On Friday, February 4 at 7:30pm, in support of Anthology Film Archives' s 40th anniversary, filmmaker (and Ann-Margret aficionado) John Waters presents Kitten With a Whip at the theater he says he says he owes his career to. In this film, Ann-Margret, with her copper-colored nimbus that looks occasionally as if she' s been shocked, is possessed, demented and so pretty as a dangerous juvenile delinquent with a heart of gold. Over the phone, Waters chatted delightfully about Ann-Margret, his past as an art film teenage runaway, and countless other objects of enthusiasm.
So, Kitten with a Whip is a personal favorite of yours...
And I've never seen it since I paid to see it in 1964. But I did watch it this week since I'm gonna introduce it. But it held up to me in a very, very different way. The title is hilarious and campy and sounds like a midnight movie, but it isn't really.
It's almost like a film noir art movie, but with juvenile delinquency thrown in and Ann-Margret's just amazing beauty.
What do you find so fascinating about her performance in it?
I think she never looked better. There are shots in it that are just so stunning, of her being a movie star. And I love a bad girl. You know, I've always loved a bad girl. All my movies are about bad girls. That's what Divine's whole career was based on.
And Carroll Baker—who I also love in Baby Doll—made one called Something Wild that's very similar at trying to be an art film.
Yeah, I was thinking of that film a lot while watching this one. It's similarly uncategorizable, kind of noir-ish...
In black and white... Yeah, but at the same time it does work. There are some great, great moments in the film. I'll show that next time, maybe.
And so I'm showing this movie hoping that people who like art movies will see it in a hallowed atmosphere—which is what Anthology Archives is to me, it's like going to church. And I think that once you've shown there it is now officially art, just by the fact that it's being screened there, nothing to do with me. And so I'm trying to, in a way, make this not a camp movie, because it isn't to me. It's not so bad it's good. It's great.
Do you have other favorite Ann-Margret moments?
Well, when I made Cry Baby I showed Amy Locane all the Ann-Margret scenes in Bye Bye Birdie. And when she sang in the Elvis Presley movie—that's a great one, Viva Las Vegas.
Her dance with Elvis was traumatizing to me when I saw it as child.
Why traumatizing? To me it would be liberating. She was possessed by the spirit of Elvis Presley.
Yeah, she's very responsive. She does whatever he does.
That pelvis! She was Kitten with a Whip there, in that movie, actually.
She's so jittery. It's amazing.
She's a cat on a hot tin roof! Kitten with a Whip!
You know, Kitten with a Whip is actually a good movie. I'm not showing this in any way to laugh at it.
No, absolutely. And it also has some great touches, like a zoom onto a stuffed animal...
Well, that's so Mike Kelly! That's just like the art of Mike Kelly. It's a great art movie. And the credits are very Saul Bass. And the music is great, and it has a downbeat ending. It just worked for me. It held up for me. I wonder what Ann-Margaret thinks of this movie? There's nothing to be embarrassed by.
Well, I was reading her autobiography actually...
What did she say?
She seemed to be a little embarrassed about it, because of some bad reviews. But she said she was proud of her performance and said that's what Mike Nichols thought, too. That's why he cast her in Carnal Knowledge.
Well, he was right. I mean, there's nothing to be embarrassed of. If only she saw it with the audience that we're gonna watch it with at Anthology...Which right away that proves it's an art movie! Art movie cred. Street cred. There's no better place. I mean, I look for their program every month when it comes and think, "My God, this is amazing." If ever the government should support a movie theater, this is the one.
When did you first visit Anthology? Do you remember?
Are you kidding? I used to read Jonas Mekas' column "Movie Journal" in the Village Voice when I was a teenager in Baltimore. Then I would run away to New York on weekends and go to the Filmmakers' Cooperative to see premiers of movies—and this was before it became Anthology, but it was all Jonas. And then they distributed Mondo Trasho, one of my first movies, at the filmmakers' distribution center. So, they were always a huge part of how I was formed, my aesthetic. Because Jonas was so radical, and the underground movies that they showed then were really important to me, and to Divine, too. So we would see these movies, but at the same time we would go see what was thought of as drive-in movies and B-movies like Kitten with a Whip, and then sort of put them together with underground movies and art movies and came up with what I make, really. So it was a big influence.
Did you see other movies there that had that kind of overlap?
I saw Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith and I saw the Kuchar Brothers, and all these movies are the ones that broke the censorship laws, that broke taboos. So they were incredibly important to me. That' s why I've said we always have to be friends with pornographers, because they can afford the lawyers that will fight the censorship laws so people like the Kuchar Brothers and Kenneth Anger can use the same laws to make art.
What do you think of the term "guilty pleasure"?
Oh, guilty pleasures to me are all like very serious art. Bresson is a guilty pleasure!
I was reading your year-end list and I noticed a movie on your list that I didn't see on anyone else's list that I wanted to ask you about. Ricky?
I loved Ricky! I'm a huge fan of Francois Ozon. It's really an amazing movie. And it is about a flying baby—it's like Eraserhead almost. It's surreal and beautiful. But where Eraserhead is scary this isn't scary—it's positive. Never did heterosexuality look so good. They should show it at heterosexual marches. At meetings!
That's so funny. And, speaking of that, there was a film that I noticed wasn't on your list, Black Swan. And that's a movie that J. Hoberman called "heterosexual camp." What do you think of that?
Well, you know, Black Swan is—talk about fun. To me, and I had written that Ten Best list before I saw Black Swan—Black Swan, to me, it delivers everything that Saturday afternoon at the movies should be. And I was very relieved when I read recently that Darren [Aronofsky] said he realized the movie was fun. Because to me it was fun. It was over-the-top, God knows, in some places...it was moments of—what, Winona stabbing herself in the head? But I love those moments. It was extreme, and you can't say you went to that movie and were bored. So to me, the melodrama of it, the excitement of it, the surprise of it really—because I thought, "what?!" and that was incredibly delightful for me.
Do you want to say anything else about Anthology, or about Jonas Mekas?
Well, I just think that he's a role model of mine. Because when I was a kid, 15 years old, and read those columns, he made me believe I could have this career. I lived in the suburbs in Baltimore—they didn't show underground movies there, at all. If I didn't read that column and even better, Film Culture Magazine, which I have many, many issues that are quite valuable today—which they should be—I pored over those issues, and so they gave me hope. And they were my secret friends. I couldn't talk about anybody in Catholic high school about Film Culture. They didn't know about that. They didn't want to talk about the Kuchar brothers—they never heard of them, and they would have hated them if they had.
And reading that you felt like, "This is what I can do. This is what I have to do"?
And seeing them! I would forge false permission slips that I was going to school on weekends, so I could go to New York on the Trailways bus alone and see them.
On the Trailways bus?
Yeah, or hitchhiking. I stayed in New York. We were just asking on the street if we could stay. I stayed in scary, really scary tenements and stuff. Yes! Worth it. It was exciting. I was a kid. It was fun.