When I read what critics have to say about John Waters’ early films, I find they always use the word “shocking.” John Waters never shocked me; he excited me. And Multiple Maniacs may be his most thrilling film. For his second feature, Waters and his muse, Divine, take you on a perverse journey through their native Baltimore.
Multiple Maniacs opens with the main characters luring suburbanites to see a Cavalcade of Perversion, full of puke-eaters, whores, and “actual queers kissing.” Waters cuts between the displays of depravity and the disgusted reactions. Here an inversion of traditional values takes place: we see the humanity of the bizarre, and the monstrosity in so-called normality. The straights in this scene are played by Waters’ troupe of Dreamland actors, who had to perform straightness. Their exaggerated performances highlight the fragility of white middle-classdom, which our society has largely propped up as the default mode of existence.
After robbing the straights, Divine’s relationship with her boyfriend Mr. David (David Lochary) quickly disintegrates. He’s secretly plotting to kill her with his new girlfriend, Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce). On her way to catch them in the act, Divine is unexpectedly raped by a pair of junkies. Dazed and traumatised, Divine follows a vision of the Infant Jesus of Prague into a nearby church, where she is seduced by fellow Dreamland regular Mink Stole.
Pleasuring Divine’s asshole with rosary beads, Mink’s introduction is among the most glorious in all of cinema. Filmed in an actual church, Waters had a friend distract the pastor during filming. Raised as a Catholic, I always find myself writhing and cackling during this part. Waters (himself a product of the Catholic education system) crosscuts the lesbian action with a cheapo re-enactment of the crucifixion, to make the blasphemy extra crispy and delicious.
Probably more than any other character in the film, Mink represents the experiences of poor gay people who would be left behind by the assimilationist politics within the gay rights movement. Homeless, she hides out in church confessionals. This Spartan existence is comparable to the street kids, many gay or gender-variant, who would resort to hustling to survive. Transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera set up STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1971 to house these kids. Equally poor, they would deal drugs and perform sex work so the kids didn’t have to resort to it.
At the Liberation Day Rally of 1973, Rivera fought her way to the stage and spoke out against the gay rights movement, which had turned into a “big white middle-class white club.” While trans women of colour like Rivera and Johnson (they would have resisted such labels) took part in the Stonewall riots and had fought for gay rights, they found themselves increasingly marginalised within the movement that should have welcomed them. The goal of mainstream gay rights was to be included in straight society, which ultimately would only benefit the most privileged within the movement – attitudes such as this are why Roland Emmerich framed his film Stonewall around a white guy. Even today, LGBT youth are vastly overrepresented in the homeless population in both the US and the UK. Watching the black and white footage of Rivera, it is difficult to separate the history from the experience of watching Multiple Maniacs. Although Waters and Divine came from the “white middle-class club” that Rivera was railing against, the film is a violent cry from the society’s outsiders.
Waters has said that Multiple Maniacs is a reaction to the breakdown of hippie peace culture. The Summer of Love turned into horror with the Manson murders; the Tate murders specifically are mentioned several times in the film. Divine roams a battered Baltimore that had recently been witness to some of the most intense rioting in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. In one scene, Divine and Mink murder a cop who is harassing them. According to Waters, he and his crew were arrested while filming their first feature, Mondo Trasho. Here this filmic act of personal revenge echoes a wider payback: that of poor gays across America who were constantly abused by the police. One example of this: when Rivera was thrown into a jail full of men and sought help from a CO, the only response was: “Enjoy yourselves, boys, have fun.” The Stonewall riots in 1969 were an explosive reaction to this prolonged abuse.
By the time Divine and Mink confront David and Bonnie, the latter have already killed Divine’s prostitute daughter (Cookie Mueller). Like some contrived Greek tragedy, Divine loses everything important to her, including Mink. At her lowest moment, Waters throws in a giant prosthetic lobster.
Her rape at the hands of Lobstora sends Divine over the edge. Her violation by a B-movie monster transforms Divine into a similar creature as she proceeds to wreak destruction on straight society. We are introduced to an acceptable image of sex – the teenage couple fooling about in the back of a car. Divine demolishes the sanctity of this scene with a sledgehammer and proceeds to smash the fuck out of their car, that most potent symbol of American freedom™. She is finally killed in the street, hounded by a mob of straights, and gunned down by the National Guard. It is a grim finale that would foreshadow the events at Kent State, where the National Guard gunned down unarmed protestors against the Vietnam War.
The restoration of normality that is demanded by Hollywood narratives is exposed as a tool that perpetuates oppression. While Sylvia Rivera fought for LGBT rights until her death in 2002, Marsha P. Johnson’s life ended far more tragically: she was found dead in the Hudson River in 1992. The nature of her death is still unknown. While some have argued that she committed suicide, others reported that she was last seen being harassed by some men, so it’s possible that she was murdered.
Multiple Maniacs is a fun film for a certain kind of audience. Unlike other exploitation films of the time, John Waters’ aesthetic is slightly detached. As he says, people flocked to sexploitation films to jerk off, but he wanted audiences to laugh at sex. While his circumstances were different to those of people like Rivera and Johnson, Multiple Maniacs contains echoes of their attitude: a rude refusal to accept the oppression of the mainstream. Waters’ aim was to create art films out of what mainstream society saw as perverse, and in that respect Multiple Maniacs is one of his finest achievements.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Multiple Maniacs is available now. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, New Line Cinema and Emfoundation for providing ORWAV with a copy.