John Waters and the Demented Delights of the Demi-Monde

by Chadwick Jenkins

5 April 2017

Multiple Maniacs revels in the importance of unimportant things.
Divine 
cover art

John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs: A Celluloid Atrocity!

Director: John Waters
Cast: Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary

US theatrical: 21 Mar 2017
1970

Widely familiar for having written five books, for his numerous art shows, for his touring stand-up routine and, of course, for being the original mind behind the hit Broadway musical Hairspray, based on the eponymous film, Baltimore filmmaker John Waters matters to people today and that’s rather too bad. I found him far more interesting and far more effective when he didn’t matter at all.

Consider the bloated commentary that Criterion Collection includes as liner notes to their fantastic new Blu-ray edition of Waters’ second feature-length film, Multiple Maniacs. Linda Yablonsky writes: “Waters is the great scourge of know-it-alls, hypocrites, bigots, and politicians, and a powerful satirist of American life.” I suppose hyperbole is what one often gets from writing of this sort, but such over-inflation is really an act of deflation (like a tire that, overfilled with air, simply bursts and is rendered pointless). Even Waters himself (not surprisingly, perhaps) gets in on the act, in a recent interview, calling Pink Flamingos a “terrorist act against the tyranny of good taste.” (Donald Liebenson, Vanity Fair, 17 March 2017)

To be a “scourge” means to “inflict great pain and suffering”. At his most vehement (and to be honest, vehemence is not really a term that adequately applies to Waters, who is much more likely to display a twisted but ultimately harmless irony, a cultivated sense of bad taste), Waters hardly inflicts pain or suffering—well, maybe a mild form of suffering—but that’s precisely what’s so deliciously bothersome about his films and precisely what’s missed when we indulge in hagiography instead of actual appreciation.

I think we do a disservice to artists of the demi-monde when we try to demonstrate (as so many do with Waters) that they are just as ingenious, just as important as whatever recognized auteurs we care to name (Yablonsky invokes Altman and Scorsese alongside the midnight movie). We attempt to elevate their accomplishments to the level of some political intervention into mainstream consciousness, some irruption of perversity breaking through the manicured surface of quotidian life, some Freudian “return of the repressed” penetrating the thin veneer of our complacency. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Well, not actually, no.

To sanction such folderol is to lose sight of the actual achievements of demi-monde artists and the fringe art they produce. There’s something special about the small things, the outré, the unforeseen and easily ignored. The early films of John Waters (prior to Hairspray of 1988 and certainly leaving aside everything thereafter) are a delight not because they altered the landscape of film (they didn’t), not because they opened new pathways to freedom and insight (they didn’t—at least not on any appreciable scale), and not because they revealed to the masses the hypocrisy of their smug self-satisfaction (the masses were never aware of anything Waters did before Hairspray).

Waters’ early work endures and is worth revisiting because occasionally filmgoers stumbled upon one of these minor atrocities and found that it illuminated some small part of themselves. What makes them effective is precisely the fact that they don’t work on a grand scale. They are not some quixotic attempts to right the world (or perhaps to wrong it) in order to allow everyone’s freak flag to fly. Their gentle perversions (and for all of the vitriol critics have at times launched at these films, they are incredibly sweet and quaint in many ways) delight and amuse more than they perturb and disrupt.

Multiple Maniacs is the primary case in point. Far more oddly ingratiating than Pink Flamingos (a film I remember seeing decades ago at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore with Waters in attendance, and no, no one walked out—which is the de rigueur assertion in any discussion of Waters it seems) and far more engaging than any of the post-‘70s films, Multiple Maniacs brilliantly demonstrates that not everything we enjoy needs to be depicted as an act of brilliance.

The film (as with the best of Waters’s oeuvre) looks as though it were made by a bunch of friends who only had a relatively small inkling of how to go about making films. That’s because that’s precisely how it was made. Waters ran the camera, his friends acted several roles each within the film. The characters shout every line because Waters feared that otherwise they would not be heard on the soundtrack. The camera zooms in and out in haphazard fashion, the actors roll their eyes as they try to remember lines, the physical action is bizarrely contrived (there are two rapes—one involving a giant lobster—and several sexual encounters that all look as though people who had never heard of sex were asked to mimic it with other people to whom they didn’t want to get particularly close). It’s all hilarious and silly and wonderful. But it isn’t genius, it isn’t brilliant, and it isn’t a “terrorist act”. It’s just good, cheesy fun.

There are many gloriously ludicrous scenes worth discussing and savoring and anyone who knows the film will know I’m not mentioning the most celebrated one. This isn’t because I feel it’s unworthy of discussion (quite the contrary). It’s almost too easy to go on at length about that scene, but it works best if you don’t know it’s coming. I will only say that, contrary to what many commentators want that scene to represent, I find it amusing (more grotesquerie than truly grotesque) and oddly sweet. If this is a blasphemous scourge then you might need to realign your sensibilities a bit.

Instead, I want to conclude by considering a different scene, one less remarked upon, perhaps, but more remarkable in another sense. Toward the end of the film the main character, played by Water’s long-time collaborator and muse Divine, has gone completely insane and finds herself in Fells Point, Baltimore, randomly chasing a group of people. There’s no explanation for this chase scene; we are just meant to realize that she’s menacing the citizenry.

I’ve already mentioned that the physical moments in the film are rather laughable and this is my particular favorite. It’s not an outrageous moment (in a film that seeks to be outrageous); it’s just a chase scene enacted by a group of people who are clearly not professional actors. Several of them can’t resist smiling to themselves, glancing furtively at the camera. Some of them fall on the sidewalk while passersby (just neighbors who clearly are not a part of the film and yet seem to take the whole thing in a rather nonchalant manner) watch.

In the midst of all this is Divine with a smile that’s beguiling, full of life and joy, as she’s enjoying this moment of mild transgression with friends. That smile is the actual Divine’s, not the character Divine’s. I suppose I’m saying that the smile, in fact the entire chase scene, breaks the fourth wall. But to say that is to assume that there was a fourth wall worth breaking. The entire film, however, winks too broadly at the viewer for the notion of a fourth wall to apply in any rigorous sense.

There’s a qualitative distinction between a film made professionally and an outré film made by amateurs (glorious, fun, lively amateurs—but amateurs nonetheless—
with my apologies to Mink Stole, whom I greatly admire, but who objects to the term in a documentary included in the edition). You watch the amateur film in a doubled sense. You watch it as a film like any other film—realizing of course that it’s not like other films, that it’s somehow deficient, and yet that deficiency is its own surplus value.

You also watch it as something a group of friends did together and really enjoyed doing. You see the actors beyond the characters; you see a document of their friendship and the joyous celebration of an ambition that exceeds their reach. It makes you feel you are a part of something to which mainstream films and films of “genius” have no access. When I describe this film to the uninitiated, of course, I mention the lobster rape. When I remember it to myself, I think of Divine’s smile as she runs down the streets of her hometown (and mine).

You should certainly watch Multiple Maniacs and then forget about it and then watch it again. Watch it with friends as you enjoy seeing these friends play together. Enjoy its inconsequence, because inconsequential things matter. Despite our zeal to make everything we discuss and admire and enjoy into the most important thing ever, let us remind ourselves of the importance of unimportant things.

***

Criterion Collection has recently released a beautiful Blu-ray edition of Multiple Maniacs, which I consider required viewing for anyone interested in the outré or the bizarrely silly. The restoration is gorgeous and you can hear the dialogue far better than on the old VHS tapes through which many of us had seen the film previously. Some of the music, however, is not the same as on the original release (owing to licensing problems).

Criterion includes a few extras such as: a running commentary by Waters himself (worth hearing); a pointless video essay by film scholar Gary Needham (worth skipping); a liner-note essay by Linda Yablonsky (worth taking with a grain of salt); and a documentary containing interviews with surviving cast members (worth savoring).

All in all, the extras are beside the point. If you buy this edition, it will be to see the film in a manner in which it really has never been seen before.

John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs: A Celluloid Atrocity!

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