Just beggining to sketch out the grotesque, John Waters recently saw the revival of his second feature film and black comedy, Multiple Maniacs (1970), after decades of being hidden away from the reach of mainstream audiences. Largely undershadowed by his other cult classics, like Pink Flamingo (1972), Multiple Maniacs follows Lady Divine (Divine) as the owner and operator of her own travelling freak-show, lurring rich white people through their voyeuristic leniencies until they’re eventually robbed blind. Of course, you’ll quickly get to know that nothing is ever enough for Divine (or Waters for that matter), as the mugging turns into murder when born out of her own boredom with their routine act.
It’s here that Divine escapes home to her prostitute daughter, Cookie (Cookie Mueller), and the Weatherman boyfriend, Steve (Paul Swift), only to recieve a phonecall from the local bar about how her own lover was caught cavorting with another woman (Mary Vivian Pearce). She heads out to take matters into her own hands, whereby the movie digresses into an encounter with the Infant of Prague (Michael Renner Jr.), a lesbian affair in church involving a rosary used as anal beads, and then most characters get killed off, some even eviscerated. There’s also something about a giant lobster raping Divine – for a sense of closure, of course.
Despite the fact that this film was made only on a budget of 5,000 dollars, Multiple Maniacs is still Waters’ highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes, with a perfect score of 100%. To say there’s something subversive about it in all its aspects is putting it mildly. With Waters doing all the editing, directing, producing and filming, Multiple Maniacs is pushing virtually every boundary in cinematic law. Between the rough, amateur camerawork and the actors at times clearly forgetting or improvising lines, it’s a miracle this all holds together, not even touching on the trajectory of the story. So when Lobstora burts into the shot by the end to sexually assault our “heroine”, somehow, that feels like the most fitting and only plausible way this movie can end. Yet, it doesn’t. There’s another good ten minutes afterwards. It’s tempting to say Waters was just a novice and that this is all just a collosal mess, but there’s paradoxically just as much that is bizarelly far too well thought out, like when the accompanying audio to the sodomy in church involves a narration of the Stations of the Cross. Though it shouldn’t work, it does. Until it doesn’t.
The essence of the film doesn’t come directly from the shock value of its content and plot. Society has transgressed far too much since the 70s for these kinds of antics to really make a subversive stamp, yet it’s also too early for it to hold merit simply on the basis of being some kind of time capsule (i.e. a product distinctly of its time). Not quite three stars for ‘Average’, nor four stars and ‘Good’, what puts the viewer in a particular kind of limbo is the fact that the characters are so deplorably villifiable.
In the age where he who slays most gets to say the most, we don’t really like outrage and imprudence unless it’s humorous and used for emancipation. We’re used to the framework within which Divine operates, courtesy of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, but Multiple Maniacs provokes in a way that distances rather than invites. And while that may have worked in Pink Flamingo as an exponent of abject art, here, all that shock takes a back seat to the question of “Where is this going”? For example, when Divine proclaims her madness in the lingering ending, she goes out on a crazed spree stealing a car and attacking civilians until the National Guard has to be summoned. That all has to be executed in the short span of a few minutes of screentime and, though ambitious, the pacing would be a challenge for any director so as not to either bore the audience, nor leave them in disbelief.
The only thing stronger than your disgust throughout is the tantalizing feeling of how loosely stringed this movie is, because mayhem (both that of Divine’s actions and that of Water’s directorial choices) is always more gripping than anything else. You stare at a car crash not because of the off-chance that you’ll see someone injured, but because of a fixation on the visible havoc. I’d venture to say Multiple Maniacs isn’t too far from that line of thought either.
In the end, John Waters himself stated that that was very much his intention, hoping to slander both mundane hippie culture, and also “the straights,” as he puts it, referring to anyone of normalcy. So maybe, this movie is just a response to the age it was made in. Or maybe, as the guy in the row behind me said upon exiting, “it was an absolute cumfest.”
Dir: John Waters
Scr: John Waters
Cast: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, Paul Swift, George Figgs, Michael Renner Jr., Rick Morrow
Prd: John Waters
Music: John Waters
DOP: John Waters
Country: United States
Runtime: 96 minutes
Multiple Maniacs (1970) is out in UK cinemas from Friday, February 17th