Rated pernicious

John Waters

John Waters reflects on MPAA ratings, the art world, and yodeling in the canyon

Filmmaking King of Trash John Waters, whose Hairspray inspired the hit musical currently playing at the Majestic Theatre, visited Austin in September to promote his latest film, which was branded with an NC-17 rating (and as a result has not played in "a theater near you"). He spoke with us about the one theme running through his career - shock value - and about his second job as a respected visual artist:

John DeFore: When you started, did you think you had an R-rated movie with A Dirty Shame?

John Waters: Yes. It was in my contract. And I still think I have one. But that's OK, I mean, an NC-17 - my fans like the idea of it. There's nothing wrong with NC-17, but this economic stuff is a problem. Though I think that kids could see this.

JD: Do you think the issue was just the pervasive nature of what's in this movie?

JW: Oh, "pervasive." Have you ever said that word out loud? Well, it's better than what I got when I was starting out: pernicious. "Pernicious" means "intrinsically evil" or "harmful." I remember I didn't really know that word. I looked it up and thought, "God, is it that good?" I was "Rated Pernicious."

JD: If you look at a lot of teen comedies, they're obviously all about sex, but you don't have such explicit talk the whole way through.

JW: But these aren't the words Lenny Bruce went to jail for. These are ridiculous words out of slang dictionaries. They're juvenile. The only person who would say them is somebody under 18. What adult would say, "Feel like yodeling in the canyon"? `Laughs` You won't get laid; it's not the best thing to say on a date. Sex movies are made to arouse you; if this one arouses you, you need a shrink.

JD: Did you struggle against the rating?

JW: Yeah, I went out there and stood at 10 in the morning and gave my speech. And their rebuttal was, every person said it should be NC-17. It was unanimous when they sat down. `About making edited, "safe" versions of films:` I've never had a film play on an airplane. Hairspray wouldn't either, at the time, because Divine was in drag.

JD: There are a number of spots in Dirty Shame where you have words superimposed on the screen or written on walls -

JW: That's my Godard joke for the few who get it.

JD: That's something we typically associate with contemporary visual art. Is it related to the art gallery work you've been doing?

JW: No, I think the closest thing to that in the movie is that I appropriate things: the title song, "Sylvia," and all the sexploitation footage. That's sort of what my art work is like, telling a new narrative with other people's images.

JD: But you think of the gallery work as a separate career?

JW: Yeah, completely. Many of the fans of my movies don't even know about that stuff. I don't even think it up in the same place. I have a different studio for it. In the art world I'm very careful, because they're suspicious. They don't like people coming in and doing two things.

JD: So how do you approach that?

JW: I didn't ever talk about my art work in the movie press; I just did it in art magazines. I have kept it separate. It's a much smaller audience; contemporary art doesn't appeal to many people. I always joke that I like it so much because in the movie business, when I go pitch a project I have to say "Everybody in the world's going to like it." I have to lie. And in the art business, if everybody likes it, it's hated. It's only good if two people like it. I kind of find that refreshing.

Oddly enough, the people in the contemporary art world have very straight tastes in movies. They hate art movies. I'm always surprised at that; you'd think they would like the most radical movies, but they don't.

By John DeFore

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