#863 Multiple Maniacs
1970 // USA // John Waters
Criterion Collection (LINK)
It’s A Mad Mad Mad World
I’m still finding words to articulate my thoughts on John Waters’s second feature film Multiple Maniacs. I’m speechless, stunned and feeling nausea right after the film ends. The film is grotesque, outlandish, outrageous, and above all, insulting. It’s only slightly less “trashy” than Waters next film Pink Flamingo which notoriously features dog-shit eating scene. I’m far from an admirer of these underground rule-breaking, moral-challenging, low-budget indie films, and I won’t recommend it as sacredly as I did with Tarkovsky or Bergman to my friends, yet I won’t limit myself and avoid these cult films. It’s the energy of rawness and the power of indie filmmaking that kept me interest in finishing the entire picture even though at the end I would dislike them. Like Waters himself said, the restored version of Multiple Maniacs, which was originally shot in a low-tech 16mm with his stock actors and Waters longtime muse Divine, is like a “bad John Cassavetes film”. Indeed it very much reminds me of Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968) by Cassavetes, but you won’t get a story-driven narrative or even a coherent story in Multiple Maniacs, as it’s beyond absurdity in its core.
The first scene immediately set the film’s tone right by directly telling us we are going to watch a freak show. The hippie-looking ringmaster Mr. David (David Lochary) is using a microphone to announce the sideshow act called Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversion to a group of uninterested suburbanites. The sights of “perversion” include a puke-eater, a bicycle seat sniffer, an armpit licker, a pair of “kissing queers”, and a heroin addict suffering from a ferocious withdraw. The pedestrians are lured to have the free tour, they keep complaining yet they won’t turn their eyes off from those “disgusting” sights, just as we are lured by our curiosity on the sicked. The slideshow is actually a trap of murder (“she is not hurt, she is dead!” proclaimed by Lady Divine) and robbery led by the monstrous Lady Divine, played by the huge-built drag-queen Divine. What follow are betray of love, outrageous sex and rape, and non-stop killings.
In Multiple Maniacs, what happens is less important than how it happens. You would still “enjoy” the film as much even if I spoil the plot for you, still I would like to keep it a secret, but just a few inconsequential hints for a heads up. There will be a blasphemous sex scene in a church between Lady Divine and the “religious whore” Mink (Mink Stole) with the use of rosary while Lady Divine is having a religious calling and a Station of the Cross fantasy featuring Jesus. This Buñuel-ish satire on Catholicism is far disgraceful than words could describe, accept it or not, you have to admit there’s boldness in it. But the most iconic scene of the film would be Lady Divine being raped by a giant “animal” in an dead-body filled apartment, it’s like watching the Frankenstein’s monster or King-Kong raping a screaming mammal. It’s absurdly hilarious and appallingly uncomfortable, it’s beyond logical reasoning of understanding why it happens, or to discern whether it’s a dream/fantasy of Divine, an allegory made by John Waters, or simply a mock to the audience.
It’s a challenge to watch the film without a urge to puke, and it’s even more challenging to like the film at all. Maybe that’s the point, Multiple Maniacs is not a film to be loved, like a sadomasochistic relationship, you are supposed to enjoy the pain and disgracefulness and get the pleasure. Amateurish in looking and acting and choppy cinematography by Waters (the camera always has difficulty in framing the actors in conversations), tawdry and trashy dialogues, the guerrilla filmmaking has all the reasons be regarded as a “bad film”, and thus a low score it has. Yet it’s those kind of films that cannot be judged by score, it has the unbounded vision that continues to be influential and grows by time. Like Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), it evokes your deepest sense of uneasiness, and by this the film is sure as hell successful.