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John Waters: Inside the outsider’s world

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Though different people may know him in different guises — filmmaker, writer, artist, performer, personality, originator of the unlikely movie-to-musical-to-movie franchise of “Hairspray” — there really is only one John Waters.

Emerging from his hometown of Baltimore during the cultural confusion of the late 1960s-early 1970s, Waters developed his aesthetic at the intersection of underground films, foreign art cinema and exploitation movies, creating pictures that were sharp, startling, playful, disturbing and undeniably singular. The titles to Waters’ earliest movies — “Eat Your Make-Up,” “Mondo Trasho,” “Multiple Maniacs,” “Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble,” “Desperate Living” and “Polyester” — are like a self-guided tour through his unexpectedly earnest, oddly loving celebration of trash culture, bad taste and the sidelong attitude to celebrity that have remained his stock in trade. Waters’ world is his own.

Only in relation to the outrageousness of his earlier work could subsequent films such as “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” “Serial Mom,” “Pecker” and “Cecil B. Demented” seem mainstream. Though he hasn’t directed a film since 2004’s NC-17 rated “A Dirty Shame,” Waters has never been busier. His 2010 book “Role Models” was a bestseller, and he performs various versions of his one-man show “This Filthy World” around the globe.

“I tell stories, that’s what I do,” Waters said. “I’ve always been a writer, really.”

Speaking by phone from Provincetown, Mass., where he spends his summers, the 66-year-old Waters maintains what he calls “my filth empire” with a home base in Baltimore as well as apartments in New York City and San Francisco. “Actually, my career is going better than it ever has. The only thing is I don’t make movies right now.”

On Thursday night, Waters received the 16th annual Outfest Achievement Award in “recognition of a body of work that has made a significant contribution to LGBT film and media.” The festival’s announcement of the award — which has previously gone to filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, Gus Van Sant, Christine Vachon, Todd Haynes, Bill Condon and Gregg Araki — noted that Waters’ “work has been unapologetically queer, championing outside values and personal expression in a world that rarely appreciates difference.” The festival will screen Waters’ 1977 film “Desperate Living” on Saturday.

“I think it’s an honor,” Waters said of the award. “At the same time, I’ve been gay-ly incorrect my whole life, and certainly, the spoken-word act I’m doing, I try to poke fun at gay rules as much as straight rules.

“People don’t get mad at anything I say because I’m not being mean,” he added. “And I’m trying to make them laugh at their own limits and their own politics and their own comfort zones. But I’m laughing at myself too. I’m never saying, ‘I’m better.’”

Although Waters always considered himself out and never hid his sexual identity — he was on the cover of a gay magazine in 1972, when it was the only cover he could get on — he does not think of himself as a “gay filmmaker.”

“No, never. I thought of myself as a filmmaker who was gay,” he said. “I still think, gay is not enough. It’s a good start.”

Although Waters says gay people formed his “core audience” from the get-go, his appeal to the fringe crossed many boundaries. “The original audience of ‘Pink Flamingos’ certainly was not predominantly gay,” Waters said. “It was a lot of gay people but also bikers or people who would be punk rock, but there wasn’t such a thing yet. It was people who were outcasts from their own minority.”

“I think he genuinely feels like an outsider, and so he’s always connected to other outsiders,” said Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Outfest. “I think it’s deep down in his bones. He’s a rebel through and through. He seems like the guy who would make those movies. It’s not just some part of his creative brain that the rest of his life isn’t.”

While Waters’ quip-at-the-ready persona would make him seem a natural for the celebrity-funhouse of contemporary game-show/reality-show culture, he isn’t having it. “They already asked me,” he said. “I would definitely not do it. That’s bad bad-taste.

“I don’t want to be your Charles Nelson Reilly. I don’t want to be the nice gay uncle for straight families. That’s not the role I’m looking for. The role I’m looking for is to take these straight families into a very uncomfortable world and make them able to at least see my point of view and laugh. They might not change their mind, but they’ll listen. And I think that is what I do.”

Confirming that Waters is continuing on his own path was his adventure this year hitchhiking alone across the country, 21 rides in nine days from Baltimore to San Francisco. The trip became widely known when people who were picking him up — including a Maryland politician, a rock band on tour and an Illinois couple — began posting on the Internet about their encounters with Waters. But Waters himself is keeping relatively mum on the experience because he is writing a book from his journey (the working title is “Carsick”), which he plans to have published next year.

Waters also has a film project, a Christmas-themed story titled “Fruitcake,” that’s long been in development, and he’s actively trying to get it into production.

William S. Burroughs once famously referred to Waters as “the pope of trash,” and there has always been something endearing underneath his impulse to uncover cultural boundaries by gleefully charging across them. Moving from inveterate outsider to comfortable tour guide of his own idiosyncratic demimonde, Waters has long been a voice for the weirdos and the misfits, providing a comforting banner for those who might otherwise have no flag to fly.

“I think if I drop dead right today, I have certainly said everything I needed to say in my life,” he said. “I always joke and say I made bad taste 1% more acceptable. It’s up to others to say what I’ve done, but I’ve been understood. I’m very lucky — I’ve had a great career doing exactly what I wanted for almost 50 years. So I certainly have no complaints.”

calendar@latimes.com


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