Still splashy after all these years: Famed director John Waters appears at USF Thurs., Jan. 27

Here's what else he had to say during a fun and enlightening Q&A, which touches on dive bars, the Tucson tragedy, the Manson Family's Leslie Van Houten and pop star Justin Bieber.

How were your holidays? Did you have a good start to 2011?

"Yeah, I did! I have a John Waters Christmas show that’s very different from the show I’m doing there. I toured in December for that and was in London before that for the release of my book Role Models. Then I came home and had my annual big Christmas party that I have in Baltimore every year and spent Christmas with my mom and my sisters and then I flew to San Francisco where I have an apartment and where I am now."

I envy your living arrangement, getting to live in your hometown of Baltimore and two of my favorite cities — San Francisco and New York — plus Provincetown.

"I know it’s my favorite – I have four sets of boxer shorts! It’s easy for me to live in four places. Every morning I just have to think of something weird to do to fill up the rest of my day!"

You've visited Tampa Bay often. Two years ago you appeared at the Dalí Museum. Do you have a lot of connections here?

"I have been there lots of times, yeah. I have a few people I know but I don’t have a lot of friends there, no."

Do you think Tampa Bay, with its strip bars and seedy underbelly, is at all like Baltimore?

"Is that where Roofies were invented? (Laughs) I think there is a certain similarity — maybe some people from Baltimore ran away and landed there and vice versa. I think they cross state lines to go to the same exact types of places."

Yeah, maybe they landed at the Port of Tampa. There's a bar there called Stoney's I know you'd love.

"So the seaport there is not fixed up? It hasn’t been yuppified? See in Baltimore by the harbor, it has. It used to be all rats and lesbian bars and sailor bars. They were great. Now it’s been very much yuppified, but other parts haven’t yet."

Do you make it your business to seek out the working-class dives in the out-of-the-way places of Baltimore?

"Certainly. I wrote a book, as you recall, called Role Models, where I talk about all those bars. … As a matter of fact, I have a friend I always go with back home who just e-mailed me about two bars to try when I get home. One is in a hardware store. I love that idea.  It’s a bar in a hardware store. I feel like Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble – ‘not the needle-nosed pliers, baby!’"

How often are you touring these days?

"It’s how I make a living! I do it all the time. I’m always on the road. … sometimes I do one a week, sometimes three. I do around 30 shows a year. I’m always rewriting it, always changing it — weekly. It’s This Filthy World but a completely different show now than the one on DVD."

Have any ideas what new topics you'll be discussing during your Tampa appearance?

"We’ll see. That’s two weeks away. Some of it might be fast-breaking new stories. I'm always rewriting it, making changes. Actually, I was rewriting it today because right after I go to you, I do This Filthy World Goes to Hollywood for Oscar Week at UCLA, so I’ll probably be trying out some of my new showbiz material on you to see what works and what doesn’t!"

Speaking of celebrities, do you have a wish list of celebrities you'd like to star in your films?

"No, because I actually have worked with most of them or I have met them. You know, I’m not going to tell you who because they’re going to be who I ask next time. I guess the only one I’d put on a wish list that I doubt will ever happen is Meryl Streep. She’s never said, ‘Why don’t we work together!” But she never turned me down either. She’s been making some ballsy choices and God knows she could do a Baltimore accent, but then again, I hate it when actors do Baltimore accents."

Would you ever consider collaborating with Amy Sedaris? You two seem like kindred spirits.

"I’ve only met her once. I love her new craft book and I’m a big fan. We’re certainly kindred spirits but I don’t see us working in a collaboration — we’re both too bossy!"

You have a way with people and seem to take on a parental role. You helped out your Dreamlanders stars (Waters film regulars Divine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole, et al.) and seem to have a natural empathy about you ...

"Sometimes I think if I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d be a lawyer or psychiatrist. I’m not bad at counseling people. It doesn’t mean I’m any healthier than they are or I’d follow my advice, but people seem to be comfortable telling me the most alarming secrets about their life. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t — I’m just on an airplane and don’t feel like counseling, I’m off work! I guess they feel I’ll understand and I do understand and the cases where I don’t understand, those are probably the cases I am always fascinated by."

Speaking of helping out friends, you've befriended Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten (involved in the LoBianco murders) whom you've written about in Role Models and voiced your support of her parole. What's going on with that?

"She was turned down again. She’s up for the next one in two years. She never gives up and that’s why she is a role model to me. She doesn’t despair and she immediately talked about getting her next degree, which she set up at a college on the outside. … She doesn’t think she shouldn’t have gone to jail. Forty years is a very, very long time — it’s an appropriate time — I’m not saying it’s too long — but I think she’s done her time now. She’s served longer than many Nazi leaders, certainly way longer than the any members of the Bader-Meinhof gang, who were alive when they were sentenced. I think that she met a madman when she was 17. … But she doesn’t even blame him. She said, ‘It was my fault for making him my leader, for taking the drugs and he couldn’t be a cult leader if he didn’t have followers.’"

This week, we're dealing with the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy. Do you find any similarities between accused murderer Jared Loughner and Van Houten?

"That case is interesting to me because it’s the ultimate test of the insanity law. In Female Trouble, the attorney says — and I probably took it from the Manson trial — ‘If he isn’t insane, who is?’ ... And I think it’s despicable; I think it’s terrible what he did, but he has a great lawyer (Judy Clarke) who really wins if you don’t get the death penalty, and she had the Unabomber and she’s had terrorists, and I respect her as a lawyer, and it’ll be interesting legally to see what she can do with a case that’s incredibly difficult and incredibly tragic. … It’s sad. It’s like being hit by a car. It’s like if I walked outside today and a plane crashes into me. You can’t stop that type of thing. You can’t guard against it if you’re in the public life. If you’re a politician, if you’re a movie star, a crazy person can stalk you and think you’re a tree talking to them. I guess I’m fascinated with (Loughner’s) parents — imagine the hell that’s going on inside that house right now. … It’s a tragedy for them, too. ...

"I am kind of obsessed by it. I think Obama’s speech was good. I’ve been watching all of it. …What makes this type of case bigger is that usually the people who are nuts usually kill themselves, and it’s over, but for some reason, I can’t remember his name yet. It’s not sinking in. I know it’s Jared — I don’t know the last name — because you just said it, which is maybe good because he doesn’t deserve to be famous, or infamous. He is infamous, but that’s the scary thing in America — the two blend together."

Onto more pleasant topics, do you demur when people give you compliments?

"I’m very grateful — you kidding!"

Online reviewer Mike Adams captured what I think is at the heart of your appeal. He said, “Waters balances his oddball humor with an urbane, witty and very compassionate sensibility." How does it make you feel to hear something like that?

"That’s a great compliment. Wit is maybe how you change people’s opinions. Wit is how you communicate your politics in a weird way, if you want someone to listen. It’s no soapboxing here. They don’t have to agree. That’s why I’m against all the TV (news) stations where the viewers have to agree with their politics. I don’t ever usually agree with the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pieces but I read them because they’re by people I don’t agree with but think are smart. I do think you can give people enough rope to hang themselves. Like Sarah Palin — I think she blundered — big time — when everyone was trying to come together after the tragedy in Tucson. I don’t know if that term she used (blood libel) is offensive to Jewish people. I’m not Jewish, so I don’t know, but does she even know what it meant? The inner anarchist in me wonders if she were president, how insane that would be, but I certainly hope it never happens."

You've said in the past that you don't watch TV? Are you watching more TV now?

"When something big happens, yes — but otherwise I never watch TV. To turn on the TV is traumatic for me because in each apartment where I live, the remotes are different and I practically cry that I get so frustrated and think, ‘I fucking can’t turn on my TV!’ And I’m not a Luddite. I have Blackberries and computers. It’s like, aren’t I successful enough that I can hire someone to travel with me to turn on my TV twice a year? Am I that pathetic?"

So you don't watch reality TV?

"No, I don't watch reality TV."

You've also said that you're fascinated with people who've "exhausted the concept of fame."

"Ha, that’s different — that’s Justin Bieber, whom I’ve just met, and he drew on my mustache! Did you see all that? Just Google our names together and you’ll see it. It’s almost scary — like why are we together?!  I was just on the Graham Norton show with him in London. I think that anyone who makes fun of him is jealous. I’m for that — to be 16 and so famous you never have to leave the house. I think it’s great. I even bought the pimple medicine he’s endorsing in case I ever get a pimple at age 65 — I’m putting on Justin’s medicine! I’m for him. I’m a ‘Belieber,’ as they say. He said after the show, ‘Your ’stache is the jam,’ which made me almost levitate."

What do you think of other stars like Snooki, who wear out their celebrity status just being who they are?

"I learned a long time ago to never say something negative in the press because then you sit next to them to dinner or you’re on a talk show together, and it’s mortifying. So I just say good things about people that others don’t love. That’s my politics."

As far as others go, you champion the "minorities who don't fit into their own minorities." Who are those people nowadays?

"The new people I want to march for are the people who are asexual, who hate sex and the heterosexual couples who have chosen not to have babies. That’s the most hated minority. I’m for them. I think they’re brave.”

Just about anyone who digs outsider moviemaking has drunk from the deliriously demented well of Baltimore filmmaker John Waters.Dubbed the Pope of Trash by William S. Burroughs, Waters helped pioneer the midnight movie genre in the '70s with twisted classics like Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living, and spawned the celebrity of lovable drag queen/best friend Divine, a.k.a. Harris Milstead, who starred in most of Waters' early movies, including Polyester (1981) — which also offered the noxiously '50s-cinemahouse-inspired Odorama feature that allowed patrons to smell odors while they occurred in the film.

After his '70s-early-'80s underground reign, Waters began to make commercially successful kitsch-fests like Cry-Baby and Hairspray that have been adapted to Broadway, swerving from major-release comedy to freakazoid territory with hits like Serial Mom, Pecker, Cecil B. Demented and A Dirty Shame.

Waters has endeared fans not only for his delight in deviant humor and sexual mischief — and catchy one liners about "cha-cha heels" and other middle-class perversions — but also because he always manages to come across as a gracious and charming gent with a silver tongue and equally snazzy fashion sense. Not only does he sport that trademark-thin mustache, Waters has an uncanny knack for human understanding — especially for society's misfits and disenfranchised. He consistently rises above his shock value as both an underground icon and bona fide superstar, giving good interview wherever he goes and detailing his observations in books like Director’s Cut (1997), John Waters: Change of Life (2004), Unwatchable (2006), Shock Value (rereleased 2005), Crackpot (rereleased 2003) and most recently Role Models (2010).

The director-author-modern art enthusiast's latest film in the works, Fruitcake, has Johnny Knoxville pegged to star (they worked together in the past in a Jackass film) but the project has been indeterminately delayed. In the meantime, Waters has been filling his down time touring colleges, meeting fans at book signings and speaking engagements via a one-man show called This Filthy World (shot for DVD in 2006 by Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin).

Waters visits USF's Theatre 1 for a free one-man show on Thurs., Jan. 27. Lucky for Creative Loafing, Waters is a fan and reads our paper during his frequent visits to the Tampa Bay area — he said so himself during a recent phone interview.


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