The Genius of John Waters


Written on the occasion of the 2016 the re-release of John Waters’ fully restored 1970 trashterpiece “Multiple Maniacs”. 

Waters has been hugely influential on me, and inspirational to me as an artist and impresario, most evident in my musicals House of Trash,  my Manson musical Willy Nilly, and Beach Blanket Bluebeard, and in certain other productions of mine like Jack the Ripper’s Holiday Spectacular, and the short film Poison Shirt/ Boots of the Transsexual. But he may even be more important to me as a critic and aesthetic theorist. A large part of my philosophy, I think can ultimately be traced to Waters’ 1981 book Shock Value and his many public utterances over the decades, as well as J. Hoberman’s terrific contextualization of the artist in his 1983 book Midnight Movies.

What it boils down to is a different scale of merit than most critics and audiences bring to the table when they go to see a movie or play. Its antecedents are Theatre of the Ridiculous, the European avant-garde, and French auteur theory, which dared to see art in the Hollywood film (though Waters stakes out new territory, going “below” B movies all the way down to Grade Z pictures). One sees so much in Waters: Jack Smith, Jean Genet, Kenneth Anger, Russ Meyer, William Castle, exploitation pictures of a hundred different kinds. Under Waters’ spell I long ago pulled away from the conventional measures of “good” and “bad”. For the most part (except in cases of remarkable genius) I am indifferent to the prosaic pursuit of the illusion of “truth” in acting, or of “professionalism” in scenography. All I care is whether what I am watching makes an aesthetic impact of any kind, for that is rare enough. More often than not, what others will call “bad” (naive art, folk art, melodrama, amateur theatre, etc) will strike me as excellent — more excellent than the conventional and the polished, simply because it is more interesting. (See my essay on Ed Wood here).

I would say even that as an acolyte of Waters, I (and some of my friends, I think) now exceed the Master on this score. Waters is of his generation. He often seems to have a tongue-in-cheek, ironic stance about much of what he enjoys, and hence it can be read as camp. An example might be found when he speaks about one of his favorite movies, Boom! , a screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, which he loves, but feels compelled to brand as “bad” for our benefit. I knew the play and was thrilled to get to see the movie earlier this year. To me, it is only fascinating and over-the-top and excellent. No need to filter it through camp and irony. No need to apologize for it. It is just great. But of course, I am empowered to feel this way because Waters made it possible. He is an aesthetic pioneer. He plunged into terra incognita and then sent back travelogues that told us it was OK to follow.

Multiple Maniacs is an early linchpin in Waters’ career and his second feature. I’d long read about it, but it had long been unavailable. I’d long seen everything that came after, but never this legendary film. Shot in then-highly unfashionable black and white, it features his famous cast of “Dreamlanders”: Divine, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey (the egg sucker from Pink Flamingos), David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce. It looks like a combination of a French art film from ten years earlier, mixed with a home movie. The locations include Waters’ parents’ lawn, his own apartment (the poster for Boom! provides an excellent clue), local (Baltimore) streets, dive bars, and (most appallingly) churches. Some scenes are out of focus. Actors go up on lines. On one take, Lochary accidentally walks into a tree branch. In another, the old heap of a car the cast was riding around in died right in the middle of the road — it’s in the film. Passers-by look at the camera. Extras laugh out of character. When the budget is this small, there are no retakes.

But even at this early stage of his career, Waters is a story teller of genius. I found myself wanting a copy of the screenplay. (I just looked; it is indeed available to purchase). In the beginning, Lady Divine and Mr. David (Divine and Lochary) are running a sideshow called The Cavalcade of Perversion, featuring “real queers”, “sluts, fags, dykes and pimps”, a junkie going through withdrawal, a bunch of naked hippies, a man performing cunnilingus on a bicycle seat, and a “Puke Eater” (hilariously, there is a helpful sign next to him with those words, even as we watch him eat the puke out of a bucket). But this layout is only a dodge. It is the bait that allows Divine and Mr. David and their company of freaks to kidnap and rob the customers. Unfortunately, this time Divine shoots and kills one of them in a fit of passion and now she must flee. Divine is now developing a taste for murder for its own sake. This proves especially unfortunate for Mr. David, who is beginning to have an affair with a devotee named Bonnie (Pearce) who longs to “perform acts” with him. When Divine charges down the street to get her revenge on the couple, she is clubbed and raped by a couple of freaks in an alley. She stumbles into a church, where she has a long, artistically shot (except for the hot dog rolls)  epiphany (done MOS under a long monologue by the actor), and then encounters lesbian adherent Mink Stole who gives her a “rosary job” — surely one of the most appalling things you will ever see on screen. Later, in a scene very much inspired by the then-current Manson Family events (which were so fresh the characters still refer to them as the “Sharon Tate Murders” —  it seems as though Manson and his family were discovered to be the culprits halfway through the shooting) Divine kills all the other main characters, eats their intestines, gets raped by a giant lobster (without explanation) and then chases people through the streets like a monster until she is taken out (shot like a rhinoceros) by several long-haired National Guardsmen to the tune of “America, the Beautiful”. The innards she gobbles were actual rancid cow guts from the butcher shop, making the stunt a dry run for Divine’s poo eating in Pink Flamginos. Have I sold you a ticket yet?

Astoundingly, the restoration is jaw-dropping. The film looks almost pristine, despite the fact that the original was edited under the crudest conditions and stored badly for decades. This version also has a new original rockabilly score by George S. Clinton, and it is appropriately Watersesque.

 But ya know what? I can stop here, because my buddy (and editor) Scott Stiffler has written a much more thorough feature on the film for Cheslsea Now, including an exclusive interview with Waters! Read it here. It’s a must!

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