John Waters

Director John Waters is photographed at his request at "Crazy Ray's," a junkyard in east Baltimore. (Doug Kapustin / / March 26, 1998)

Wholesome little Appleton, Wis., slips past the passenger window without arousing any visible interest in tonight's guest lecturer. A shop selling sewing machines. A Christian bookstore. The Martin School of Hair Design. Not very promising.

The speaker fidgets in his seat for a few minutes and then abruptly turns to his student hosts. "So," he says, a conspiratorial smile spreading like a fissure across his face, "is there an underside to Appleton?"

The kids dart complicit glances at one another, as if they have studied for this very question. There's a strip bar in the area, they boast, and a healthy rate of juvenile delinquency. They tell him about the college professor who regularly dances on the grave of Sen. Joe McCarthy, one of Appleton's native sons. Their guest is delighted, and the capper is still to come. Ed Gein, one of the nation's pioneer serial killers, who transformed his victims into appetizers and ornaments, did some of his best work in these parts.

John Waters settles back in his seat.

He likes Appleton.

What may be more surprising is that Appleton, or a portion of it, likes him, too. A darkly clothed, stork-like figure with a Little Richard mustache, he strides onto the stage that night at Lawrence University looking as if he had stepped from a Charles Addams cartoon. His very appearance draws appreciative gasps from the full house.

In the next hour, Waters entertains his audience with the sort of aberrant musings none of them has heard from this stage before. What other speaker would recommend giving the book "Autoerotic Fatalities" to children? Who else would extol libraries not for their assembled wisdom but because "Everyone I know had their first sexual experience there?"

And what other college lecturer would admonish his student audience for being too well-behaved? "You know, it's your duty to do things to get on my generation's nerves, and you're not doing it," he tells them. "Seventies revivals are not enough."

At the end of an hour, the students burst joyfully into a crisp March night, repeating all Waters' best lines and satisfied that by just going to see the Baltimore filmmaker they had engaged in anti-social behavior. Waters cheerfully lingers for another 45 minutes, signing every last poster and photograph, as well as a tampon and bare buttocks. "John," he writes on one cheek; "Waters" on the other.

Hard to imagine young men baring their bottoms to Spielberg or Scorsese. But then, neither of those directors ever filmed a woman character (Divine in drag, actually) biting off and spitting out an umbilical cord after giving birth. Neither of them ever dreamed up the idea of having a woman undergo a sex-change operation, and then, on second thought, cut off her new equipment and throw it outside for the dog to eat.

Neither of them ever answered to the name "The Prince of Puke."

For two generations of filmgoers, John Waters has been the ultimate cinematic terrorist, a gut punch to refined sensibility and reverence for order and authority. He was punk before punk, politically incorrect (blasphemous is more like it) decades before the term existed. In trash masterpieces like "Pink Flamingos," he sneered at the values and tastes of the middle class that spawned him and - even more viciously - at the empty-headedness of the counterculture he nominally embodied. And he did so while creating the most improbable of heroes: drag queens and miscreants, deviants and the disfigured. By comparison, his outcasts made Ratzo Rizzo seem like the grand marshal of the Rose Bowl parade.

Above all, in the words of Vince Peranio, Waters' longtime set designer, "His genius is to get people to laugh at things they know they shouldn't laugh at."

Amazingly, Waters, who turns 52 on Wednesday, has now been making movies for more than three decades. (As Pat Moran, his best friend and casting director, observed to him, "Cinema is only a hundred years old.") Once dismissed as a mere curiosity, Waters has proved to be more than a Hollywood sideshow. While his comedies may never be blockbusters, they do consistently turn a profit. "Hairspray" and "Serial Mom" were even modest hits. When "Pink Flamingos" was reissued last year on its 25th anniversary, it momentarily became the second best-selling video in the country behind "Jerry McGuire."

Fans flock to his appearances; not just purple-haired, nose-ringed youngsters who weren't even alive when "Pink Flamingos" was a midnight-movie staple, but baby boomers, who often buy a Waters video or one of his three books for their children.

"That is radically different than it used to be," Waters says one January day after a signing at Borders for his new art book, "Director's Cut." "In a way, it's almost like an offering to their kids, as though they're saying, 'Hey, I'm not as square as you think.' I find that very flattering."

What may be more unexpected than his popularity is the degree of prestige accorded Waters, whose "Pink Flamingos" Variety once denounced as "one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made." Waters may never get an Academy Award nomination, but his comedies are favorites at the Cannes Film Festival, and many independent filmmakers consider him both pioneer and role model. The Museum of Modern Art has enshrined "Pink Flamingos" in its film collection as a bona fide work of art, and the film archives at Wesleyan University in Connecticut proudly house his papers, right alongside those of Frank Capra and Martin Scorsese.

The chaos Waters creates on screen doesn't mean he himself is some kind of cinematic accident. As much as any filmmaker, Waters is a self-creation, one who has directed his career as meticulously as any film scene. Just as he once instructed Divine to eat dog poop at the end of "Pink Flamingos" with the clear intention of making film history, he later calculated how to reach larger audiences. The goal, always, was to enable him to keep making the movies that he wanted to make.

The larger ambition was to build a life of contentment. In both matters, Waters has succeeded splendidly. Living in a house he loves, in a hometown that continues to amuse him, and surrounded by devoted friends, Waters freely attends to his obsessions. To those who complain that his later movies have none of the fury of the earlier ones, he has a ready explanation. "What do I have to be that angry about at 51 years old? I'd be some kind of an idiot if I still had that rage."

In December, Waters completed filming "Pecker," his 13th film. He may well be the happiest misfit in America.