Monday, April 22, 2013

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Better Than Amyl Nitrate: Multiple Maniacs, 1970

Confession: the only John Waters movie I've ever seen is Cry-Baby, but I've been faking it for years. Even in sixth or seventh grade, I told my dance teacher I loved Divine (when, in reality, I had just read about him in a book of cult film reviews my dad owned; also, A&E Biography). Finally, Monday, John's 67th birthday, I ventured forth and OH MY LORD, was I definitely NOT PREPARED. This is the kind of ghoulish, sleazy cinema I live for; from the title to the grisly gratuities, you can tell Waters is a student of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Andy Milligan, and whoever made the Olga series (God forgive me for not remembering, but I'm faking it there, too).

Anyway, Multiple Maniacs. It more than lives up to that title's promise, even if there's only one thrill-killer in the ensemble; we also get junkies, blasphemers, fetishists, even a Weatherman (of the Underground variety, don't ya know?), and with the then-recent Manson murders hovering over all. In Lady Divine, Waters finds a compelling anti-heroine whose violent outbursts mirrors the confused anger of a nation whose Summer of Love proved to be all too tenuous, shattered by the Hollywood Hills murders, the ongoing war in Vietnam, the election of conservative, crooked Tricky Dick. It would take another six years for Paddy Chayefsky to filter that lost rage into Network's famous "Mad as hell" speech; Waters' images pack just as much punch, giving a face to Beale's description of "Punks...running wild in the street...nobody anywhere...seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it."

As Divine the character, Divine the actor is a perfect embodiment of these emotions. Make no mistake: Lady Divine is cuckoo, hurling rapid-fire abuse at her boyfriend, gang members and victims with equal venom; almost breathless in her fantasies of mass murder; literally frothing at the mouth in her climactic rampage. Yet do we not also feel for this Catholic girl who still finds some sort of fascination with the Gospel, who cares for her little girl Cookie with genuine heart, who almost achieves a sort of emotional fulfillment with lesbian church fetishist Mink? Of course we do! Lady Divine seems like a former housewife whose boredom with her life gave way to seeking restitution against a society that's blocked her ambitions and fantasies. She takes it too far, of course, but emotionally, we're on her side. We're definitely not rooting for boyfriend David, who convinces his broad Bonnie -- who only wants "to perform acts" with him -- to off Divine for him (it's a gender-swapped Double Indemnity!). Not only is he whiny, self-deluded, unreliable and unfaithful -- but he's just not as much fun. David gets a dildo in the ass; Divine gets a frickin' ROSARY.

Oh, yes, I suppose we must discuss such things in a John Waters film: his famous Shock Value and Bad Taste. After all that "deep reading" above, what can I say about the street rape, rosary anal beads, puke eating, cannibalism, and Lobstora? This is what I'm gonna go with: there is an almost unhealthy obsession with Christ's suffering on the way to Calvary, and anyone shocked by a "sexual deviant's" fetishization of this needs to take a closer look at the paintings and stained-glass windows...or just Passion of the Christ. Repression breeds necessity -- take away the sex, emphasize the violence, and someone's going to feel sexy about the violence. As for Lobstora, I like to think it's The Beast copulating with his earthly equal.

It has the wonderful, slapdash quality of the best underground efforts. Dialogue and sound bleeds from one scene into another, actors wait for cues before starting lines, or look for help off screen when they forget something. What of it? That's part of the charm of Multiple Maniacs; besides, you can't accuse those performers of insincerity, or sleepwalking, or being noncommittal. Divine and Mink Stole are actually quite natural and convincing in their roles, and I can't imagine a pair like, say, Shelley Winters and Agnes Moorehead, would play their respective roles any differently. Personally, I give a tip o' the hat to Cookie Mueller, who I found just mesmerizing as Divine's devoted, stoned, perpetually topless outlaw daughter. That face! Those line readings! Hypnotic!

Multiple Maniacs is required viewing for camp connoisseurs and sleaze specialists alike. It's shocking, funny, raw, and unforgettable.

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