John Waters: Bad taste? Moi?

As a child he acted out the Kennedy assassination on the lawn. Now he collects art made by serial killers. But is film-maker John Waters as sick as he makes out, asks friend and fellow hitch-hiker Philip Hoare. Or is he - shock, horror - just a really nice man?
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The Independent Culture

Two little girls skip down the street hand-in-hand. Buttercups and cornflowers sway in the evening breeze; the tinkle of alpine bells on sleek-coated goats drifts across the park. And in the Fotomuseum at Winterthur, John Waters draws a crimson velvet curtain to reveal Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot - the graphic quality of which is amply described by its title. Mr Waters, resplendent in a striped Agnès B suit, explains how he spent months searching porn videos to compile his art work. "It's impossible to find a shot of an asshole which isn't being threatened by a mouth, an arm, or a dick." he says. And the dirty foot? "In porn movies there's a guy responsible for washing the performers' feet, so it's equally impossible to find a dirty one."

Two little girls skip down the street hand-in-hand. Buttercups and cornflowers sway in the evening breeze; the tinkle of alpine bells on sleek-coated goats drifts across the park. And in the Fotomuseum at Winterthur, John Waters draws a crimson velvet curtain to reveal Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot - the graphic quality of which is amply described by its title. Mr Waters, resplendent in a striped Agnès B suit, explains how he spent months searching porn videos to compile his art work. "It's impossible to find a shot of an asshole which isn't being threatened by a mouth, an arm, or a dick." he says. And the dirty foot? "In porn movies there's a guy responsible for washing the performers' feet, so it's equally impossible to find a dirty one."

What has Switzerland done to deserve John Waters? This a country where the trains not only run on time, but have extracts from Heidi emblazoned inside the carriages. It is a wonderful irony that a place whose pavements are noticeably bereft of dog poo should play host to a director whose most famous scene involves his cross-dressing superstar, Divine, eating a canine turd. But the man whom William Burroughs called "the Pope of Trash" is in town, and everyone is paying attention.

"Change of Life", Waters' first museum show, opened this spring at the New Museum in New York to critical acclaim before moving here a fortnight ago. Needless to say, his art is somewhat idiosyncratic. Having made 15 movies of his own, he is now remaking other people's, using video stills to tell an entirely new (and usually perverse) narrative. It all started secretly, in the dark. "I was looking for an image from Multiple Maniacs [Waters' 1970 shocker] with the lights off, snapping the TV screen. The results came out better than I ever expected. I thought, I could be a publicity agent for every movie ever made. I could get the stills and run the publicity campaign I want."

And so his "little movies" began, akin to animated strip cartoons. "I do it in a very low-tech way," he says. "No tripod, no digital - it's about editing. I'm like a crazed fan. I believe that in the art world the frame performs the same function as the hype in a movie does." In some of his new pieces the long, framed works actually bend round the corner of the gallery, as if they're too big for the wall itself.

Installed in the pristine white Fotomuseum - Europe's premier photographic gallery - the show is a vindication of Waters' lifelong trash aesthetic, one which was paradoxically the product of a conservative background, not unlike that of this ostensibly complacent Swiss city. Born to respectable middle-class parents (his uncle was an under-secretary of state in the Nixon administration), John grew up in suburban Baltimore. But early signs of rebellion didn't faze Mr and Mrs Waters. "When I was 17, doing drugs, going to mad parties, coming home late, my mom took me aside and said, 'John, do you think you're fighting a vocation?'" (In fact, he is now an ordained minister, able to conduct marriage ceremonies).

Now, at the age of 58, John realises how far his long-suffering parents supported his creativity. He began shooting his movies around the family home. "I was recreating the Kennedy assassination on the front lawn and my mother told me, in worry: 'You're going to end up in a mental institution, die from a drug overdose, or commit suicide,' but they stuck with me." In fact, Mrs Waters even played an out-of-tune piano version of "God Bless America" (albeit off-screen) in his first film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964).

Soon he was touting his movies around America, picking up on the insurrection of the times. "I'd drive round with the movies in the trunk of my car, and every town where they'd burned down a bank, I'd show them there." As his notoriety grew, so did his personal aesthetic: "I wanted to be Pasolini or Visconti, only put together with Little Richard," hence the pencil-thin moustache. Even in Sixties counter-culture, Waters was extreme: "The people who liked my movies were minorities of minorities, they were hippies who hated other hippies, gays who hated other gays, blacks who hated other blacks. It was kind of inclusive."

Visitors to his new exhibition will be the last to see Waters' earliest efforts, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and Eat Your Makeup (1967) - they'll never be shown again, he has declared, nor released on video. They're amazing pieces, all the more evocative and even moving for their embryonic quality. Their flickering black-and-white images seem to come from the faded sunlight of a lost, almost innocent era, for all their outrageous scenes of Ku Klux Klansmen and blasphemous nuns. They're the bastard offspring of Ingmar Bergman and Kenneth Anger, with Andy Warhol as an unholy godfather.

They have also exported the Waters aesthetic around the world. By the time he released Pink Flamingos (1972), he had achieved a subcultural, comic-demonic status, and when the film was shown in Zürich, it was threatened with public incineration. In stepped Matthias Brunner, who ran the city's art-house cinema, and who defiantly showed the film. And so, 32 years later, John is back in Switzerland, a country he loves, for all that it seems to represent everything he hates.

On the train to Winterthur, I have a sudden vision of John Waters retiring to Switzerland as a kind of Dirk Bogarde/Nöel Coward figure. Oddly enough, it's a notion he too entertains: "I'd live in Zug where all the really rich people who are hiding from the law live." Tall and rangy - he still sits with his legs folded underneath him like some adolescent - for all his mordant wit, he is an easy person to be with (this will ruin his reputation, but John Waters is a nice man). I've known him for a decade or so; but I first encountered his work back in the late Seventies, when the flagrantly offensive image of Divine (aka Glenn Milstead, John's high-school friend) and the rest of his Dreamland troupe seemed an augury of punk.

I remember watching a dodgy pirate copy of Female Trouble (1974) in a loft off Tottenham Court Road, and finding it impossible to get Divine's whining bitchery out of my head. Later, when he became an outrageous pop star - a corpulent sequinned porpoise screeching "You Think You're a Man" - I saw him perform in places as disparate as Heaven and Walthamstow Town Hall. But it wasn't until 1990 - when I published my first book, Serious Pleasures, a biography of the equally outrageous and androgynous 1920s artist, Stephen Tennant - that I heard from Mr Waters.

He'd picked up a copy of my book on a visit to London, and wrote to say how much he liked it. A month or so later, I made my first trip to New York, where my US publishers were polite but lacked enthusiasm - until that Sunday's New York Times appeared. Emblazoned across the literary section was John's rave review of my book. The next day I was signing copies in stores from the Village to Fifth Avenue. In one short piece John had launched my career in America.

On my next visit I was invited to dinner in Baltimore. John's neighbourhood is a Blue Velvet land of quiet lawns and villas. His house stands out, not least for its faintly gothic air. Designed in 1925 by the renowned Baltimore architect Laurence Hall Fowler, John used to pass it on his way to school: "It seemed like a house Dracula could live in". In 1998, its owner finally agreed to sell it to him.

As John opened the door, I came face-to-face with an electric chair made by his set designer Vince Peranio for Divine's final scene in Female Trouble, but real enough to cause uneasy stares from delivery men. We stepped into a library which would grace any English country house, lined with the works of Ivy Compton-Burnett and the British writer Denton Welch (whose self-portrait also hangs on John's wall), but there were also tacky crime-exposés and, between them, fake half-eaten food as well as art works by Richard Artschwager and Cy Twombly. The surreal effect is reproduced wholesale in "Change of Life", for which Peranio has recreated the entire room as a life-size pop-up book, complete with a catalogue of John's library.

Leaving our guests - Pat Moran, John's flame-haired casting director and closest friend, and her tall, laconic husband Chuck - John took me upstairs where the spare rooms are hung with nightmarish Disney scenes painted by a genuine serial killer ("so houseguests don't stay more than two nights"). Then he opened an attic door to reveal a rocking house - I swear it was still moving - and an array of rusty medical implements on a shelf. (The space has since been occupied by Gregory Greene's terrorist bomb factory installation; John keeps documentation at hand to reassure the FBI that it is art).

John's New York apartment in Greenwich Village has a similarly disconcerting feel. He describes it as "painted in three shades of puke-green". But come Memorial Day, John Waters Inc decamps to Provincetown. John has been visiting this bohemian enclave at the tip of Cape Cod since the Sixties; he remembers the day Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable came to town "and his superstars shoplifted in all the stores". Provincetown consists of two main streets and not much else; the entire place is built on sand. The only brick house belongs to Norman Mailer - a good friend, John throws a dinner party for him every summer. Another friend, the novelist Michael Cunningham, lives a few doors down the road.

John does much of his writing in Provincetown. He lives on the top floor of a beach-front house owned by an artist, Pat De Groot. He rises around six, pads across to the Patrician corner store for his newspaper fix - The New York Times for the news, and the Post for tabloid sensation. Then he writes, by hand, on yellow legal pads (he won't even go near a computer). Around midday, if I'm staying in the White Horse Inn across the road (where all John's guests, including Patricia Hearst, stay), I'll hear the crunch of his bike wheels on the gravel and his sing-song voice, "Oh, Philip", and it's time for our hour on the beach. John's life is measured out in the filecards on which he writes his "things-to-do" (and, in one corner, the number of days since he last smoked a cigarette - 512, and counting); arranged en masse, they constitute another of the works in the show, entitled 308 Days, a graphic testament to his obsessive nature.

We weave our way up Commercial Street, John looking like the Wicked Witch of the West on his bike with its wicker basket and acknowledging shouts of recognition like the Provincetown royalty he is. At Herring Cove the beach is demarcated. Straight families stake out one end; at the other, lesbians, gays and nudists claim their territory. We sit in the middle, in no-man's-land. "Nudists," says John, as a naked and somewhat elderly figure strolls past, "they're never the people you want to see naked."

Sometimes we'll go further down the Cape, to Longnook. You can only park there if you're a resident of the nearby town of Truro. So we hitch. "It's my response to the mid-life crisis," says John. He has a sign made for him by a young artist friend: ripped from a grocery carton, one side reads "Long Nook", the other, "P-Town". He stands by the highway in his Cutler and Gross shades, white jeans and pointy Comme des Garçons sneakers, sticking out his thumb in the most aggressive manner possible. Each car that doesn't stop gets an unprintable epithet custom-made to suit its driver's presumed sexual aberrations. Once the local police car pulled up, resulting in our arrival at the transcendently beautiful beach - a kind of Calvin Klein heaven - from out of the caged rear seats. "It looks like we've been paroled to Long Nook," said John.

Everywhere he goes these days, John gets recognised: the musical version of Hairspray, which opened in New York in 2002, has ensured a new kind of fame. The production is still playing to packed houses on Broadway, and it's extraordinary to see coach parties applauding the story of fat Tracy and her fight to win a danceathon in a racially discriminated 1960s Baltimore. "It's Cats for fat people," says John. But in its success is also a sadness. Divine, who appeared in the original movie, died of a heart attack a week after its opening in 1988. When he should have been basking in the glory of his most popular film, John was helping to carry his friend's coffin. "I just couldn't enjoy the movie's success," he says, with a halt in his voice. "The musical has allowed me to enjoy it now."

Hairspray seems to me to be deeply subversive of middle America, the very constituency which supplies its audiences. In fact, I think John Waters is one of the great modern ironists. "Everything in modern culture is based on irony to some extent," he says, "I sell and deal in irony, like a drug dealer." And yet his art is engaged rather than calculating, and however provocative his material, never mean. "If you want to change people and they are resisting it, you make them laugh," he says. "Laughter is a weapon, and a shield... I didn't get beat up at high school because I made the people who wanted to get me laugh."

It's often the first reaction to his work. One diptych in his new exhibition shows Brad Pitt morphing into Charles Manson (glamorous criminals and Hollywood celebrities often conflate in Watersworld): "Manson appears every five years for his parole hearing," says John, who avidly awaits each appearance, grabbing a still from the television like a stalker. "I'd heard Brad Pitt had grown a beard, but the only shot I could get was about five seconds when he was seen at a basketball game." Another sequence depicts multiple crucifixion scenes arranged in a cross-shaped frame: the Catholic in me ought to be offended, but its humour undercuts the offence. "All my life I've been against censorship," he says. "I'm against the death penalty too, I guess because I think I might get it."

John was collecting art even before he was making movies. His high-school girlfriend ("shows you how long ago it was") gave him a Warhol screenprint of Jackie Kennedy ("It cost her $100"). Warhol was an early hero and later friend: "Andy even offered to pay for Female Trouble. I'm still shocked that I turned him down." His favourite contemporary artists include Fischli-Weiss and Richard Tuttle; he likes their extreme "nothingness". When he bought a particularly "artless" piece by Tuttle, his father said, "They saw you coming, boy."

It is the same world which is satirised in John Waters' Pecker (1998) (yes, the double entendre is intentional) in which a Baltimore boy's snaps are taken up with alacrity by the New York art world. Last year, Thames and Hudson published John's Art: A Sex Book, co-written with the critic Bruce Hainley. It's a kind of gallery in a book, exploring sex in contemporary art (it also went through three different covers before the publishers could accept it). Yet John is still aware of accusations of him using his celebrity to power his art career. "It's the only thing I can't fight against," he admits. "My past is my competition."

Perhaps it is one reason why Europe attracts him: given precedents such as Visconti and Cocteau no one thinks twice about his genre-hopping, and "pretentiousness" isn't an issue. "It's very hard to pull off pretension if you're American," he says. "I was making my pieces for years before I would show them in public. It was only Colin [De Land, his New York gallery dealer] who encouraged me." De Land's sudden death last year is a loss which Waters still finds hard to bear.

Yet John relishes his personal change of life. Apart from his art, the past two years have been taken up with a new film, A Dirty Shame, due for release in Britain in September. The plot revolves around middle-class Baltimore residents who, suffering concussion, come round to find they've turned into sex addicts. It stars Tracy Ullman, Chris Isaak, Johnny Knoxville from Jackass, and Selma Blair as Ursula Udders, a character with prosthetic breasts the size of basketballs. It has just earned an NC-17 rating from the American censors - the highest level in the US - despite an appeal from John. But the board remained unswayed by his arguments: when asked which parts of the film they objected to, they said drily: "We stopped taking notes."

This year he's already travelled to Romania to play a cameo role in a Chucky movie; he doesn't come to England enough (where his friends include Julian Barnes and Zandra Rhodes). The last time was when Graham Norton flew him over (with his mother) to appear on his show. While John lunched with Norton at the Ivy, I took the elegant Mrs Waters to the National Portrait Gallery, where I showed her a self-portrait of Tracy Emin, whom she'd met the night before. "I didn't recognise her," said Mrs Waters, as she peered at the photograph of Emin's naked rear.

What with stints modelling for Comme des Garçons, and duties judging film and art prizes, life doesn't stand still for John. This summer he'll be busy with a musical adaptation of his 1990 movie Cry Baby (which launched Johnny Depp's career). Just don't ask him if he has a hobby, as a hapless student once did. "It's the only time I ever made an interviewer cry. I mean, a hobby? How dare you?"

'John Waters - Change of Life': Fotomuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland (+ 41 52 233 60 86), to 22 August, then touring to the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, US (+ 1 412 237 8300), 13 May 2005 to August 2005. 'A Dirty Shame' is released on 17 September