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John Waters' MULTIPLE MANIACS Continues To Shock And Awe

We revisited John Waters' 1970 film at a recent screening attended by the director himself.







Words by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)


When I was 17, John Waters successfully perverted me. After seeing Polyester (1981), Desperate Living (1977), and Female Trouble (1974) in close succession, I converted permanently to the church of dirty jokes, where giving people small shocks flavoured life with a devilish joy - a church where finding the humor in the outlandish, the disconcerting, and the absurd could be a great comfort. Part of why I’m so fascinated with the cult icon - and his rotund transvestite muse, the inimitable, formidable demigoddess Divine - is because they are local heroes: I went to the same Catholic high school as Waters in Towson, Maryland. My childhood home, (in Phoenix Maryland), is about a mile and a half from the charred remains of Babs Johnson’s trailer from Pink Flamingos (1972). I devour all things Waters - even my forays into zero-budget filmmaking were heavily influenced by his early work. So, needless to say, I rejoiced along with the other parishioners of Waters’ church of sleaze when it was announced that his early feature, Multiple Maniacs (1970), had been given an absolutely pristine restoration by both Janus and The Criterion Collection. Though it does contain reliably shocking Watersian wit, Multiple Maniacs is not quite like any John Waters film you have seen before - it’s great in its own striking way. I caught the film at The Charles in the Station North district of Baltimore, and Waters spoke briefly after the screening.

John Waters answers questions
The film’s streamlined story, in which the actors play more or less exaggerated versions of themselves, revolves around Lady Divine (Divine) a hefty vision in a tight sweater who runs Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversion, a sideshow that features such acts as “the vomit eater” and “actual queers kissing.” Lady Divine uses the show to lure unsuspecting suburbanites into the tent so she can mug them. Her boyfriend, Mr. David (David Lochary), is carrying on an affair with Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce), a Jean Harlow-esque ingénue. While at home with her daughter Cookie (Cookie Mueller), Lady Divine catches wind of her boyfriend’s infidelity (thanks to Edie, played by the loveable Edith Massey in her first screen appearance), and sets out to get revenge. Yet though her vision of vengeance is clear, our curvy heroine has a few erotic and bloody surprises in store…

Multiple Maniacs star George Figgs
With Multiple Maniacs, you can really see The Dreamlanders (the name of Waters’ ensemble) coalesce from a group of friends into a real troupe of actors. After the screening, I spoke with George Figgs, the actor who played Jesus Christ in the film’s wildest scene. In describing the shoot, Figgs said that was “as much fun as it looked” with a gleam in his eye of fond remembrance for the youthful radical filmmaking process. He likened the inception of the project to the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland let’s-put-on-a-show spirit. You can see some extras laughing when Lady Divine, having been whipped into a monstrous frenzy, chases terrified citizens through the streets of Baltimore in the film’s final act, looking like the lovechild of Elizabeth Taylor and Godzilla. In the film’s big bloody confrontation scene, you get a palpable sense of how much fun Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian (Bonnie) Pearce, and Cookie Mueller were having while reciting Waters’ characteristically over-the-top dialogue. With Multiple Maniacs, you can see The Dreamlanders hone the kind of humour on display in the rest of Waters' '70s films (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living), the kind of humour Waters fans know and love.

But something about Multiple Maniacs is different. Though it certainly is a comedy, the outlandish gross-out set pieces occur with less comedic regularity than in subsequent Waters films. Instead, Multiple Maniacs features lengthy stretches of easy naturalism mixed with bouts of pure fury. A long bedroom scene in which Bonnie and Mr. David languorously converse feels more like Godard than Russ Meyer, and a long scene where Divine takes a sledgehammer to an old car is low on laughs but heavy with wide-eyed ferocity. In his book, Shock Value, Waters elaborated on his temperament as a young person right before shooting Multiple Maniacs: “During the late sixties I felt like a fish out of water. As the rest of my generation babbled about peace and love, I stood back, puzzled, and fantasized about the beginning of the ‘hate generation’…Violence was this generation’s sacrilege, so I wanted to make a film that would glorify carnage and mayhem for laughs.” Multiple Maniacs, with all its strange tenderness and rage, beautifully captures a feeling of being counter even to the counterculture. Even in the film’s longer conversation scenes, the characters talk about breaking ties with the other characters: the freaks aren’t even content with other freaks. More than just a comedy, Multiple Maniacs is a film for those who feel that nameless yet powerful discontent toward the sheer state of things while also searching for those pleasurable moments that can be inspiringly hilarious, surprising, or new - or as Waters put it more succinctly after the screening, the film is for anyone who is “pissed off with a sense of humour.”

The film’s centerpiece scene is brilliant in its vulgarity: Divine, having been lead by the Infant of Prague to a church to pray, is cruised by Mink, an elegant woman who solicits Divine for sex. In the ensuing lengthy sequence, Mink—uh—pleasures Lady Divine with rosary beads (the “rosary job,” it’s known as). During the act, Mink instructs the frenzied Divine to fantasise about the stations of the cross as scenes from Jesus’ crucifixion are intercut with Divine and Mink intertwined in a sacrilegious embrace. The scene has all the outré makings of Pink Flamingo’s chicken-fucking scene or Divine’s sex scene with himself in Female Trouble. But, again, those are gross-out gags; the “rosary job” sequence, with its blaring music and erotic panting cut with Figgs’ stumbling, burbling Jesus (goaded by Romans that look a lot like Waters’ weirdo anti-hippy friends), builds in a way that’s breathtakingly cinematic. Lady Divine and Mink forge a connection via the purity of their depravity, and the scene is consequently not only shocking but also—bizarrely enough—strangely moving.

The restoration team did stunning work: the film is absolutely gorgeous. There’s no denying that the digitisation of the print greatly enhanced the quality of Multiple Maniacs’ ramshackle charm. The boudoir scene with Mr. David and Bonnie glows with a beautiful whiteness. When Lady Divine is first introduced, she looks like a soft Rubenesque nude by way of Victor Buono. Small details can now clearly pop: on a wall of Lady Divine’s apartment, you can see the film’s cinematic heritage represented by decorative posters for films like Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac (from 1966, a highly underrated film) and Joseph Losey’s Boom! (1968). You can even see, in an early scene, a photo of Maelcum Soul, Waters’ first star who died tragically in 1968, dressed as a nun from Roman Candles (1966) - an Easter Egg for hardcore Waters fans made visible by the crispness of the visuals. Baltimore has never looked as dirty, depressed, or cold as it does in this restoration, and it’s just as over-the-top artsy as Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968), whose poster also adorns the walls of the apartment. The digitised print brings into focus a guerrilla style that more young American filmmakers should emulate.

The film was shown in Baltimore this month at The Charles, a cinema formerly owned by regular Dreamlander, Pat Moran. If you’re a cinephile who happens to find yourself in Baltimore, you must must must go to The Charles. I’ve been to the Champos in Paris, the Palais des festivals in Cannes, the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Grütli in Geneva - in America, I’ve been to the Film Forum, the IFC Center, and the AFI Silver (a beautiful place to see a movie) - I’ve luxuriated in art-houses in Albany, Allentown, Salt Lake City, and Denver, and there’s no theatre I like more than The Charles. Owned by the same team that owns The Senator (another great Baltimore art-house where Hairspray premiered in 1988), The Charles’ screening rooms are spacious and comfortable, the screens are large and immersive, the tickets are reasonably priced, and the popcorn is delicious. Want dinner beforehand? An outstanding tapas restaurant is connected to the theatre. And for the post-film cocktail, The Club Charles, an atmospheric bohemian dive - ideal for movie-going boozehounds - is right across the street. But most important of all is the consistently high quality programming of new releases and revivals alike to which The Charles is so dedicated. Speaking to the ease of the environment of the theatre, Waters’ post-screening Q&A was not moderated. He was not introduced. He just sauntered to the front of the hall and took questions in his easy way, and sauntered back out.

Baltimore, as a city that has always been quirkily out of sync with prevailing national fashions, is the perfect setting for Multiple Maniacs’ bande à part. In Walker Percy’s outstanding novel, The Moviegoer, the narrator coins the term “certification,” a process in which seeing one’s home on screen in a movie validates that town as “Somewhere and not Anywhere.” Thanks to John Waters, my hometown has been certified right down to the zip code - because of Pink Flamingos, Phoenix, Maryland has a life of its own. It’s a slightly bourgeois suburban town filled with “normal” respectable Americans, most of whom are unaware of its dirty funny secret - that filth seekers the world over have laughed joyously at wonderful atrocities that took place in the back yards of these unwitting suburbanites. Phoenix has been certified as a town that smiles with respectability at its inhabitants while naughtily revelling with the degenerate film world in the memories of its flirtations with depravity. But more generally, thanks to Waters’ certification of Baltimore, the city’s bohemian weirdoes, resistant to categorisation, can belong to “Somewhere.” For people outside of Charm City (as it’s called), Waters certifies a state of mind and a state of comedy that runs against the grain in a clever, winking way - an ethos that Multiple Maniacs engendered. The film proves that Waters is more than an entertainer - he’s a true artist. Multiple Maniacs is more than a comedy - it’s a true work of art.




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