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John Waters: Inside the outsider's world

The 'Hairspray' and 'Pink Flamingos' filmmaker has always gone his own way. His latest activities? Hitchhiking across the U.S. and an award from Outfest.

July 14, 2012|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • John Waters attends the 2012 Provincetown International Film Festival Honoree Awards on June 16 in Provincetown, Mass.
John Waters attends the 2012 Provincetown International Film Festival… (Paul Marotta, Getty Images )

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."

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