Multiple Maniacs | John Waters | USA | 1970 | 91 minutes
Emily Caulfield reminds us that John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs still has more than shock value after all these years.
I bet you assume that Multiple Maniacs, reviled and revered by the lucky few who managed to see it before this year’s restoration by Janus Films, seems pretty quaint by “today’s standards,” or has lost a little of its power after 46 years. It hasn’t. I’m here to tell you. It hasn’t at all.
John Waters shot and released his second feature in 1970, a stroke of genius that prefigures his later “Trash Trilogy,” his whole career, and the careers of many, many others.
You may have heard whisperings about a Cavalcade of Perversions, about real live freaks and the Infant of Prague, about paroxysms in a church and apparitions of a monster. Considering that the film was written, performed, and paid for piecemeal, it’s remarkable it has as much narrative force as it does, and tighter plotting than you’d expect from a bunch of LSD-dropping, pot-smoking kooks.
You still might be thinking “Ok, but I’ve seen everything. How wild could it be?” Go see it. Multiple Maniacs inflamed an entire Baltimore police force and inspired a generation of like-minded degenerate thinking.
John Waters’ “Dreamlanders,” named for his company Dreamland Productions, were at the time mostly amateurs engaged in guerilla-style at its most grotesque. Baltimore locals and friends bravely embarked on this wild underground ride with him, no questions asked, and with astonishingly few fears. While I find the circumstances interesting– shooting their disgusting cavalcade in Waters’ parents’ backyard, dodging film board permits, constantly shooting on the fly, running from cops or clergy–I find them merely anecdotal. What’s really spectacular, transforming even, is what’s on that 16mm filmstrip.
Lady Divine, played by Divine, is the main attraction in the “Cavalcade of Perversions,” a traveling freakshow with “assorted sluts-fags-dykes-and-pimps, who know no bounds,” so claims the barker Mr. David, played by David Lochary He promises the “sleaziest show on Earth,” and between the “actual queers kissing each other; like-lovers-on-the-lips!” and the emetophilia, it super duper is.
Lochary’s wacked-out elegance and perverted absurdism define the character as well as his frankly terrific performance in the film. His delivery as a carnival caller is so funny, but I’ve been wrestling with exactly why. His tone is part haughtiness, part titillation, but there’s a note of disgust mingled with recognition: we’re all a bunch of rubberneckers, and we’re always out for blood. But we get it in the end, don’t we? He herds the curious crowd of preppy suburban onlookers into the tents with dexterity, but they’ve been had; Lady Divine and her merry band of weirdos are also thieves, and they take it all.
They’ve been playing their little scam all over the country, David and Divine, and they’re lovers too, but both their professional and private lives are beginning to seem stale. From her first scene, Divine is already seething, and this film is as much about her magnificent and indeed divine ascension into madness as the story unfolds. This roiling tension, a love triangle with cavalcade interloper and coprophagia artist Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce), and David’s mounting desire to leave Divine despite what she knows about his criminal past (“there’s hardly a law I haven’t violated at some point or another”), are the driving storylines of Multiple Maniacs.
Bonnie pushes all of Divine’s buttons, and you can see her rage mounting as clear as a diamond and just as sharp, pulsating under those tight 50s sweaters and present in her wet black diva make-up, mean-looking and reptilian. When she gets a call from daffy downtown bartender, Edith Massey, reporting that David’s in there with a blond, she’s practically frothing she’s so mad. Her spoiled free-spirited daughter Cookie (yup, Dreamland reg Cookie Mueller) asks her what’s up and she answers, almost a bellow, “Mother’s going OUT for a while!!”
While she’s out a whole host of terrible and wonderful things happen to her, a crisis and then a call to faith, and a religious experience on most high with Mink, played by Mink Stole, and her probing rosary. The suddenness and spontaneity of this moment are highly effective, and are two in a long procession of reasons that 1. you should see this movie if you can and 2. John Waters is an incorruptible genius with a wholly original sui generis story-telling style and POV that you will literally never see anywhere else.
Mink’s other high point for me was her electrifying exchange with David. Divine brings Mink back to her daughter Cookie’s apartment where they find David and Bonnie, and the gloves come off, immediately. The two couples square off and the feathers and fur begin to fly. Common lesbian! Bleach blonde hussy! Unhired gigolo! Scummy girlfriend! Their lines are so side-splittingly proclamatory and melodramatic but what style! David’s fop insolence and Mink’s hoity-toity punk in pearls make for a hilarious pervert fight, upping the ante with each colorful insult until Mink TKOs with the arguably the best line of the movie, in a movie of great lines: “I can only sit around here and be insulted by turds for so long! Everybody has a limit.”
Prophetic words from the world’s filthiest church lady are filled just moments later, when Divine, spinning with an anger she can no longer contain, really begins to hit hers. This performance of “losing it” is masterful, my favorite. There’s no doubt that Divine is a diva the first time you see her on screen, looking into a mirror and ordering around underlings. But in this star-turning commitment to madness she is truly awesome, a Mommy Dearest-type far, far off her rocker: mussed hair, smeared make-up, foaming, a Fury, a supernova. She’s giving in to a certain state of mind, she’s becoming a maniac, this has all been her journey and she’s more craven and beautiful and terrifying than ever. She grabs a mirror and growls, “Oh Divine! You’re still beautiful nothing can change that–I love you I love your sickness I love your crimes I love your murder I love your twisted mind!!!!” She is a monster now. She’s breathing fire. Godzilla in a fur coat. Godzilla in a bouffant.
When the Maryland censor board wanted to ban Multiple Maniacs, a judge eventually overturned the action. According to Waters, he said, “‘My eyes were insulted for ninety minutes, but it’s not illegal.” He’s not wrong on either counts. This movie is insulting, for your eyes and everyone else’s.
The low contrast black and white 16mm film makes everything look sick and terrible. Waters filmed people doing icky things. Divine targets everyone from the Pope and Barbra Streisand to anti-war activists and schoolteachers. Nearly everything on two legs or more targets Divine. The body count, all told, is pretty high. Yet still it’s just so charming in its meanness somehow, so fresh and so urgent, with the breathless quality of a trick or a shout; and that vivaciousness, coupled with several stand-out performances and an astoundingly WTF sequence or two, make an unforgettable movie that resounds far beyond the frame.
John Waters and crew did so much in Multiple Maniacs that feel like happy accidents, or inevitabilities in hindsight, but they really weren’t. They had no blueprints, no zines, no Internet, no access to anything, especially not in the sticks out in Baltimore. They were outcasts and satirists and truth-tellers. Their pre-punk acid-fueled spree spared nothing and no one, and in skewering all sides of the cultural zeitgeist of the time they changed the conversation, shifted our focus, and cut wide swaths for future filmmakers to tell different kinds of stories. So many films and directors came out of the movement they started, so see where it all began! Bring a friend. Go crazy.