The closing night film of this year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival is A Dirty Shame, a comedy about sex addicts directed by one of the greats of gay filmmaking, a self-confessed crackpot called John Waters.
He began as an underground filmmaker with efforts like Mondo Trasho (1969) and Multiple Maniacs (1970), but hit true cult status when he cast drag queen Divine as the dog shit-eating filthiest woman alive in Pink Flamingos (1972).
Female Trouble (1975) and Desperate Living (1977) followed, but by the 90s he’d turned to slightly more palatable fare such as Crybaby (1990), Serial Mom (1994) and Pecker (1998).
By the end of the 90s it seemed his crass humour had lost its edge. Would A Dirty Shame continue the downward (read: upward) slide promised by Cecil B. Demented (2000)?
Your latest film A Dirty Shame is all about sex addicts. Do you think sex addiction is camp?
I’m not sure I even believe there is such a thing. I mean, in poor countries, where people are starving, do they have sex addict meetings?
It seems like we have too much time on our hands. But certainly in this movie it’s way beyond reality.
I mean people get concussion and turn into sex addicts and then they get another concussion and turn back into a neuter, someone that hates sex.
So I don’t think that really happens, but I was inspired to write the script by one sentence I read in a medical journal that a tiny percentage of head injury sufferers do act inappropriately after the concussion and turn into sex fiends.
Now I had a concussion once and I didn’t turn into a sex addict -¦ So this is more of a fantasy I think.
How long ago was your concussion?
I had a concussion right before I made Desperate Living, so 1976. Maybe you can tell when you watch that movie. Did you notice a certain unsteadiness in the direction?
The camera was kind of shaky at times. It seems like A Dirty Shame is a return to your more trashy roots, given that it has a scene in which David Hasselhof does a poo on a plane and -“
Don’t give away that! That’s the ending. That’s the final three seconds of the movie. David Hasselhof does have, I guess you could say, a scatological cameo that causes a happy ending.
We won’t go into any more detail then. Let’s just say this film seems more trashy than Pecker, for instance, and certainly more so than Hairspray.
I saw this on Broadway, and it was incredible to see your quirky film about racism become a musical comedy about racism, that was in such good taste -“
And encouraging teenagers to date members of different races. And the loving mother is played by a man, so it’s two men singing a love song to each other and families are sitting in the audience sobbing of happiness, of family happiness.
I know it is odd, isn’t it? -¦ Crybaby’s going to become one, I’m in the middle of that now.
I saw the first table reading of it last year in New York and I’m excited about it but I don’t like to talk too much about something that hasn’t happened yet.
It’s kind of bad luck -¦ You know I always only make fun of things that I really like. So I think even my most extreme movies are never mean-spirited. So I think if you can make anyone laugh at something, even if they don’t agree with you, it’s the first step in changing their minds.
Speaking of subversive comedy, your guest spot on The Simpsons was certainly subversive casting, given how generally untrashy you were playing Homer’s camp friend.
I wasn’t playing a film director, but I was playing John Waters. That’s confusing, even to me. But that episode won the Emmy in America. I mean I’m thrilled.
More people have seen that episode of The Simpsons than all my movies put together. I have little kids that come up to me and that’s the only way they know me.
And The Simpsons itself is incredibly subversive because every week parents go, Oh, we’ll let the children watch cartoons. They don’t even know.
What do you make of reality television?
I never saw one. I’m a firm member of the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild. I don’t believe in reality television.
I live in Baltimore. What would I need to watch that for? I can walk out the front door and I’m in reality television.
There’s a scene in The Simpsons when your character talks about camp -“
That’s a word -“ to be honest, ever since Susan Sontag wrote about it, it’s a word I’ve never said out loud. I mean it’s a word in America that’s kind of used up a bit.
To me the word camp sounds like old gay men talking about Rita Hayworth in an antique shop under a Tiffany lampshade.
It seems kinda dated. And the European version was certainly kitsch. And then it became trash, and now in America it just became American humour.
It kind of mutated. I guess you’re using it meaning gay funny. Is that what you mean?
I mean both that tradition of gay humour, but also admittedly using Sontag’s definition -“ an attempt at seriousness that fails.
The best camp, if you believe in the word, is something like Showgirls, a movie that, no matter what he [screenwriter Joe Eszterhas] says today, was made to be serious.
The best camp is made without irony, but is unintentionally hilarious.
That’s almost impossible to come by today because everything is infected by irony.
All culture is infected by irony. But true camp, by the real meaning of the word, was something that was so terrible it was great without being in on the joke.
Deliberate camp is always like trying too hard. I don’t think A Dirty Shame is campy. I think it’s funny, I think it’s trashy, I think it’s rude, but I don’t think it’s especially campy.
What about the lisping sex-addicted bears?
But campy means it’s so bad it’s good. And I don’t think it’s bad. I think it’s rude, but that’s different. The bears? Are they campy? I know what you mean, it’s like gay humour.
In America -“ I don’t know what it’s like in Australia -“ all gay people know what bears are and no straight people do. Although all straight middle-aged men are bears, they just don’t know it.
TB And all gay men will become bears, and they just don’t know it.
JW Well, that’s if they don’t go to the gym. They have a choice. You’re either fat or a muscleman, depending if you go.
If you don’t go to the gym, then you’re a bear. It’s just a spin on being fat.
Do you go to the gym?
I may be the only gay man who has never in his life gone to the gym. But no, I’m not a bear. I eat properly and I walk all the time. I’m fairly skinny, but I like skinny.
If I could go to the gym to have the body of a junkie, I’d go.
Your endless love of Christmas has become legendary -“ how was last year’s yuletide?
It was great. I had a Christmas album that came out this year. It did great, I went on a Christmas tour, I had a spoken word act called A John Waters Christmas and I have a big party every year.
I wrote about Christmas in my book Crackpot about why I like Christmas and I wasn’t being ironic, I do really like it.
Is that because Christmas is actually quite strange and gaudy?
No, I actually do like my family, I like seeing them. I like it without irony in a way. I do like to see people going insane at Christmas.
Sometimes I like to go in the stores when I’ve already bought all my presents just to drive salespeople crazy when there are lines and stuff.
People are waiting in line and they’re insane and it’s three days before Christmas and if you say to the saleswoman, I don’t know, what do you think? Should I get this one for my sister? What do you think? [Angry, as saleswoman:] Come on! Hurry up!
In a recent interview you said you enjoyed low-budget foreign arthouse movies. Is this true?
Yes. I like the one I saw recently called Head On. I liked it a lot. It’s a Turkish/German movie. That’s my favourite movie of this year so far. That’s a feel-bad foreign movie.
I like movies with subtitles more -“ especially if they take place in the snow, so you can’t read them.
Doesn’t that get confusing?
No, I like that. It means you have to really try harder.
Do you find these films unintentionally funny?
No, I find them moving. I like art movies. That’s my guilty pleasure. I like arty ones -“ I’m an arty kinda guy, you know?
So what do you think of this year’s Oscar nominees?
Well, I’m a member of the Academy and I vote, so I’m not allowed to talk about it, or I’ll be thrown out of the Academy. But I think it’s going to be quite lively this year
with Chris Rock.
What did you make of his comments that only gay men watch the Oscars?
[laughs] I thought it was funny what he said. What straight man watches the Oscars? I don’t know any either. Do you know any straight men who go, Oh, look at what Nicole’s wearing this year!
I don’t know any. I think Chris Rock is funny, I think gay people certainly have to have a sense of humour about themselves. I don’t think gay jokes are off limits.
A Dirty Shame is the closing night film of the Mardi Gras Film Festival, and will be screened at the Valhalla Cinema on Thursday 3 March at 9pm. Phone 9645 1611 for bookings.