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Reluctantly Ironic
by Fred Zwick and Robbie Busch
Cups Magazine No 91

When you started making films, you were being sarcastic and thumbing your nose at society. Where do you thumb now?

Well, my films always do the best in the smartest, richest neighborhoods. Whenever we played the films in a grind house, it never did well because the audience knows you're making fun of the genre. That audience that really loves genre movies, they wanna go and like it for the real reasons that it was made. They don't like irony complicating and ruining their good night. That's how they feel - they hate camp, they hate irony, and they hate surrealism. And they feel somehow you're making fun of them, and you are. My films were never made for that general of an audience. Although I have seen my movies with all kinds of people, I think the uniting thing is the sense of humor more than the class or more than color or anything. And defiance. Those two things, generally are the uniting factors of the people that like my movies. They like to see an outsider win, no matter who that outsider is. And they don't have to be a member of that outsider group. as long as that outsider group makes fun of the people that harass outsiders. See, a biker can root for a drag queen in my movies because they both humiliate the people that would put them both down in different ways. There's the politics.

Pecker seems kind of a populist film because you're making fun of the art world elitists.

I'm making fun of them, but I'm one of them. I collect that kind of work. I go to all the art galleries, so I'm making fun of something that I actually like. I like that the art world is elite. I find it hilarious. I don't mind elite people if they have a reason to be elite; I just have trouble with people that are snobs for no appartent reason. If someone is smarter, cuter, or does art better than anyone else. I think they are better in some weird way. They have a right to be a certain amount of a snob.

Do you find yourself torn between being a populist and being an elitist?

I like to be both. I like the extremes of anything - the middle is what I do bad. So I could be in the worst, scariest, anti-white neighborhod in Harlem, or I could be in the meanest redneck bar in Baltimore, or I could be at an Upper East Side dinner party for the richest collector in New York, and all of those places I could have a wonderful evening and feel very comfortable. If I had to go to a mall in the midwest, I would fear for my life.

Speaking of populism, what's your intention when the statue of the Virgin Mary speaks at the end of Pecker? Are you making fun of or endorsing Pecker's working-class backround?

My intention is that I don't really believe in miracles, but I would like to. And basically that's why I put it into a movie. I read about all these miracles that are fake, but those people that see Mary in coffee cups - to them it is real. So who's to say it isn't? I find it fascinating that maybe it's real to those people, so I'm not really putting it down. This is about Mary, the mother of God; supposedly she gave birth without ever having sex. That's an interesting concept, and to think that is what most people believe. And they think I'm weird.

Do you see yourself as an outsider to the gay scene? Or are you mainstream gay?

The gay sensibility has too many rules for me. Basically, I'm from a generation of gay men that thought it was a privilege not to get married or go in the army. Now we have to fight for it. I'm for an all-lesbian volunteer army. I'm against all gay bars. I'm against segregation of any kind. I like it mixed - when it's confusing...

You've said before that Pecker isn't autobiographical because he doesn't have a sense of irony and he's not ambitious.

I grew up very different from Pecker. I didn't come from a blue-collar family. I was in on it, I read Variety when I was 12, I read show-business papers, I was a successful puppeteer at children's birthday parties. I did sometimes three or four a week for twenty-five dollars a week, which was a lot of money for a 12-year-old in 1956. At the end of the puppet show I would get bored, so I would use fake blood, which was hard when the show was "Cinderella." At the end, the one thing that I always did that made them go crazy was Punch and Judy - that's where I had the fake blood, and when the parents would raise a few eyebrows, I would come out with a dragon puppet who ate Punch and Judy. I would tell the kids to stick out their hands and that the dragon would bite it for good luck, and some of them would flip out and start screaming and crying. And that was the last thing I did before I picked up the movie thing.

Speaking of the movie thing, why don't you use actors like Divine and Edith Massey anymore?

Well, I always thought in a way Divine was a good actor. But he I met as a friend. In the beginning, the only way we could do it was to use my friends. I always tried to use the best actors I could, but when I had my friends, the better actors still rose to the bigger parts.

Another thing you're known for is using these kitschy pop-culture icons like Patty Hearst, Traci Lords, Sonny Bono, Pia Zadora...

I would describe them all differently from the way you just did. Pia Zadora at the time was a villified actress. I knew she was good, and I got her all good reviews. That was called rehabilitation. Patty Hearst to me was as famous then as OJ Simpson is now, only in a very different way. She was the Charles Lindberg baby who lived. Sonny Bono was an incredible innovator in rhythm and blues that worked with specialty records that few people knew anything about. Traci Lords, she would probably regret me saying this, was, aside from being a good actress now, the best porno star there ever was. None of those people were so bad they were good; to me they were so good they were great. I looked up to them because of their originality.

Do you get these people because of their popular reputation or because of their talent?

Well, if they weren't good, I wouldn't use them over and over, but there are many people that I would never use that other people think I would. Like Tonya Harding, Zsa Zsa Gabor - I would never use them.

How about OJ?

I would never use him. I hated him even when he was a sports star. I don't care if he murdered. I hated him when he ran from the airport, getting on my nerves.