Multiple Maniacs (1970)

Multiple Maniacs (1970) movie poster

director John Waters
viewed: 03/21/2017

Multiple Maniacs, perhaps, but there will ever only be one Divine!

John Waters’s long languishing (due to music rights issues) Multiple Maniacs is back and restored on Criterion and so very, very deserving it is. I’ll say it again: John Waters is a national treasure.

More than anything, Mulitple Maniacs is Divine’s big star turn. When she first appears on screen, naked, in a tent, laying on he stomach, it’s every bit as big and glorious as Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo. Of course, in the wonderfully perverse and gloriously up-ending way of the Dreamland world. Waters and Divine had worked together before, but here in Multiple Maniacs it’s clear that the muse/greatest star is born.

And born again and again throughout the film, jabbing with maniacal aplomb in the final shot.

The black-and-white is a nice change, though I understand it was employed for cost reasons. Waters turns the Exploitation vibe of carny shocks and cheap thrills into the purest punk rock queer wunderbar.

It’s fantastic stuff, and yet it’s also clear that Multiple Maniacs was the warm-up act for the brilliant Pink Flamingos (1972).

I’ll give it four stars, but I give it a zillion hearts.

Female Trouble (1974)

Female Trouble (1974) movie poster

director John Waters
viewed: 04/05/2016 at the Roxie Theater, SF, CA

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: John Waters is a national treasure.

Female Trouble is super fucking punk rock.  As is Pink Flamingos (1972).  Punk rock before punk rock.  But so, so, so punk rock.

Divine was never more divine than she was here, playing Dawn Davenport, Baltimore hoodlum on the skids, discovered by Donald and Donna Dasher (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce) whose own sexless aesthetics push beauty and crime to great heights of empowered rebellion all the way to the electric chair.  Dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson of the Manson family, Female Trouble is a hysterical affront to “good taste” and a shock bomb on American culture.

It’s so far out of culture that it’s just as violently fantastic as it was in 1974.  Think about that:  1974.  It’s as radical and as funny as the day it was made.

This viewing was a treat, seeing it on the big screen with an old friend, the very friend who introduced me to Female Trouble decades ago.  Made it even better.

And quotable?  Female Trouble is as hilariously quotable as any movie ever made.

Fucking amazing.

John Waters: This Filthy World (2007)

John Waters: This Filthy World (2007) movie poster

director Jeff Garlin
viewed: 05/29/2014

I’ve never been a particular nut for celebrities.  There really aren’t many famous people, even ones that I might really like or admire or enjoy, that I would bother to meet.  I’m not an autograph hound, a seeker of pictures with me and someone well-known.  I’m just not that kind of person.

That said, I would love to sit and watch movies with John Waters.

Of all the directors whose films I’ve been poring over the past decade or so, only John Waters and David Cronenberg are the two that I’ve actually made it a goal of being completist about their oeuvres.  And as much as I imagine it would be fun to sit and watch movies with Mr. Cronenberg, John Waters is the more entertaining choice of film guest.

It’s a real crazy story, his growth from uber-ultra cult film fringe being to pretty mainstream-friendly celeb.  But he’s best when he’s speaking his mind, and that is exactly what John Waters: This Filthy World is, John Waters being himself, chatting about his life, his movies, his opinions, his everything.

This is a set tour that Waters did in 2006 or so, hitting a number of cities and venues, universities and whatnot, delivering his one-man show.  It’s ridiculously entertaining and funny.  Since it’s now at least seven years old, I’ve heard a number of the jokes since, quoted or restated, relayed one way or another, but the stories are never better than when coming from the proverbial horse’s mouth.

It’s lots of fun.   Vive le John Waters!

Cry-Baby (1990)

Cry-Baby (1990) movie poster

director John Waters
viewed: 02/19/2014

Sometime back I decided to work my way through all of John Waters’ movies.  It’s kind if strange but I never saw Cry-Baby before ever.  I wound up watching it On Demand from the Sundance Channel and oddly noted that it’s running time was less than it ought to have been.  And then there are these weird ellipses in the film apparently where it was cut to commercial by the channel.  And I began to really wonder if I was missing out here.

It’s quite clean if it is the whole film.  I don’t know how many of Waters’ films hit PG-13 but this was his period of gaining the broadest of audiences, following up on his 1988 success with Hairspray.  I’m sure he never envisioned a world at the time when both Hairspray and Cry-Baby were translated into Broadway musicals.

Actually, Cry-Baby is a lot of fun, sort of a musical if not entirely a musical on its own.  This was Johnny Depp’s break-away movie and he’s great in it, though his singing is replaced by the rockabilly stylings or James Intveld.  No matter.  It’s quite fun.

It’s got a typical litany of Waters’ hand-chosen stars and celebrities playing all sorts of oddball characters, enacting a love from the wrong side of the tracks story that is almost downright clean-cut.  (I was missing something, right?)  Traci Lords is kind of perfect in it.

Like I said, I enjoyed it.


Polyester (1981) movie poster

(1981) director John Waters
viewed: 12/11/10

A couple of years back, I started on a John Waters retrospective, one of my many “tropes” of film-viewing.   I’d watched Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977) before getting hung up on not being able to land a copy of Polyester.  At the time, the film had gone out of print, I guess, Netflix didn’t have it, the local video store didn’t have it.  And since I’d started to watch his films in the order they were released, I got kind of caught up on not being able to see it.

Well, now I’ve got a GreenCine account, and I landed the film.  And now I see that it’s available again on Netflix!  Oh well.

Polyester was a big step toward the mainstream for Waters.  His first film shot in 35 mm (his other films were blown-up for the format), his first film with a major movie star (Tab Hunter), albeit past his truly marketable days.  And while still super-low budget, the film attempts homages to two Waters cinema icons, Douglas Sirk and William Castle.  All that and another romp on the American middle class nuclear family.

Whereas Waters’ early films were outrageous, crass, scatological, reaching far beyond irreverence, all while starting in the late 1960’s through the early 1970’s, much more of the world was catching up.  As I’ve noted before, his aesthetics and attitude embody a great deal of the punk rock sensibility, while also steeped in queer culture as well.  And by 1981, when Polyester was released, punk rock’s initial arc was complete, and if to show how in tune the two were, Polyester features Stiv Bators of the punk band The Dead Boys, playing a teenage rebel.

The story is about the Fishpaws, particularly Francine Fishpaw (Divine), mother of a glue-sniffing, foot fetishig boy, a bratty tramp of a daughter who gets knocked up and wants to have an abortion, and wife to a cheating owner of Baltimore’s own porn movie theater.  When the film opens, the town is protesting them, and Francine’s good Christian American beliefs a tested, big time.

In the Douglas Sirk vein, the film is a tribute/lampoon of the “Women’s picture”, a seemingly benign genre in which a woman’s place in middle America was tested through a great deal of drama.  Sirk’s films, while appearing to define a certain 1950’s quality of America, were also quite critical and subversive in their ways.  But certainly not subversive in the John Waters tradition.

As to the William Castle experience, when the film was originally released, it was done so in “Odorama”, which included the addition of scratch and sniff cards that the audience was instructed to utilize with numbers appearing on the screen.  These aromas include skunk, farts, and dirty shoes, alongside more conventional pizza and roses.  Like Castle’s films, which had a variety of “in theater” gimmicks, the *ahem* qualities are lost on DVD.  Only the number signals remain.

As Francine’s life goes from bad to worse, she becomes an alcoholic, drinking whatever she can get her hands on.  But she eventually meets Todd Tomorrow, the studly Tab Hunter, with whom she develops a mad love affair.  He seems to be everything she ever needed.  He owns a drive-in that shows only “art” films.

Also amusing is Waters’ use of Edith Massey in this film.  In his other films, she’s on display like a freak in a freakshow, and hamming it up big time.  In Polyester, she’s a maid who was left millions by one of her employers, and while she’s still Massey in looks and delivery, the good natured Cuddles is Francine’s best friend.  She gets to wear all sort of posh outfits, which seem a hilarious contrast to her usual outfits.

Waters has a lot of play in this film, and while nothing reaches the “out there” magic of Pink Flamingos, Polyester is pretty rich and pretty fun.  It’s kind of a wonder what he would have done with a real budget back then, but his whole character as a film-maker was hewn in the no-budget arena.  As I noted in writing about Desperate Living, pop culture had been catching up with him by 1981.  Not only does he have Tab Hunter and Stiv Bators, but Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie wrote some songs for the soundtrack, of which Hunter sings the title track.  Interestingly, Bill Murray sings another.

Now with Polyester out of the way, I can carry on my John Waters retrospective.  Which I will.   And lastly I’ll note that listening to his commentary track is actually quite a lot of fun itself.

Desperate Living

Desperate Living (1977) movie poster

(1977) dir. John Waters
viewed: 11/17/08

At the beginning of the year, I gave myself two main themes to explore in my movie watching for 2008: samurai films and John Waters’ movies.  Desperate Living is one of his features that I had never seen for whatever reason, his only major film made during Divine’s lifetime that didn’t include his muse.

Following Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), Desperate Living is another cultural critique, but also a vaguely Wizard of Oz-like fantasy.  Crass and raunchy as his earlier films, it’s not necessarilly quite as pleasing, perhaps from the lack of Divine, who carries the other films through their mondo-camp to the nth degree.  Waters is left here with a couple of key staples, Mink Stole as a neurotic psycho from the wealthy part of Baltimore forced to slum it on the lam after accidentally killing her husband with the help of her obese African-American maid.  She runs afoul of Mortville, a shantytown kingdom in the Maryland woods, run by Waters stalwart Edith Massey as a meglomaniacal queen who forces everyone to worship her, with her leathermen police force.

But the story centers on women who have killed, featuring a couple flashbacks that illustrate the stories of Mole (Susan Lowe) and Muffy (Liz Renay), the lesbian couple who ultimately overthrow the evil queen.  There is a strong, still wonderfully politically incorrect approach not just to female empowerment but to lesbian empowerment, including an interesting and gruesome trope about a would-be, though ultimately unnecessary sex change.

Waters seems to have wanted to amplify the shock value.  Some of it is hilarious, namely the baby in the refrigerator.  There is a lot of extraneous nudity, some gore (eyeball popping out and getting stepped on), and a gun being shot up someone’s anus.  Shock value indeed.  And fun, largely.  Filmed in 1976 and released in 1977, the world was finally catching up with Waters.  Punk rock.  To me, Pink Flamingos was about as punk rock as you get, and it wasn’t just the shocks, it was the much richer social criticism.  It’s still alive in Desperate Living, just a bit more muddled and a little less potent.  Still, I soldier on.  There is more John Waters to see.

A Dirty Shame

A Dirty Shame (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. John Waters
viewed: 05/04/08

Part two of my little crass comedy double feature was John Waters’ most recent film, his 2004 A Dirty Shame.  I recalled that when it came out it looked terrible, and I’d not put it on my list despite my plans to view his entire catalog of films this year.  But I was in the mood for stupidity, and this film had the right stuff.

Waters was a genius in his day, with early films like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974) and I even have enjoyed some of his transitional films, particularly Pecker (1998), but largely his films have been on the decline and he doesn’t seem to be that bothered with producing work anymore.  Which is fine.  The man has plenty of laurels upon which to rest in my opinion.  He is a true cult icon and his work clearly stretches the gamut between high and low art.  Well, the high art part is probably at a more intellectual level.

A Dirty Shame is about a middle class neighborhood in Baltimore and a spate of head injury induced nymphomania and sexual variations (deviances to some).  Waters revels in spelling out for the audiences of middle class and middle America about frottage, mysophilia, and other “perversions”.  Waters loves them because both their pure “outre-ness” and their subversiveness.  Calling them “perversions” only makes them that more fun.

The shock value has potential, but the story and execution wind up as effective as one of those badly put together comedies that we might have seen on HBO or other cable networks late night in the 1980’s.  Maybe it’s a combination of production values and film stars that make this feel far less edgy than his early work.  Waters early work was completely outside the mainstream, and some of his success and effect has been that his films found distribution and an audience and exist on the cultural periphery, though importantly a part of current popular culture.  As Waters moved into the mainstream, which has its subversion itself, something was gained and some things were lost.  Waters is an icon and a tremendously charming figure, but his movies no longer seem as relevent or effective.

Though not completely without laughs, A Dirty Shame mostly tries too hard for its laughs and doesn’t distinguish itself much from the other lowbrow mainstream comedies.  For instance, Selma Blair’s prosthetic breasts are ridiculously large, a point of frequent humor.  But they are so large, it’s sort of like the joke is on the movie poster and the rest of the time, they are just there.  I don’t think that metaphor worked out on my part.

However, it must be pointed out that this film does feature David Hasselhoff, taking a dump in an airplane lavatory, which in itself is funny.  But the outcome of his effort gets dumped from the sky, hardening in the cold, and landing on Chris Isaak’s head, turning him into a nymphomaniac, too.  With Hasselhoff being the cultish anti-cool celebrity that he is, this moment has great humor in it.  At least Waters can get people to do and say strange, incongruous things to what you would expect.

Though maybe he’ll never make another important film.  His early work is the perversion and beauty critique that he now just makes cracks about.  I still love him.

Female Trouble

Female Trouble (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. John Waters
viewed: 02/13/08

John Waters’ follow up to his hilarious and punk as hell film Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble, is the one of his films with which I had the most familiarity.  I have a good friend who could watch it over and over, laughing hysterically at all the classic lines, quoting them ad nauseum, and relishing in the over-the-top tour de force that is Divine in the film.  I did find it funny and uber camp and outrageous, but I certainly didn’t have the same fervor for it that he did.

For 2008 so far, my themes have been the Samurai films of Kihachi Okamoto, lame superhero B-movies, and a John Waters retrospective.

Female Trouble, for me, many years later, and with the current perspective that I’ve been developing, isn’t as strong a film as Pink Flamingos.  But interestingly, it seems a creative step for Waters into an aspect of Hollywood genre film or perhaps more specifically, a film that is really about Divine’s star power, a role written to take her to the nth degree, a true starring role.

Divine as Dawn Davenport, spoiled brat turned juvenile delinquent turned spree murderer, is the ultimate role for the actor do vamp, camp, and outlandish with the greatest of aplomb.  Dawn Davenport has a story arc, if not intentionally sympathetic, running away from home when she fails to get her deeply desired “cha cha heels” for Christmas.  She gets knocked up by the town drunk, also played by Divine, in the beautifully crass scene in which she has sex with herself as man and woman.  She gives birth, biting through the umbilical cord (certainly no worse than eating dog shit), and becomes a criminal with her gang of cronies.  Her ultimate exploitation by the art-loving snobs the Dashers, which leads to her trip to the electric chair, exudes a fulfillment as well as an exploitation, embracing the crass and filth, the mixture of beauty and ugliness that is the ultimate aesthetic at work.

Beauty and ugliness are the core of the film’s critical consciousness.  Whereas the Dashers, the well-to-do aesthetes who shun sex for the aesthetics of beauty/ugliness and crime, “disocover” their apt pupil in Dawn Davenport, who is already virtually without empathy and full of bile.  When she is disfigured by Edith Massey, Dawn’s archenemy (and arguably as willing to push the aesthetic envelope right alongside of Divine herself), Dawn’s bloodied and ultimately scarred face becomes the site of beauty.

In a performance, with a wild mohawk and tight-fitting outfit, Divine spoofs the talent shows of beauty queens, romping on a trampoline, hurling mackeral, and ultimately shooting into the audience, the debunking of beauty is complete.  Divine and Massey, both willing to exploit their rather garish figures in outfits that completely stun the eyes, play out the issues, the “female troubles” and pointedly skewer culture.

Of course, Waters does this all with cleverly camp dialogue and characterization that makes the whole outrage purely comedic.  But it would be foolish to think that the cultural critique is not significant in this film.  Divine even sings the theme song, proving wihtout a doubt, that this truly is a “star vehicle”, a star vehicle from the other side of cinema.

Pink Flamingos

Pink Flamingos (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. John Waters
viewed: 01/13/08

After watching Divine Trash (1998), I felt compelled to go to the true John Waters source material, his epic film of “bad taste”, Pink Flamingos.

It’s actually totally hilarious and outrageous, probably as much so as it was the day it was first shown.  Actually, I take that back.  How would the world of 1972 be ready for such a film?  It’s the crassest of crass, and much like Divine herself, the filthiest movie alive.

But it goes much more beyond shock value.  So often the film is most frequently noted for the scene at the end of the film when Divine eats fresh dog feces off the sidewalk and flashes a literal shit-eating grin.  I mean, I think that still today, that would shock an even internet-savvy audience who wasn’t prepared for it.  It is a signiture moment, the ultimate statement of “how low can one go”, how disgusting, how anything, can it be.

But that is in essence exactly what the film plays with.  Divine is in competition for the local title of “the filthiest woman alive”, trying to out-filthy her gruesome competitors, Connie and Raymond Marble, who speak in the posh tones of an upper middle class family, living in a swank house in a well-to-do neighborhood, but who keep pregnant girls caged in their basement to sell the babies to lesbians (oddly, one aspect of shock value that has lost its teeth).  While Divine is living in a decrepit trailer, with her mother in a play pen, whining for eggs.  While the competition and sabotage lead to further and further humorous, outlandish actions, the play is satire, on contemporary culture, the haves vs. the have nots, but instead of trying for Better Homes and Gardens, they are completely anti-everything that culture typically desires.

Also quite interesting is Waters’ use of music.  Nowadays when someone uses music that is from a prior period, there is an intent of setting period or playing something of a “retro” style.  Even Waters’ more recent films use great obscure music which make for good soundtrack listening.  But his use of the glam-sounding late 1950’s and early 1960’s pop rock’n’roll adds flair to the glam hilarity that is Divine.  I am sure that there have been many theses written on Divine around gender, queer culture, and who knows what, but Waters uses her as some sublime skewing of sexuality, femininity, and female beauty.  In her physicality, her walk, her tight flashy outfits, the make-up and the hair, she is a complete icon of cinema, one that in essence reckons and comments in her own physicality on the examples of female beauty and heterosexuality that classical cinema had developed.

The film is pretty much punk rock.  Punk as fuck, really.  It’s a total and complete spectacle.  A work of perverse genius.

Divine Trash

Divine Trash (1998) movie poster

(1998) dir. Steve Yeager
viewed: 12/25/07

Ah, John Waters…gotta love that guy.

Divine Trash is a documentary focussing on Waters’ early career, up through Pink Flamingos (1972), his inspirations, his coterie, and the tale of how he became a filmmaker.  It’s an engaging piece, with good footage from both “back in the day” and current (current at time of shooting) interviews with Waters and many of his gang and stars.  Notably, of course, Divine (a.k.a. Glen Milstead), Waters’ muse, is missing from the “current” interviews due to his passing in 1988, though the film does spend a good deal of time appreciating his uniqueness.

Mainstream media, which Waters has now penetrated to the extreme, with both Broadway and mainstream Hollywood remakes in musical form of his 1988 film Hairspray, Waters appearances on The Tonight Show and The Simpsons, he is a recognized face and character.  No longer making films with great frequency or depravity, he has altered the mainstream by his very presence and his filmography.  He has changed things, and changed his own work, and the mainstream is still the mainstream.  Pink Flamingos is still quite subversive even now.  The fact that he got his start showing these films in church basements is a little beauty of subversion and yet acceptance.

His influences, from the foreign art films of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the camp gore films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, and the “underground” films of Andy Warhol, the Kuchar brothers, and Kenneth Anger, are fascinatingly subsumed in his work.  It’s also amazingly cool and fun how he brought his group of friends to be his cast of strange characters, keeping the settings in his locality, Baltimore, MD, and his acceptance and respect by the local community.

I have a friend who introduced me largely to Waters through his own love of Female Trouble (1974).  I really can’t recall enough about all of his films that I’ve seen.  But I am inspired to queue up a couple of these now.

It’s a great thing to be appreciated for one’s work and influence in one’s own time.  And Waters’ position in our culture is something that should not be underestimated, even if his role of today is more of a coy and witty bon vivant than filmmaker.  It’s also quite interesting to consider how far radical some of his work really was.

Long live John Waters!