John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs: The Importance of Being Filthy

Multiple Maniacs

Multiple Maniacs (1970)
Directed by John Waters
Opens August 5 at IFC Center

Above a chorus of euphoric, libidinous moaning, Lady Divine recounts the Stations of the Cross while receiving a “rosary job” in a church pew from Mink Stole. Actors take on the roles of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Judas, and the numerous Roman soldiers in decidedly DYI fashion. As Jesus stumbles forward, Divine’s litany is intermittently interrupted by a gasp of pleasure. We cut back and forth from religious reenactment to sexual act, conflating the sacred and the profane. This is, of course, par for the course for the Pope of Trash John Waters, whose previously rare second film Multiple Maniacs has been restored by Janus Films and is embarking on a theatrical run, suggesting the tantalizing possibility of an eventual Criterion Collection DVD of a movie featuring a lobster-on-drag-queen rape scene.

While the film played at the local theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts for a brief period of time in 1970, as well as a small stint in New York, Waters’s second feature film was relegated to obscurity, available via dumpy 16mm prints or warped VHS tapes. (The only way Waters would have it, one thinks.) Made on a shoestring budget in Waters’s parents’ backyard, the film was denied an official theatrical run by Maryland’s censorship board. (Waters says that the person responsible for reviewing the film’s eligibility for Maryland theatrical release cried at the rosary job.) However, Multiple Maniacs did tour parts of the country unofficially, including San Diego and Cleveland, as well as getting a run in London. Such an underground pedigree seems apt for the film’s grubby, filthy aesthetic. It had some success as a midnight movie in San Francisco, ironically connecting with the very audience it was lampooning: hippies. It took ten years for the film to be released in Waters’s home state, but Multiple Maniacs finally saw the light of day in January 1981. And now, the same companies that restored Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and released a dozen Berman films is bringing Multiple Maniacs back to screens in newly filthy glory.

In a cultural landscape where the politics of identity are a dominant discursive lens and have made this kind of provocation hard to pull off without some form of backlash or, to use the parlance of our times, “outrage,” the work of John Waters seems like it is the very testament against accusations of obscenity and offense. Multiple Maniacs alone contains murderous affairs, cannibalism, and a man known as the “Puke Eater.” But while his work has been long seen as transgressive (in many ways, it absolutely still is), it would be too simple to say that Waters is simply trolling our standards of “good taste.”

Pink Flamingoes contains rape, incest, dog shit scat, and competitions to find the filthiest person alive; Cecil B. Demented features kidnapping, the words “All my directors fuck me,” and an orgy on a rooftop in front of police; Serial Mom has Kathleen Turner making obscene phone call to her neighbor, Justin Whalin vigorously masturbating to a videotape of a woman with very large breasts, a murder by ham. It helps that, throughout these transgressions, Waters’ inimitable sense of fun and enthusiasm is evident. But these provocations are the work of a radical queer artist, whose intention is, in one form or another, to critique and dismantle cultural norms and institutions.

Multiple Maniacs, Waters says, was intended as “an anti-hippie movie,” with Divine’s prostitute daughter (Cookie Mueller) tangentially connected to the Weather Underground via her boyfriend Steve (Paul Swift), who is, in short, a moron. She and Steve are slackers, who protest halfheartedly but spend most of their time in bed. Meanwhile, the other main plotline engages the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, reconnecting the faith of the Silent Majority with its primitive, ecstatic roots as Divine and Mink Stole writhe in a pew, lit only by a single light source. It’s outrageous, sure, but no more than the prudishness of the Catholic Church.

This is camp in the highest order: not merely the weird bravado and melodrama of American Horror Story, but the act of embracing the lowest culture, the filthiest, ugliest things and bending them to become weaponized against the gatekeepers of proper “social order”. The performances, the textures (“Like a bad Cassavetes film,” quips Waters), the very artifice of Multiple Maniacs and John Waters’s incendiary camp serves to offend the arbiters of marginalization.

One hopes that the rerelease of Multiple Maniacs will dispel the myth that art “shouldn’t” offend. It can, and it can do it interestingly. John Waters’s work is by its nature to insulting, tasteless, uncomfortable, and filthy. But these challenges to taste, normalcy, and complacency are raised at an institutional and cultural level, rather than being some easy, careless low blow. That take the trends and systems that marginalize and, well, tell them to eat dog shit.

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