Filmmaker John Waters brings photographic art to Soho
By Michael Calderone, THE VILLAGER
“I always feel that if you asked me what movie that is from that the work has failed,” says filmmaker John Waters about his new photography retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. In ‘Change of Life,’ the director of ‘Hairspray,’ ‘Serial Mom,’ and ‘Cecil B. Demented’ displays narrative works of art that incorporate images photographed from countless films, ranging from classic to obscure.
Not surprisingly, in addition to being a filmmaker, Waters is also an ardent cinéphile who boasts widely eclectic tastes. Famously dubbed the “Pope of Trash,” by writer Williams S. Burroughs, Waters’ photographic art, which he began experimenting with in the early ’90s, captures still images from many forgotten treasures, mostly likely found at flea markets or in bargain barrels at the video store. Waters is not merely looking to take well-known stills and offer them as they are, but to reinvent, utilizing his directorial talent and off-beat sensibility to create a recontextualized work of art.
“I’m trying to revive these movies. I’m trying to speak well of them. I’m trying to be their press agent,” replied Waters when asked if he is merely mocking some lesser known B-movies.
During a press reception, Waters offered a guided tour of the exhibition, discussing at length the many films used and the creative processes involved in his photography, film and sculpture. Waters spoke lovingly and authoritatively about movie minutia, including trademark styles from various eras of cinema.
“What is beauty,” questions Waters, referring to his work, ‘Julia, 2000?’ A photograph of screen queen Julia Roberts is juxtaposed with a disturbing shot from a low- budget horror film. Waters mentions that decades ago, Roberts would not have been considered a great beauty in the industry. With a keen pulse on pop and fringe culture, Waters shows how societal factors impact the making of mainstream film stars.
Movie stills range from iconic to barely discernable shots. For instance, in ‘Grace Kelly’s Elbows, 1998,’ Waters focuses on the actress’s elbows rather than the headshot, displaying an alternative way of observing a well-known person’s likeness on film. This fetishization of specific body parts or themes is displayed in other works where Waters finds a specific scene from various films and positions them alongside one another to show how cinema treats various facets of the human experience. The resulting work can simultaneously generate reactions of shock, humor, or ruminations on culture.
In ‘Movie Star Junkie, 1997,’ eight prints depict the holes punctuated in the skin from drug use. Waters states, “All actors yearn to play drug addicts,” and this piece displays cinematic attempts at capturing the desperate act of addiction.
‘Pimples, 1998,’ shows the human imperfections that are expected to be covered-up on screen. The director attested to the difficulty of finding shots of actors with blemishes, noting that people are employed in the film industry specifically to clear away any pimples before the final cut. ‘Birth Control, 2003’ offers 18 images of childbirth on screen, and is comedic in depicting the pained expressions of actresses portraying this.
In addition to approximately 80 photographic works, and several sculptures, three early John Waters’s films, ‘Hag in a Black Leather Jacket’ (1964), ‘Roman Candles’ (1966), and ‘Eat Your Make-Up’ (1967), will be screened continuously. This is the first public screening of these experimental films in decades. Lacking extensive editing, and described by Waters as “technically terrible,” they still exhibit vivid imagination and burgeoning talent that would be further developed in feature-length films that explored social morays.
Divine, a 300 lb. transvestite and star of many of Waters’ films, including two of the aforementioned, also appears in the exhibit in several photographic works. The muse that starred in early works through later feature-length films passed away in 1988, but can barely be detached from Waters filmography, playing a pivotal role in the director’s remarkable and taboo-breaking career.
Waters’ upcoming film, ‘A Dirty Shame,’ starring Selma Blair, Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, and Mink Stole amongst others is slated for release in summer 2004. Like Waters previous films, the most recent was also shot in his native Baltimore. While many filmmakers rush to New York or Los Angeles, Waters has remained content to film in his hometown. Coincidentally, Change of Life opened on February 7th, which is also John Waters’ Day in the city of Baltimore, a tradition that began in 1985.
Waters’ career as a filmmaker has spanned several decades, with early works such as ‘Pink Flamingos’ and ‘Desperate Living’ now essential parts of the cult film canon. Although later films have increased in budget, and included bigger name stars, Waters unique vision towards filmmaking, utilizing comedy, shock value and cultural commentary continues unabated. For those who delight in Waters’ films, Change of Life will not disappoint, and for those not yet exposed, this is could be the perfect opportunity.