In his long and storied career, writer-director John Waters, the Baltimore bard of trash and sleaze and twisted kicks, has staged all kinds of scenes, from delinquent comedy to hardcore gross-outs to grungy fairy-tale burlesque to rock & roll homicide. Yet he has almost never staged a classic movie love scene, full of kissing and panting and writhing, the way he does in “Multiple Maniacs.”
Okay, it is a John Waters love scene. His heroine, who for most of the movie goes by the rather decorous name of Lady Divine (by the end, the “Lady” has been dropped in every way), is inside a church when she succumbs to the advances of Mink Stole, playing a dainty middle-class frump with secret desires. The two make out near the confessional, and then clothes come off, and then Mink indulges Lady Divine in a “rosary job” — which should more or less hit the top of the outrage meter. Except that’s not enough for Waters. He intercuts their lovemaking with the Stations of the Cross, and the insane thing is that he stages the passion of Christ with a straight face, as if he were the Pasolini of Baltimore. It’s Lady Divine’s fantasy (she’s turned on by Jesus’ agony), and that makes the sequence a true piece of shock theater. It’s love as a blasphemous hate-on.
In 1970, when Waters made “Multiple Maniacs” (his second feature), he didn’t just want to be funny, or sick-joke shameless — he wanted to shake up the world. He did it by breaking on through to the other side of the counterculture, the side that had been hiding there all along. The ’60s were spent, and the love generation was over; what Waters found in its place was the hate generation. He was way ahead of his time.
Rage, in case you haven’t noticed, is now all the rage. It’s been building for years, and you can see it everywhere. To choose an obvious example that cuts to the new national spirit: Has there ever been a presidential campaign as angry as this one? It’s been defined by a candidate who spews hate — at his opponent, at the media, at the Muslim parents of a slain soldier — and who only seems to get stronger the more hate he expresses. It’s like the super-serum he’s feeding on. (It’s not just Donald Trump who hates, either; it’s any number of the people who want to vote for him.) The right wing hardly has a monopoly on this stuff. A lot of the Bernie bros, too, are full of rage. And it isn’t just politics. It’s…everything. In the Internet age, life has become a turf war, with every POV and lifestyle choice, every faction asserting itself with a my-way-or-the-highway righteousness and bellicosity. We’re all mad as hell, and none of us are going to take it anymore. But when, exactly, did America turn into Hater Nation?
“Multiple Maniacs” is a demented comic opera of rage that looks forward, as few films of the time did, to the over-the-top hate culture we have today. It’s an amazing movie, funny and scandalous and terrifying, and it has now been dug up from the underground. Meticulously restored by the film-history wizards at the Criterion Collection, the movie, starting yesterday, was officially released into theaters for the very first time. Better 46 years late than never! Even many Waters fans, those who know him from “Pink Flamingos” or “Female Trouble” or “Polyester” or “Hairspray” or “Cry-Baby” or “Serial Mom,” have never gotten the chance to experience “Multiple Maniacs,” and seeing it now is like hearing four very raw tracks that were never released off of “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.” The movie is a thrillingly primitive punk manifesto.
Waters was playing off the Manson murders, which had become even more of a sensation after Charles Manson and his followers were arrested near the end of 1969. And this is where the filmmaker’s obsession was crazily onto something. Just about everyone regarded Manson and his “family” as ragged hippie psycho devils — total outliers. And they were. But Waters was fascinated by them to the point of identifying with them. He was so mesmerized that he was effectively a fan. And if that sounds like his own special, warped brand of cultivated taboo-smashing, it also enabled him to see that the Manson family, disturbed as they were, symbolized something new in the culture: a shredding of empathy so extreme that their very existence, refracted through the media, whispered something about all of us. Manson and his followers had revealed that the dark side of ultimate freedom (which was the dream of the ’60s) was ultimate violence. It was horrifying, but it hadn’t happened in a vacuum.
In “Multiple Maniacs,” Waters channeled Manson’s mania — the reality of it, the tabloid pull of it — into a riotous carnival of bad behavior. The movie was in many ways a warm-up for “Pink Flamingos,” with Waters’ stock company already in place, and it feels like the rough, patchy, out-of-town-tryout version, not nearly as polished or infectious. It’s shot in crudely vivid black-and-white, and Waters slams scenes together like cars at a demolition derby. Yet you can see Divine, in this movie, turning into a star. Wearing ’50s sweaters and frowzy dark hair and shiny wet black lipstick, she’s already a madly stylized diva, speaking in a purr of evil.
David Lochary, the flame-haired Dada dandy costar of “Pink Flamingos,” plays her carny-barker boyfriend, who introduces her as the featured attraction in a tent show called “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversion.” (The production design is so hilariously cheap that it’s a camping tent.) He could almost be Waters himself saying “Step right up!” But this cavalcade is about to fall apart. Lochary is having an affair (with the winsome Mary Vivian Pearce), and when it’s discovered, the triangle explodes. Lady Divine gives into her rage and loses her mind, becoming a magnificent monster.
The midnight madness of “Multiple Maniacs” descends from how Waters pushed his actors to express things he hadn’t yet totally found a form for. Divine’s seething hysteria seems to bust right through the movie. She gets angry, then angrier still, and with each new echelon of wrath she becomes more hellishly glam. Finally, she can’t go any further without taking out a knife and slashing people, which turns the movie into a bloody satire of violence that, somehow, voiced something intensely personal for Waters and Divine. The movie was their attack on “straight” America (in every sense). Yet the reason that John Waters is a true film artist is that he instinctively manipulated all that anger into an expression — he wanted to revel in the high fever of its addictive power. Like every boundary-busting filmmaker, he was stating something and asking something at the same time. He was saying: This is what’s inside me! Is it inside you too?
In the astounding climax of “Multiple Maniacs,” Divine, just when you’re sure she can’t go any further, gets ravished by a giant lobster (you read that right — and guess what, the FX are pretty damn good!), and that elevates her into a kind of human Godzilla, terrorizing a crowd of teenagers in the streets of Baltimore. The sequence plays like “A Hard Day’s Night” in reverse, with a bunch of screaming kids scurrying away from the movie’s larger-than-life rock star. In what I believe is the one and only time in Waters’ career, he uses not rock & roll or pop on the soundtrack but classical music: It’s “Mars” from “The Planets,” that famous invocation of the God of War. The spirit of hate has come to Baltimore, through the rampaging image of Divine. But really, this was only the beginning. For just look around you. It’s 2016. The maniacs are here. And they’re multiplying.