Nobody has acquired better nicknames than John Waters.
He’s known as the Duke of Dirt, the Prince of Puke and the Sultan of Sleaze. But the filmmaker’s most enduring one — the Pope of Trash — was given to him by literary giant William S. Burroughs. So it’s fitting that Waters is a keynote speaker during an exhibition titled “William S. Burroughs: Creative Observer” at the Lawrence Arts Center that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.
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“Besides William being scary — and he was scary in the best sense of the word — he was funny, too. And he knew it,” Waters says of Burroughs.
The 67-year-old director of such midnight movies as “Pink Flamingos,” “Polyester,” “A Dirty Shame” and the slightly more mainstream “Hairspray” continues to cement his stature as a pop-culture icon. His subversive humor is as instantly recognizable as his trademark pencil mustache (itself an homage to singer Little Richard).
Waters’ latest project is a book titled “Carsick” that documents hitchhiking from his native Baltimore to San Francisco.
How did he get people to pick him up? He held a cardboard sign with the phrase “I’m Not Psycho.”
Q. When did you first meet Burroughs?
I first met him when Victor Bockris, who wrote a biography on him, invited me to The Bunker (Burroughs’ apartment in New York City). William used to have people over there all the time. That was his YMCA. It had no windows, which always seemed perfect for Burroughs.
What did you learn from him?
I learned from him when I was young how he could play against type. He was never a separatist. He was unapologetically gay, but he didn’t hang around with just gay people. I’d never heard of a gay junkie. That was really transgressive. There still aren’t that many. There are gay pillheads but that’s about it. The fact that he became a junkie again, when he was in his 70s, you have to give him a little bit of credit for being unapologetic about it. He made it his life. And he was the only one who wasn’t a jazz musician who embraced it with the same fervor. After all, jazz is the sound of heroin. His writing was the closest to jazz — many people have said that; it’s not an original thought. William wrote so that it almost defied you to read it. But once you got into the rhythms, it was like a secret language.”
Burroughs called you “The Pope of Trash.” What’s the most famous thing you called him?
He was so much more famous than me. I guess he was my Filth Elder. He was always the oldest person at any party. I felt terrible when he died because then I became the oldest. ... But William dressed like an old square man right from the beginning. Then it became hip. He was the first nerd in a way. Even in the beatnik days, he wore suits, ties and hats. He didn’t really rebel against his parents by how he looked. It made it even more perverse because he looked so square. But everything he wrote about proved he didn’t have a square bone in his body.
It’s been 10 years since you last directed a film. Why?
I don’t know if I’ll ever make another movie. The movie business as I know it is gone. I’ve never said that since 50 years ago when I made my first movie. I’d have a better chance doing TV. I think TV is better than independent films right now. I might make one. But I’ve never sat back and waited. I wrote “Role Models,” which was a best-seller. I’ve got a new book coming out called “Carsick.” I’ve had spoken word shows. I have so many different careers. I like them all the same. They’re all important to me. I just don’t have hobbies.
What’s the status of “Carsick?”
It comes out June 3. The galleys get mailed this week.
Was there a fundamental truth you uncovered while hitchhiking across America?
People who pick up hitchhikers have survived something. They’re happy today. They want to talk. They don’t judge. They’re open-minded, even though they might not have been when younger. I also discovered the worst place in America to hitchhike: Bonner Springs, Kansas. Nobody picked me up. In my book you’ll see it’s my moment of despair. So I’m so happy I’m flying in. I hope I never go by that entrance ramp again. I was waiting there for 11 hours.
When is the last time a film shocked you?
They shock me all the time because they’re so horrible. They’re so corny or sentimental. But that’s not what you mean. My top 10 list was in Art Forum last month. I think “Spring Breakers” is the most fun of the year. Shocking in a great way. Funny. Everything I’m looking for in a movie. I like Gaspar Noe’s films. I like depressing French movies — movies about unhappy people on the farm. I’m always shocked by bad romantic comedies. But I never talk about the movies I don’t like because then I have to sit next to those people at dinner.
Any thoughts about this year’s Oscar nominees?
I’m an Academy member so I can’t tell. I vote in the Writers Guild, Directors Guild, SAG Awards, Razzies, Independent Spirit Awards and the Oscars.
Do you think it was a good year?
Well, let’s put it this way: None of the films nominated were on my 10 best list in Art Forum.
I taught a film criticism class at KU last semester, and one of the things we discussed was “camp” versus “cult” filmmakers. What’s your definition?
I don’t think either word works anymore. When Susan Sontag invented camp, it was the first time heterosexuals knew what it was. It’s the same way that heterosexuals are just now learning what the bear community is. Once they learn, it’s over. Because, really, where I live, all straight men look like bears, anyway. With “camp,” I think of two older gentlemen discovering a Rita Hayworth musical in an antique shop under Tiffany lampshades. That is completely over. That is not going on anywhere in the world. “Cult” is one word that you can never say in Hollywood when you are pitching a movie because that means two smart people liked it, and it made no money.
What’s the strangest thing you own?
You’d have plenty to pick from. But strange to who? You or me? I have a lot of contemporary art that makes people angry when they see it. But that’s what contemporary art is supposed to do. I have a whole wall of my studio that’s fan portraits people have made. Some of them are pretty alarming. I’m not sure you’d be surprised by any of this. I think I fit my profile without any irony. I live in three places, but they’re all the same. I have books, oriental rugs and contemporary art.
Are you disappointed that hipsters have co-opted mustaches as their own?
No. I love hipsters. I love that “I just kidnapped Elizabeth Smart” look. That’s very popular in Brooklyn. That’s when you’re so cute you grow a beard just to prove, “I can’t be ugly.”
What’s your best advice for people who want to make a career in the arts?
Ask everybody for what you want and remember a “no” is free. You just have to get used to rejection, but it doesn’t cost you to ask. There’s nothing to lose if you ask, except your self-esteem. And you have no self-esteem if you’re in show business, anyway. Otherwise, you would never enter a career that expects you to ask strangers if you’re any good for the rest of your life.