Paul Duane fucking loves Multiple Maniacs so much he could shit
Yes folks, this isn’t any cheap X-rated movie or any 5th rate porno play, this is the show you want! Lady Divine’s cavalcade of perversions, the sleaziest show on earth! Not actors, not paid impostors, but real actual filth who have been carefully screened in order to present to you the most flagrant violation of natural law known to man! These assorted sluts, fags, dykes and pimps know no bounds! They have committed acts against God and nature, acts that by their mere existence would make any decent person recoil in disgust!
The word ‘freak’, once a literal description of a person with physical characteristics different to the norm, evolved into something more nuanced sometime between the release of Tod Browning’s film Freaks in 1932 and the wholesale, cheerful mainstreaming of the word in Gilbert Shelton’s comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, which became widely available in the mid-70s but was born around the same time as John Waters’ first film efforts (the title of Waters’ early film Dorothy, The Kansas City Pothead, suggests the kind of stoned esoteric camp common to underground comix of the era) in the landmark year of 1968.
Around that time ‘freak’ began to denote a self-defined outsiderdom that took the beat generation’s rejection of straight society and made it an identity. People let their freak flag fly, as the saying went, and where there’s a flag there’s a nation. Of course, as soon as the world of the ‘freak’ became a self-sustaining economy, with its Whole Earth Catalogs and head shops, it fell victim to the same stresses that assail any mainstream and in only a few years, the counterculture was all but dead, its major figures dead or subsumed into politics or Hollywood.
John Waters’ group of Baltimore freaks, though, were different. For a start, they stood as much in opposition to hippies as they did to straights. It’s a much misused comparison, but in this case I’m just going to come right out and say it – they were punk. I mean, it’s not difficult to make the case that punk music in the US started with Pere Ubu (like Divine, an overweight avatar of violent misanthropy) in Cleveland, so why not have punk cinema begin in Baltimore? New York was always too Warhol factory hip, and the bits and pieces of Amos Poe/Richard Hell punk movies that came out of there just tried too hard, while the Baltimore axis of freakishness didn’t have to work at it at all. They just did what came naturally, and made history.
Multiple Maniacs was John Waters’ second full-length sound film after some earlier experiments, including a feature called Mondo Trasho which remains unreleased due to music licensing issues. Getting access to a camera that recorded sync sound freed Waters up to really cut loose and he wrote a very wordy, complicated script for Maniacs, which he then required all of his non-actor cast to learn by rote during lengthy, though probably speed-fuelled, rehearsals. Like I say, this is not what you’d call a hippie ethos.
Clearly the centre of Waters’ cinematic universe is the extraordinary Divine, born Harris Milstead, a shy boy who in front of Water’s camera transformed into a jaw-dropping combo of Jayne Mansfield, Joan Crawford in Homicidal & late Liz Taylor at her most blowsy. But Waters’ films are as notable for the crew of freaks assembled around Divine who became just as crucial to his films & their aesthetic. Misplaced and alien to bourgeois Baltimore, they formed a new family, similar to the group Rainer Werner Fassbinder was creating around himself in Munich around the same time. But even Fassbinder might have held back from making an overweight, ferocious & often terrifying drag performer his muse. John Waters didn’t give a shit, because he really didn’t anticipate anyone outside the underground ever seeing his films.
The late ’60s & early ’70s was the golden era of underground cinema, where anyone who had managed to grub up the equipment and funds to make a film, no matter how abject it was, had a guaranteed audience on the circuit and possibly stood to gain a certain amount of notoriety. Waters had been hitch-hiking to NYC and seeing Jonas Mekas’s screenings of the works of Anger, Brakhage, Warhol and the like. But he also spent his time in grindhouses watching Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger films. Only he was able to forge a link between these disparate factions of micro-budget cinema, and he did it with the help of his gang of fabulous non-furry freaks.
With its budget of $5000, Multiple Maniacs is basically a documentary. Divine’s co-star David Lochary opens the film as a carny barker, talking a crowd of ‘straights’ into visiting Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions, a tent inside which you can see such spectacles as ‘two REAL queers kissing each other on the mouth!’ and ‘a real-life heroin addict going through withdrawal!’ (On the director’s commentary Waters muses that people would still probably pay admission to see the latter). Lochary, with his neatly trimmed beard and dyed long hair, looks like a handsomer Gene Wilder, but Waters says he could barely leave the house back then because of the way he looked.
In fact, practically everyone in the film is wearing their real clothes – the proto-Goth Mink Stole, the parodic Warhol bombshell Mary Vivian Pearce, Cookie Mueller (later a muse for the great photographer Nan Goldin) and the dive bar Mae West, Edith Massey, among them. “This is just the way we all looked,” Waters says repeatedly on the commentary. All he did was to provide them with a narrative and dialogue for the characters they’d already established for themselves.
But he also had a broad and deep range of cultural reference points. Lady Divine is introduced lying naked on a divan, her rear towards the camera, admiring herself in a mirror, a Naked Maja straight out of classical girlie art. And later a Catholic icon, the Infant of Prague, comes to life and guides Divine to her destiny, a lesbian encounter with a crucifixion fetishist who encourages her to orgasm with the help of some rosary beads, inserted anally, and the instruction: “Think about the Stations of the Cross!”
The resulting very noisy sex scene plays out against a series of flashbacks to the events leading up to the Crucifixion, whose reading of the Passion of the Christ as a BDSM tableau predates Mel Gibson by decades.
It’s hard to convey to anyone not brought up Catholic the power of the ‘rosary job’ scene. It’s hilarious and still (even to hardened ol’ me) quite shocking. Waters admits to having been inspired by Pasolini and Buñuel, and I wish they could have seen this film, though it might have gone too far for the great Spaniard, who was rather conservative, in his way. But I bet Pasolini would have fucking loved the precision of Waters’ use of Catholic dogma. Mink Stole’s character’s ultimate erotic goal is to perform extreme unction on somebody – “It’d be like fucking Jesus,” she says. I mean, who even knows what extreme unction is, thdese days? (It’s another name for the Last Rites, the sacrament administered by a priest to the dying).
Some of the material presented, though, wouldn’t have shocked the audience at the time but seems outrageous now – like the casual way the characters discuss killing cops, which, as Waters points out, was just how the people around him talked then. The use of the then-recent Sharon Tate murder as a plot point (Divine has convinced Lochary he was responsible, but has had a memory blackout) made me feel uncomfortable, too. Waters’ family felt as much of an affinity with the Manson clan as they did with the Warhol Factory, and to his credit that’s not something Waters has ever tried to whitewash, even though it certainly cost him in career terms, as detailed in his memoir Shock Value. But when this film was being made, Manson hadn’t even been arrested yet (a contemporary newspaper headline announcing his capture actually provides closure for the Lochary subplot).
But dialogue like “I love you so fucking much I could shit!” still works, even though the language is barely post-watershed these days. It’s not the individual words, it’s the intention behind them. Waters didn’t get his reputation as the Pope of Trash without knowing how to construct a good dirty joke. Mary Vivian Pearce’s repeated reference to sex as “performing ‘acts’” is even funnier in this context because of her guarded use of language.
Multiple Maniacs came out of a wild era in cinema which is chronicled in the posters on Divine’s wall, where Cul-De-Sac sits beside Losey’s crazed Boom!, Russ Meyer’s Vixen alongside Bergman’s Hour Of The Wolf. The film is as influenced by Herschell Gordon Lewis’s cruddy gore as it is by these classics, and it has a terrorist instinct that is all Waters’ own. Divine’s list of the people she wants to kill includes Shirley Temple, Ronald Reagan and Barbra Streisand, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone could make a film like this today in the USA without ending up on some kind of very unpleasant Government list.
My scribbled notes from a late-night viewing of Maniacs include the line ‘a puking forth of every deranged image from a deviant suburban mind’ and believe me, I mean it as a compliment. Like David Lynch, Waters turned the safety of a middle American childhood into a lifetime of perverse image-making. Arguably he ran out of steam earlier than Lynch but how could a body of work based on breaking boundaries – as Waters defines it, “What can we film that would horrify people but hasn’t been made illegal yet?” – not eventually find itself co-opted by the mainstream?
The ending of Multiple Maniacs manages to evoke Night Of The Living Dead, King Kong and the massacre of students by armed troops at Kent State University all at once. Now, that’s what I call a concentrated shot of cultural neuro-toxins. The film’s opening gambit – “Welcome to the Cavalcade of Perversion, the sleaziest show on Earth” – delivers in spades, though the intervening decades have provided an unavoidable layer of nostalgia for a time when we could be really shocked by a mere film.
In the late 80s I got hold of a VHS copy of Pink Flamingoes and screened it for a friend, a gay conceptual artist, a brilliant, filthy auto-didact from Dublin’s working-class suburb of Tallaght, whose early exhibitions included his semen-stained duvet displayed as art (yeah, I know somebody else did something similar but they did it much later…) Anyway, I’ll never forget his face when that film reached its ‘talking asshole’ scene. And the fact that even he was capable of being shocked was to me a valuable benchmark.
But that level of shock’s not really possible for most of us any more and now Multiple Maniacs has graduated from nth generation VHS to a pristine Criterion blu, gorgeously restored from the original reversal Kodak Ektachrome print (as Waters points out gleefully, his cheap newsreel stock still looks great, while the epic 70mm Technicolor Cleopatra has faded atrociously).
It’s not just a straight re-issue – some of the music on the original release was unclearable, and has been seamlessly re-recorded by George Clinton (no, a different one). Waters has said he had no intention of the film looking or sounding cheap, and this restoration positively glows. And more importantly, you can understand the dialogue – as anyone used to seeing underground movies projected from 16mm will tell you, the sound was what really suffered.
The Criterion Multiple Maniacs is a valuable release, and the name of Waters’ production company – Dreamland Productions – which must have come across as a sarcastic joke at the time, now seems apt as we watch Divine cavort (Lochary says about her, “Every minute she’s alive she’s getting worse and worse!”), surrounded by her fabulous freakshow, and remember a time when there really was a counter-culture, a subversive possibility, a great rising-up from the Id that found itself semi-accidentally captured on the silver screen for the edification and enlightenment of future generations.
Also, in its own way, this is an educational film – who knew you could get high off freon, or shoot up acid, or that cream corn makes very convincing fake puke? You do now.
The Criterion UK Blu Ray of Multiple Maniacs is released on 21st March