, you know. The best review was “where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn’t there a law or something?” And we put that in the ad, so you work with what you’ve got. And if you don’t get a distributer right away, have a premiere yourself!»

His oeuvre is predominantly known for being unapologetically queer, its celebration of bad taste and the fact that his films ridicule everything that is only slightly established or pretends to hold the absolute truth. His earlier films especially set out to shock the dull and pretentious (art) world and were seen as a danger to the valued traditions of the patriarchal and heterosexual American society and therefore only marginally shown at festivals and in cinemas. His invitation as Guest of Honour at Locarno is not least due to his status as a «symbol of freedom, far removed from the political correctness ruling today» (Robert Mitchell, Variety, 2019).

«Hollywood’s job is to make money, mine isn’t»

Despite the fact that Waters’ relation with Hollywood since the eighties has always been slightly problematic, he said that «Hollywood treated me fairly. But the more money they give you, the more grief they’re going to give you, because their job is to make money and mine isn’t. The early movies that I am most known for, didn’t make any money and for my Hollywood film I used a million dollars once, but they lost money. I failed upwards, and that is something you have to learn how to do in Hollywood. But I always wanted to make commercial movies and Pink Flamingos (1972) was commercial, it played for ten years in the same movie theatre, how commercial can you get? I didn’t try to make Hairspray more commercial; it just was.»

Most of his films, especially the earlier ones, share a similar radical strength in their form and content and are exemplars of the kind of cinema that breaks with what is deemed “appropriate“. If something comes forth from Waters’ work, it is the shock value and the indispensable fact that he likes to dismay and to piss the audience off, out of a profound abhorrence of the hypocrisy and insincerity of society. «My first audience for Pink Flamingos was minorities that didn’t fit within their own minority. My ultimate audience is criminals. People often say Divine was camp. But Divine was thought up to scare people.»

«Pornography, now it’s free, but I’m against that. You have to pay if you want to masturbate»

Waters started making films during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s in America. A turbulent time to say the least, in which pornography was suddenly seen as a helpful aid in the battle for sexual liberation. After loosening the censorship reigns in 1970, pornographers started experimenting with their new found freedom, which resulted in more violent (especially regarding the position of the woman) and what was deemed “inappropriate“ porn. This eventually led to the emergence of the resistance against this new pornography in the early late 1970s and 1980s, especially among radical feminist groups that wanted to abolish pornography by law since it was so hostile to women. This resistance against pornography during that time, is something Waters also plays with in his cinema, as for example in Polyester (1981), where an angry anti-pornography mob surrounds the suburban house of Francine Fishpaw (Divine) and her husband Elmer (David Samson), who own the local porn theatre.

With the invention of the video camera and consequently the internet, there was a huge increase in amateur pornography – «Pornography, now it’s free, but I’m against that. You have to pay if you want to masturbate» – which posed new difficulties for regulating pornography online. Nowadays, pornography is often blamed for creating an unrealistic representation of sexuality, that influences society and especially the teenagers who come across explicit pornographic material online. As an attempt at a response, the UK Government recently planned to initiate an age verification system, which means that in order to watch pornography online, you need to register on the website by either providing a copy of your passport or driver’s licence, or you need to buy a pass. «Ah yes, I’ve heard about this, you need to register, like a sex offender».

The privacy implications for the users and the possible dangers posed by the use of such a system, which is predominantly meant to protect children online, are huge. The system was supposed to be implemented on the 15th of July, but has (perhaps quite ironically in the light of Brexit) been postponed, since the UK failed to inform the EU on its proposal. «I’m against it, certainly. I mean I get why people don’t want their kids looking at porn, that’s fair. Especially the kind of porn of today, as porn of today is very anti-women. I went into a real porn shop recently and I was appalled at what they were selling. But I guess I believe in the freedom of expression, I guess we have to put up with the worst of that to have freedom. Some porn is obscene, I get why it makes people crazy. But I miss the days of the porn stars, we don’t really have porn stars anymore. Amateur porn took that over, really.»

«It’s like a ventriloquist with his dummy, as he would talk to it, like “down boy!”»

So, who are his favourite porn stars, that we need to know? «My favourite porn star is Jeff Stryker. I used to go to his shows, and afterwards he would have a personal appearance show, called Jeff Stryker Does Time where he would sit nude on stage with an erection. At the end he would stand at the exit, while people passed by and you could take a selfie with him. And I said, how, it’s like a ventriloquist with his dummy, as he would talk to it, like “down boy!” and later he would reveal he shot it up every night, and it stayed hard for like four hours. Well, I guess that is an occupational thing. But I always thought, how much could he take? But he was really great in the movies too. The other one that I thought about, is Johnny Davenport. He is my second favourite. I wrote a fictitious story where he picks me up hitchhiking – oh, you’ll see.»

In Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (2014), Waters fantasized that the 1980s gay porn star Davenport and he get «raped by a spaceman and then have magic anuses. And my magic anus sings a duet with Connie Francis.» Adding, «I guess I let my imagination go» [1]. He continues, «as for the women, Marilyn Chambers I liked, but she was married to that same lunatic husband as Linda Lovelace. And the sad thing about Lovelace was that later she said that it was all rape and that she didn’t want to do any of it. […] I don’t think anybody becomes a porn star because something great happened to them. I read Adult Video News; do you know that paper? It’s the Variety of Porn. It’s a business that is failing, it’s in deep trouble. Because who goes to buy porn anymore?»

Porno for money versus porno chic

As Bruce LaBruce said, «porn and sex have been both infinitely exploited by capitalism and been democratised» [2]. Nowadays, pornography is all about making a profit. When asked about whether Waters thinks that this has radically changed, he answers: «It was always about making a profit. Deep Throat (Gregor Damiano, 1972) made so much money. I mean Jackie Kennedy went to see Deep Throat, that is the thing, it is now totally different, porno chic is long over. But when porno first became legal – and that’s why we made Pink Flamingos, as a joke on that – what is left that you can do? Well, eating shit. Today that is illegal in porno, the only thing that they won’t do. But we didn’t do it for sexual reasons. As a matter of fact, one time someone came saying, “hi, I was really turned on” and we ran, get the fuck away from me!»

«There is this documentary, Circus of Books (Rachel Mason, 2019), about that famous queer porn shop in Los Angeles, that has Stryker in it. It was owned by this old Jewish couple that never told their children. It’s really a good movie, because this was a family business and they never let their children come to work. They told them they owned a book store, they didn’t tell them it was one of the most famous porn shops in Hollywood. And you know, Jeff Stryker was there, he sold his dildo there. The funniest thing, Stryker sued in court, because he said that they made the dildo of his penis one and half inches larger than it was. And when he sued, the judge said that this was beneath the dignity of the court system. But he won!»

Of course, we also spoke about his lifelong hometown in which most of his films take place: «I think that Baltimore is almost a character in my movies. I think that no one needs to leave anymore where they live. You don’t need to go to New York, it’s too expensive. I think you should stay where you are and make it better. I liked Baltimore for all the wrong reasons. I don’t know if you saw this recently, but Trump came out to Baltimore – he said there were rats and roaches. And in Hairspray (1988), Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) kicks a rat of her shoe and she has a prom dress with roaches all over them, you know, we embrace that. Baltimore is like Australia. Everyone has a good sense of humour about themselves. And we can make fun of it, but you can’t.»

«“You can’t make movies like this!” But you can»

John Waters has always aimed to abolish the old-fashioned ideas based on authority: «You’re all very lucky, because when I was young, I knew what I wanted to do, but nobody would let me. “You can’t make movies like this!” But you can. When I did it, they called the police.» Speaking about how Waters learned to film and edit, he mentioned that «looking back, Pink Flamingos is terrible, technically speaking. But if you like it, you say its raw, if you don’t, you say its amateurish. It’s the same thing. If you only worry about the technical part of your film, and you can only say “the cinematography was great”, that means it was a bad movie to me. When we started to make movies, we wanted to shake things up. But it is easy to be shocking, that’s not hard. But it’s harder to make people change how they think about something.»

Today, it is possible to look back at Waters’ oeuvre and to see that his films are a timeless advocate to challenge the pompous, old-fashioned ideas and conventions that still exist. Frankly, there has never been a greater need for his bad taste than now. If you haven’t seen his films, you are rather ill-equipped to survive the world in which the Vatican still insists on proclaiming that moveable sexual identities are «often founded on nothing more than a confused concept of freedom», sexuality is still repressed and contemporary society is still marked by deep-rooted political antitheses, racism, and violence against the LGBTQ+ community – this year being exactly 50 years since the Stonewall riots of 1969. «My films make fun of authority and still do. That’s why I don’t understand in America today, that college students are studying. Why aren’t you out on the street, why is everybody not rebelling more?»

(Sofie Cato Maas, Locarno Critics Academy 2019)


[1] Michelangelo Signorile, “John Waters On His ‘Carsick’ Gay Porn Fantasy, Marriage Equality And Career Success”, The Huffington Post, 2014.

[2] Sofie Cato Maas, “I’m a Punk Dada Baby!: In Conversation with Bruce LaBruce”, Frameland, 2018.



The Masterclass at Locarno Film Festival online

Photo © Greg Gorman, Locarno Film Festival


John Waters | Masterclass | Locarno Film Festival 2019

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First published: September 29, 2019