COLUMN: Multiple Maniacs

Denez McAdoo

Multiple ManiacsDirected by John Waters1970unrated – 83 min.

Warning: you will hate this movie. But its ok – that’s the point. And it’s not because you have bad taste, quite the contrary: it’s because you have good taste. It’s because you’re a decent person and you love your mother, very much. Don’t worry, that’s a good thing. You should hate this movie not because you don’t “get” it but because it is exactly what director John Waters wants you to get. Made to be intentionally repulsive, 1970’s Multiple Maniacs deliberately attacks the viewers with images and concepts that offend, disgust, insult, confuse, stimulate, and excite. Though I got a similar reaction from the miracle of life exhibit at the Museum of Science, John Waters has a message somewhere in the middle of this mess, as long as you are keen (and willing) enough to dig through the filth and depravity.

We are introduced to a fairly disposable cast of characters as they operate a traveling freak and geek show. The master of ceremonies, Mr. David, invites and entices members from the straight world to come in and see Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversion, billed as “the sleaziest show on earth.” He makes lurid promises of “sluts, fags, dykes, and pimps” and we are shown disturbing images such as a girl’s autoerotic licking of a bicycle seat, two men smelling a topless woman’s armpits, men extinguishing cigarettes on each other, puke-eaters, homosexuals, and the withdrawal symptoms of a heroin junky; all of this going on while a vendor sells prepackaged hamburgers to naïve spectators. Upon casual observation, we may find the most offence in the apparent exploitation of the degenerate and misunderstood of society. But, as Waters begins to slowly shift the focus of the action away from the awful attractions, and more towards the audience themselves and their repulsed reactions, we inevitably must ask ourselves – why do these people continue to watch these human atrocities? Of course, the next logical step would be to extend this question to ourselves, as viewers of the film. If they (we) are so repulsed, then why continue to watch? Who is forcing whom? The line that normally separates the exploiter and the exploited becomes increasing blurred. But, it all becomes perfectly clear once the straight audience is lead into another tent where they are promised a sight, that “because of the so called guardians of public decency we are not permitted to describe,” and are then lead to see the legendary Lady Divine herself. Almost without introduction, Lady Divine, a dominating yet captivating doll-faced obese cross-dresser, emerges and instantly a net is dropped onto the unsuspecting crowd and are then mugged at gun-point.

In almost every scene involving Divine, we witness her total dominance over every character in the movie – the straight world, her degenerate cohorts, even you, the viewer. John Waters has intentionally placed an emphasis on having his film’s cinematography reflect the boot-lick sleaze of its subjects matter. Filmed in all black and white, the hand-held camera work jumps and sputters about as Waters makes generous use of claustrophobic zoom, shooting in and out of his subjects. The film quality is grainy and over exposed, featuring jumpy edit cuts and a scratchy soundtrack.

So what’s the difference between a bad and offensive film, and an intentionally bad and offensive film? In one sequence, Divine enters into a church to speak with her maker. She envisions one of Jesus’ parables and it is played out for us. Jesus emerges with a small handful of hotdog buns, which he transforms into a pile of Wonder Bread and cans of tuna fish; enough to feed the gathered crowd of people. They are grateful, raising their hands into the air in praise of Jesus’ work, but only briefly before they run right past him to ravage the mound of free food. Not only does this show Divine’s misplaced moral emphasis in the teachings of Jesus, but we can also see a similar moral perversion more common in any instance where someone uses the name of God to justify personal gain. However, this little bit of ethics will probably be undermined in the eyes of most viewers, as the following scene shows Lady Divine meeting a lesbian, making out in the pews, and then performing unspeakable acts with rosary beads. Later on, Divine is raped by a giant Styrofoam lobster. Maybe that has some deeper meaning, too. Then again, maybe it’s just a giant Styrofoam lobster.