Filmmaker John Waters understood competitive edge at an early age.
“I had seen ‘Chelsea Girls,’” the director admitted when discussing his own rarely screened film “Roman Candles” from that same era. “Certainly it’s an insult that they had two screens. So I had three.”
The “they” in this instance would be Andy Warhol, who had risen up through the art world’s commercial ranks before establishing a foothold in its loftier fine arts echelon. It was only then that Warhol shifted gears to become the toast of the American Underground with his split-screen trash heroin opus “Chelsea Girls.”
Waters started out where Warhol ended up.
Fans of Waters’ earlier work regard both the box office and Broadway success of “Hairspray” with suspicion, if not outright contempt. It’s as if Waters gauged Warhol’s strategy of moving through the commercial toward the esoteric and set out to do the opposite. Backwards and in heels and all the while piling on more.
In comparing Warhol’s legendary Factory to his own native Baltimore on the set of “Roman Candles,” Waters laughed. “We were trying to be depraved, but it was hard to be depraved in Loserville, Maryland, at my parent’s house.”
Long before he picked up a camera, though, Waters embraced “the power to make regular people angry through contemporary art. It was a great comfort to me.” At age ten he discovered that a Miro print he purchased at the Baltimore Art Museum’s gift shop made his friends uneasy.
“I realized that art could be yet another thing I could use against society,” the director joked. As for the film itself, Waters described “Roman Candles” as “really juvenile.”
“It’s really just three eight-millimeter movies shown side-to-side,” he explained. “Of course, now it’s on DVD. You see Divine in it, but Divine was not my real star then. Maelcum Soul was, and she was an artist model and very much a bohemian. She also lived in New York and Baltimore. I still lived with my parents and it’s shot on their front lawn or in my bedroom at my parents’ house. There’s no narrative at all, it’s just random footage.”
Yet “Roman Candles,” along with Waters’ debut, “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” and his third film, “Eat Your Makeup,” are all enjoying a resurrection of sorts. But don’t look for midnight screenings or double bills with more popular Waters’ fare. These films will be receiving the typical art world video treatment: a darkened side gallery where they’ll play on a continuous loop. So if you want to see a teenage Divine in a pillbox hat and gore-splattered flannel doubling as pink wool, comfortable shoes are in order, as you’ll have to stand.
Still, you’ll be more comfortable than Waters’ suburban neighbors, who “were kind of horrified one Sunday morning to look out and see the Kennedy assassination with Divine hauling ass over the trunk of the car.”
Or the film festival which accepted the film and then shut it down in the middle of its only screening.
“They said it was pernicious and called the IRS so I couldn’t charge admission in the church where we were showing it,” Waters recalled, beaming.
But it was hard to tell whether Waters’ mood was due to his remembering the “badly filmed Kennedy montage that was shot only two years after it actually happened,” or because after more than a decade in the darkroom his photographic work is finally receiving its first major museum show.
The show, “Change of Life,” at Soho’s New Museum, legitimizes photographic work that an accompanying catalog essay by Marvin Heffernan surprisingly refers to as “demure.”
Asked about that description, Water’s mentioned his photograph “Grace Kelly’s Elbows,” but then referred to a piece even he considered shocking and had outfitted with a red velvet curtain which could be opened and closed.
“I wouldn’t call ‘Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot’ demure,” Waters said. “But you could close that curtain when your parents come over and they wouldn’t be mad.”
He took a beat to reflect on his own parents, who famously financed his early films and were paid back with interest.
“Mine were still mad,” Waters laughed.
When you consider all the indelible images Waters has generated during his career—delivering highs like his greatest discovery—Divine aiming a gun at her audience screaming “Who wants to die for art?”—to the occasional low (Kathleen Turner, you know who you are) it makes perfect sense that he would take to the gallery. Waters has produced art at the dizzying speed of 24 frames per second. Even salon-stacking contemporaries like Nan Goldin and Larry Clark would kill for that kind of output.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt Waters’ transition to photographer that most of the show is on loan from the likes of Goldin and Clark.
“It’s always the most flattering when an artist buys the work,” Waters said. “To me, there is no better collector than a fellow artist. I own a Larry Clark. I own a Nan Goldin. I bought their work and they bought mine. It’s a great compliment.”
In fact, Waters has a clear penchant for collecting. A Cy Twombly series circles his dining room and a Gregory Greene bomb factory is installed in the attic, while a rubble piece is now in storage because Waters spent more time fretting that someone would step on it or the cleaning lady would throw it out than admiring it.
“Cleaning people are the enemy,” he joked.
There’s an insider’s thrill to the art world Waters captured in his film “Pecker” and he delights in it even now.
“Did you know that most art isn’t sold at openings,” he asked. “It’s sold later. It’s like a hunt. It takes place in what they call the killing room. That’s the word you’re not supposed to say out loud, but that’s the back room at an art gallery. When they take me back there I always say, ‘Oh, nice killing room’ and they look at me in horror because you’re not supposed to say that, but they know what I mean.”
Waters identified American Fine Art as the place he liked best in New York and has kept current with their shows. When AFA’s late Colin De Land got around to asking Waters if he’d ever tried his hand at painting, he was ready.
“By then I had been doing it for a couple of years and had sent stuff out to France,” Waters remembered. “I had a body of work done. I don’t know if I would have eventually sought out having a show, but luckily it just happened before I had to start taking my slides around.”
Waters’ process, which he calls “marring the perfect moment,” is ingenious. Having received request for a specific film still of Divine from 1970’s “Multiple Maniacs,” he discovered that there was none capturing Divine’s face in the “moment between rape and miraculous intervention,” and he decided to make one himself. With his point-and-shoot aimed at the television, Waters rolled the film. Thousands of shots later, 1992’s “Divine in Ecstasy” emerged from this DIY red-hot camera session and a star was reborn.
“I use a Nikon,” Waters boasted. “I don’t do digital.”
And for a moment, the 57-year-old evinced the youthful bad-ass of “Pecker.”
“I’m a fan of the dark,” Waters said.
But shooting at a large screen television in his home in the dark has produced mixed results.
“Sometimes I miss and you can see part of the television in the early work, which I like, he explained. “There are a certain amount of mistakes because of jiggling and you can never get the exact picture exactly the same. Sometimes a piece of light—anything––can change it. There is some chance involved which I also like.”