John Waters talks newspapers, show business and Pink Flamingos

When revolutionary filmmaker John Waters strode into Norris Cinema Theatre on Friday night to introduce the screening of his most well-known film, Pink Flamingos, he quickly and determinedly grabbed one of the fliers bearing his image and the words “An Evening with John Waters” in gaudy colors and slipped it into his bag.

John Waters introduces his film "Pink Flamingos" to the audience in Norris Cinema Theatre | Photo courtesy of Matthew Wunderlich

The Visions and Voices event Friday night celebrated Waters’ career as well as the release of a new book of interviews, edited by USC School of Cinematic Arts professor James Egan.

“I let him do it,” Waters said, pointing at Egan across a conference table. “It’s really his book. I don’t like reading my own interviews. It’s like looking at your own director’s commentaries, and the only person who does that is Barbara Streisand.”

A big fan of the University Press of Mississippi series of filmmaker interview books — other interviews include acclaimed figures such as Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick — Waters said he was thrilled to be asked to have a book.

Though Waters might not revisit his own analyses of his life and work, he does pore over any and all media that concerns him. He collects his reviews and stacks them along with other periodicals along the walls of his Baltimore home.

“I’m an old person — I still read newspapers,” Waters said.

Devouring daily periodicals — including the New York Post, which he lauds for outrageous headlines — has always been part of the filmmaker’s self-education. It’s helped him tap into the pulse of modern culture on his way to confronting the public with the anomalous and the shocking.

“I have little patience for complaints about the press by people in show business. I don’t hate doing it,” Waters said. “It’s an opportunity for me to test jokes. And you can make the best movie of all time but you still have to get people to see it. Press is more effective than ads.”

He said his favorite recent bit of news divulged how a witness to the underwear bomber’s flaming hip region exclaimed, “Dude, your pants are on fire!” His favorite headline of all-time came from an ironic obituary for Ike Turner: “Ike Beats Tina To Death.”

Forty years after the original release of the film, Pink Flamingos continues to have a visceral effect on audiences, as evidenced by groans, cringes and squeals at crucially lurid moments such as castrations, incest scenes and the infamous ending where Divine (perhaps the world’s most famous pop cultural transvestite) eats dog poop.

“I’ve never won an obscenity trial,” Waters said. “I mean it is obscene at 9 a.m. in a courtroom, the jury all strangers; this movie is obscene. Whereas tonight it looks beautiful.

Waters later answered questions from the audience about filmmaking, reality television and his reputation as the “Pope of Trash.”

Waters explained the film, named after the pink flamingos on lawns in his native Baltimore, celebrates those who are honest about their own filth. In the surge following the release of films like the pornographic sensation Deep Throat, Waters had wondered what they could do that wasn’t illegal yet.

“The film was more like political action against the tyranny of good taste,” Waters said.

Waters reported that, although he only saw the last half-hour of the screening, it was the first time he’d seen any part of the film in about 15 years.

“This film is my youth,” Waters said. “If I discover the cure for cancer tomorrow, this film will still be the top thing on my obituary.”

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