November 9, 2009 — Lamenting the death of burlesque, cult artist and filmmaker John Waters announced from the stage, "This is not a lecture. It's my vaudeville act."
Waters entertained a capacity crowd in Culbreth Theatre Friday evening at the University of Virginia's second annual Arts Assembly, presented this year in collaboration with the Virginia Film Festival.
In her introductory remarks, Elizabeth Hutton Turner, U.Va. vice provost for the arts, said the assembly marks the importance of the arts at the University and their "newly expanded role." She added that art is about "new patterns of seeing and thinking."
Introducing Waters, she described his work as existing at the boundaries of art and culture that "expand our view of the world." Waters works at the margins of society and humor to highlight the lives of those outside the mainstream.
Waters said he was influenced early on by what he saw as absurdities in life. As a young boy growing up in the 1950s, he could not understand why he was not permitted to check out library books such as "A Hat Full of Rain," about a junkie, and the writings of Sigmund Freud.
Early artistic influences include low-budget horror filmmaker William Castle, whose showmanship and use of gimmicks to promote his films appealed to Waters' view of the world. For his 1958 film "Macabre," Castle distributed certificates for a life insurance policy from Lloyds of London in case of death by fright during viewing of the film.
Waters would employ a Castle-like approach with his 1981 film "Polyester," which he presented in "Odorama." The audience was provided with scratch-and-sniff cards that helped immerse them in his characters' fragrant search for love and happiness.
Other influences include the work of exploitation filmmaker Kroger Babb, underground avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, artist Andy Warhol, filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas and underground filmmakers George and Mike Kuchor, who worked outside the mainstream Hollywood filmmaking world.
A photographer, sculptor, author and actor, Waters is perhaps best known for his work as a filmmaker.
He described his early efforts as "just really home movies."
Controversial content has been the hallmark of his films, in which humor and those living outside the mainstream are the focus. American author and social critic William Burroughs described Waters as the "pope of trash" for his obsession with elevating all that is trashy in life.
Waters described his film "Pink Flamingos" as his "most notorious, but not my best." The actions of the characters are shocking and outrageous on one level, but it's about "anarchy," he said. His personal favorite, "Female Trouble," is about capital punishment, he said.
"My whole career has been about pushing limits and boundaries," he said.
His biggest success was "Hairspray," which was later a Broadway play and Hollywood film.
Waters said he is often asked by young filmmakers, "How do I get to make movies? What do I do with these movies after I make them?"
He shared his approach: "I like to use surprise to get people's attention to see what I want them to." He also recommended finding "like-minded people" to team with. Waters worked for many years with his own troupe of characters.
He suggested young filmmakers make "instant movies" based on something from the newspapers. "I'm all for it," he said. "Look in the papers and make a movie while it's still fresh."
Waters let his imagination drift and shared with the audience ideas for theoretical projects – all looked at from his viewpoint of the "absurd."
In his own house of horrors would be the world's skinniest model and a man with no tattoos.
For his own religion, he asked if the audience would "come with me on a spiritual journey to Baltimore," the city where he lives and derives his inspiration. On that journey everyone would be energized by the resurrection. Learning to levitate would be a good idea, he said.
And what's the best way to die? "Spontaneous combustion," he said. "I have lots of books on that with pictures. All are of ashes and shoes. It's important to wear good shoes."
For a recession film premiere, he fantasized about invitations sent with postage due and stars who would arrive not in limousines, but by hitchhiking. Guests would have to prove they wore their outfits 20 times before. The tables would be adorned with dead flowers, and the food would consist of the usually discarded cut-off leaf ends of the carrots and the eyes of potatoes.
His film-in-progress, "Fruitcake," is on hold. "Independent films are having a tough time," he said, adding that all of the companies that distributed his other films are no longer in business.
While he waits for the climate to improve, he's written another book, "Role Models," scheduled for June release. "It's about all the people who have inspired me."
Jonathan Damron, a fourth-year bachelor of interdisciplinary studies student, said he got his ticket for the event as soon as he heard Waters would be speaking. "He is very inspiring for me. He's not afraid his audience will be appalled by anything."
Vanessa Young, who graduated in with degrees in East Asian studies and studio art, said the presentation was "mindblowing." She praised the University for recognizing the importance of the arts, for hiring Turner and for creating the Arts Assembly.