On May 7, 2018, Dennis Lim, film critic and Director of Programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and John Waters, artist and filmmaker, were honored with the insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters in a ceremony held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur gave the following speech at the event.
As Cultural Counselor, it is my pleasure to welcome you here to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to bestow the insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters upon Dennis Lim, film critic and Director of Programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and John Waters, artist and filmmaker.
In 1957, the Order of Arts and Letters was established by the French government to recognize renowned artists and writers and those who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.
Tonight, we honor two individuals whose successful careers have led them to become great advocates for French cinema in the United States. At the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Dennis Lim has organized and curated a variety of programs highlighting the best of what French cinema has to offer. His work has helped to introduce American audiences to both emerging and established French filmmakers. As a filmmaker, John Waters’ films have opened new avenues for cinema in the 20th and 21st century, garnering a cult following in the United States and internationally. In many of his works, both in film and beyond, he pays homage to his numerous French influences.
I will begin first with Dennis Lim.
Dear Dennis Lim,
We honor you tonight as both a programmer and critic, two roles that are an essential part of the art of cinema.
Too often an unknown director creates a superb film, and yet it remains unknown—it frequently falls to the programmer and critic to bring it into the public’s consciousness. These roles are especially integral to diffusing cinema across the globe. International movies have a more difficult time gaining recognition in the United States than domestic ones. Your career, Mr. Lim, has been dedicated to helping emerging filmmakers gain audiences both in the U.S and abroad, to keeping old masterpieces from being forgotten, and to promoting international cinema, especially French film, in the United States.
We honor you today for your contributions to the world of film, bringing films that would otherwise remain obscure to US audiences. For example, a retrospective you organized on the work of you fellow honoree, “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” , took audiences back to his lesser-known earlier films. We feel so lucky to be honoring two men tonight who know and highly respect each other’s contributions to film.
When you graduated from the London School of Economics with a Bachelor’s degree in Business, Mathematics and Statistics, did you envision that 30 years later, you would be overseeing the Film Society of Lincoln Center and writing as one of the nation’s foremost film critics? Perhaps you envisioned exactly that, as you came to New York University to get your Master’s in journalism, where you focused on cultural reporting and criticism.
In 1996, you began contributing to The Independent on Sunday, a British newspaper, marking your entrance into the world of film journalism. You have written about French cinema frequently for prominent publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Village Voice. You have also published in the iconic French publication Cahiers du Cinéma. You have written extensively about French filmmakers including Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Leos Carax, Robert Bresson, and Chris Marker and in particular, Jacques Rivette—who you consider the most important filmmaker.
Your movie reviews are always insightful and sharp, and you entertain audiences while delivering in-depth analysis. In one review, you described the experience of watching Jacques Rivette’s film, “Out 1: Noli Me Tangere,” as “the movie equivalent of reading Proust… committing to an artwork of overwhelming proportions that promises to repay accordingly.” Your reviews are filled with these kinds of lively and lucid phrasings that both attract and engage readers. Indeed, one of your colleagues at the Village Voice, Melissa Anderson, has said, “Dennis always found the better word, the more felicitous phrasing, the livelier sentence structure, and he always knew how to make an undercooked idea robust.”
Your passion for cinema extends to the classroom as well. You’ve taught at the New School’s Eugene Lang School for the Liberal Arts, at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and most recently, at Harvard University as a visiting lecturer in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.
And while you dedicate yourself tirelessly to all your work—programming for the Film Society, writing and teaching—in 2015, you also wrote a book on filmmaker David Lynch, “The Man from Another Place” —known to close friends as “D.L. by D.L.”
At the Lincoln Center, you have given particular attention to French cinema and new French artists. In fact, you have always been ahead of the curve in bringing fresh talent to U.S. audiences. Your film series, “I Put a Spell on You: The Films of Bertrand Bonello,” raised the profile of this renowned French director, screenwriter, producer and composer to New York audiences.
You were also one of the first supporters of filmmaker Alain Guiraudie. In 2014, you hosted the U.S.-opening of his film, Strangers by the Lake, a winner at Cannes in 2013. We at the Cultural Services were lucky enough to work with you on this project.
Rendez-vous with French Cinema, is yet another important contribution that you have made to French cinema in the US, along with your colleague and fellow Chevalier, Florence Almozini, (we had the Cultural Services were lucky to have worked with her as well) Through this festival, you have made an effort to highlight young French filmmakers. Their works have been beautifully juxtaposed with those of established French masters.
You have truly gone above and beyond in your work and in your commitment to cinema. Your friend, French filmmaker Eric Baudelaire, shared a story with us to illustrate just how true this is. In 2012, you went to Beirut on assignment for the New York Times to visit the set of his film, The Ugly One. One of the actors was unable to make it to Beirut. With what must have taken the utmost convincing, Mr. Baudelaire’s producer managed to convince you to play his role, which involved covering your body in red paint and holding an AK-47, screaming a short text by August Blanqui, and shooting into the air. As the final touches were added to your costume, the producer called to announce that the actor had in fact successfully boarded his plane, and would be able to do the scene after all. It was hard to tell whether you were disappointed or relieved. Later that day, you sat down for your planned interview with Mr. Baudelaire, and he noticed the traces of bright red paint still underneath your fingernails—a symbolic testament to your commitment to film!
So indeed, you are a true friend of film—and of filmmakers. Your living room has played host to many talented filmmakers from around the world. In fact, your sofa had to be re-upholstered because of the red wine stains resulting from late-night conversations on film!
Your loyalty is a testament to the passion and integrity with which you approach your profession. As a critic and curator, you recognize the importance of showcasing diverse talent, of giving emerging filmmakers a platform, and of making connections between French and American filmmakers wherever you go. For these reasons, it is my honor to present you with the Order of Arts and Letters.
Dennis Lim, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Dear John Waters,
We are gathered here today to honor your vast contributions to film spanning nearly a half-century. Over the course of your career, you have become one of the most important figures in cinema. Your work has inspired countless filmmakers, opening up new possibilities for the medium while confronting complex issues of gender, sexuality and class with humor and an eye for profound absurdity. You embraced an approach, often described as camp and carnivalesque, which challenged mainstream Hollywood’s political and aesthetic limits, while remaining accessible to audiences beyond the rarefied world of avant-garde film.
And your work is as intellectually sophisticated as it is wild and entertaining. Indeed, the dizzying play of gender and performance in your films even led the celebrated theorist Judith Butler to title her now canonical book Gender Trouble, as an homage to your film Female Trouble.
In your casting and hiring choices you were equally radical, bringing together people, many LGBTQ, often excluded from the film world. You have expanded the boundaries of film artistically and socially, and, in the process, helped to pave the way for much of the most important, challenging films and filmmakers of the past several decades.
You are also a great supporter of French cinema. In fact, a close friend calls you one of the most loyal advocates for French avant-garde cinema, adding with playful frustration that he can never watch a Bruno Dumont or Catherine Breillat film you haven’t already seen. Indeed, many of your acceptance speeches and interviews include references to your influences, such as renowned French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.
It seems that in adolescence, you had many of the same interests as you do today. Growing up, you used to watch B-movies at local drive-ins with binoculars, intrigued by tacky films and forbidden subjects. Your first foray into the entertainment industry came at a precocious age when you began staging puppet shows for children’s birthday parties. By the age of 12, you had subscribed to Variety magazine, staying up to date with the latest in entertainment and expanding your film vocabulary. By your teenage years, you were making 8-mm movies.
While you came to NYU for a brief period, your fans all over the world are likely grateful that you returned to Baltimore not long after starting school—it was then that you began seriously producing your films. You came out with your first feature-length film, Mondo Trasho, in 1969. With this work, and your previous shorts, you began gathering a group of actors to star in your films. These friends of yours, who came to be known as “Dreamlanders,” have since acted in all your movies and have become recognized in their own right. Your casting choices have been central to the boundaries you’ve pushed as a filmmaker.
By the 1970s, you were a cult celebrity—your 1972 Pink Flamingos became a smash success at midnight screenings and you secured a fan base of independent thinkers and self-proclaimed misfits worldwide. As you’ve said, your audience is composed of “minorities who can’t even fit in with their own minorities.” Your mainstream adoration didn’t come fully until you produced Hairspray in 1988: perhaps it was the fact that this film was rated PG that allowed it to become so popular, most of your other films were rated X. In any event, this film brought you Hollywood success. Your next film in 1990, Cry-Baby, had major Hollywood backing and cast Johnny Depp in the lead role.
One could spend all evening speaking about your films—yet they are only a part of your career. Not only are you one of the most iconic filmmakers of our time, but you are also a talented artist, writer, and performer. You have published seven books, detailing everything from your cultural obsessions to your hitchhiking trip from Baltimore to San Francisco. As an author, you have often reflected on the influences for your films, among which are many French directors. In your book Crackpot, for example, you talk about Jean-Luc Godard, calling him “a great wit, screwball, and eccentric revolutionary all rolled into one” and adding that “he gives genius a good name.”
Your appreciation for French author, Jean Genet, one of your idols, also runs deep. In fact, you even made an artwork based on his gravestone.
Impressively, beyond making films and writing books, you are also an internationally established artist. This year, the Baltimore Museum of Art will open the first large-scale retrospective of your work, fittingly titled “John Waters: Indecent Exposure,” which will feature over 160 photographs, video, sculptures and sound works produced since the 1990s. You first encountered photography when a request was made for a specific still shot from your 1970 film Multiple Maniacs. Having no shot to fulfill this request, you parked yourself in front of a television set with a 35-mm camera and began shooting photographs as the tape rolled. Continuing this practice, you have transformed shots from films into new fictions, bringing about new critical questions not posed by the original films themselves. One of the exhibits that best captures your work as an artist is “Change of Life,” a retrospective initially exhibited at the New Museum of Contemporary Art here in New York.
You have said that you write only about those you admire — even if they’ve had terrible things happen in their lives. You have also said that this is why you purposefully surround yourself with others whose personalities fit with your unique brand of perverse humor. Indeed, in both your personal life and professional work, humor is a recurring theme of great importance.
A close friend, (who has described you as fiercely loyal and generous, and also one of the funniest people he’s ever met!) shared a story, at the crossroads of your love of France and humor, about the time you were on the same jury as Jeanne Moreau at the Cannes Film Festival. I understand you are a great admirer of Jeanne Moreau, and there for this was quite a moment for you. Needless to say, you hit it off. You brought the best out of each other and your different senses of humor and total outspokenness regarding, not only the movies in Cannes, but regarding the whole crazy Cannes-Cannes event with all its absurdities!
It may not come as a shock to you that when I reached out to your friends for some words on you and your relationship to France, two mentioned the trip you organized for your 70th birthday to Paris, calling it the time of their lives. A week with John Waters in Paris?—who wouldn’t call that the time of their life? Of course, with your thorough organization—one of your friends calls you the most organized “freak” she knows—your group saw it all: museums, galleries, bookstores, and all the sights. One evening, as you watched a beautiful sunset setting over the Seine, a French man pulled a sudden stop on his motorcycle and yelled out: “I love you John Waters! And thank you for visiting Paris!” His words in many ways convey what we wish to do tonight: thank you for your contributions to cinema, and for sharing your love of French film with the rest of the world.
John Waters, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.