John Waters on bad taste & Multiple Maniacs

John Waters' little-seen sophomore feature Multiple Maniacs is getting a revival. Despite its new polish, it's as outrageously grotesque as ever. The filmmaker takes us back to its making at the tail end of the 60s

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 08 Feb 2017

John Waters has been transgressing ever since he was in short trousers. His original sin, appropriately enough, happened in a house of God. “My mother told me the first thing she remembers me rebelling against is that I refused to take the Legion of Decency pledge in church,” the 70-year-old filmmaker tells us proudly down the phone from San Francisco. The pledge was an initiative of the Catholic Church to identify and combat objectionable content in motion pictures; the young John Waters’ beef was that these were exactly the films he loved. “I wanted to see condemned movies! It inspired me to see condemned movies! And I wanted to make them!”

The pint-sized revolutionary wouldn’t know it at the time, but two decades later he would make a movie so outrageously filthy that it would be described by those same Bible-thumpers as “the most disgusting film ever.” While there’s nothing explicit in the Good Book about transvestites eating dog poo, Pink Flamingos – Waters’ riotous third feature, which would give him international notoriety and see him crowned the “Pope of Trash” and a hero to freaks and geeks everywhere – went straight to the top of the Legion of Decency’s shit list.

We can only presume they hadn’t seen Waters’ sophomore effort, Multiple Maniacs, for it contains a sex scene so audaciously inappropriate, so uproariously blasphemous that it makes the antics in Pink Flamingo look rather quaint. “Even I look at that now and think what my father used to always say to me, ‘What were you thinking about?’” admits Waters.

Picture the scene. Lady Divine (played by drag queen Divine, Waters’ larger-than-life muse), a fierce freak show impresario who makes a living by robbing her patrons at gunpoint, has just been raped by a man in drag and has stumbled into a church for sanctuary. Inside, she’s hit-on by Mink (played by Mink Stole, another Waters regular), a prostitute wearing a nun’s habit, and they begin to make love in the pews. In their fits of passion, Mink puts her rosary beads somewhere unmentionable. Or, as Divine describes it in her breathless inner monologue, “It was then that I realised she was using her rosary as a tool of erotic pleasure!” Just as we think this “rosary job” scene can’t get more sacrilegious, Waters cross-cuts it with a reenactment of the Stations of the Cross. How did he get away with that in 1970?

“Easy,” Waters says nonchalantly. “There was no law, religious or otherwise, against a ‘rosary job’ yet because who would ever want to do it? I mean, nobody has ever tried to give me a rosary job, I have never given anyone a rosary job.” So how did he come up with the scene? “LSD probably,” he laughs. “Mink did dress as the religious whore back then; that was her look at the time. I think she might have inspired it.”

John Waters in New York City (image: David Shankbone)

Multiple Maniacs, along with Waters’ other early films like Female Trouble and Desperate Living, has a delightfully freewheeling quality. It feels out of control, dangerous even. Anarchy was his ethos back then. “Maybe I didn’t know it at the time,” says Waters, “but [Multiple Maniacs] was a punk rock movie before there was punk rock.” 

At first glance you might assume the film was a retaliation against his middle-class, Catholic upbringing, but Waters and his friends found the late 60s counterculture to be just as square. “It was a movie made to horrify hippies, but the hippies that came to see it wanted to be horrified and probably turned into punks, you know, five to eight years later.” How did Waters and his friends self-identify back then? “Oh I was a yipee, not a hippie. We went to riots for fun. Political demonstrations were our social life. We were like a cell and what we were doing was a terrorist attack on the tyranny of good taste.”

This comic onslaught on politically correct hippies was also deeply informed by the year in which is was made: 1969. “It was the most insane year, I think, in the whole century,” explains Waters. “I’m mean Manson happened, Altamont, it was the end of the hippies, it was revolution – I mean people really thought the revolution was coming – I didn’t, but others did. So it was a time of complete lunacy and activism and bombs were going off everywhere.”

Audiences adored the film. “It got a great reaction,” he recalls. “We opened it in a church, which I know is almost impossible to believe. On the opening weekend, like I always did before I got a distributor, we had three shows: eight, ten and midnight; Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I mean we sold them all out.” 

Critics, however, were less impressed. The few who could be bothered to write about it were horrified, but Waters struck upon a novel way of using these cutting pans to his advantage. “Our whole ad campaign was negative reviews,” he recalls. “I mean I think my catchline was, ‘You won’t believe this one’, or maybe it was ‘celluloid atrocity’. We were satirising ourselves even before they got to say that it was bad, which took away the sting.” It’s a marketing ploy that’s been ripped off less successfully many times since by films hoping to suggest an edgy, ironic veneer, from Fight Club’s smug DVD cover to Deadpool’s unsuccessful Oscar campaign.

How things have changed in 45 years. A lovingly restored version of Multiple Maniacs is soon to be unleashed across the UK by Park Circus, a distributor who usually specialise in refined classics. Waters himself, meanwhile, is positively mainstream. “People looked at my early pictures and called them the most disgusting things ever,” he once lamented, “and now Hairspray is being done at every school in Britain and America.”

The Baltimore-born filmmaker is as confused by the current critical ardour for Multiple Maniacs as he is by his own national treasure status. “The most shocking thing about the revival was that Criterion and Janus films even wanted to release it because they were known as the fanciest art distributors of Bergman and Godard and stuff. But they approached me with a great sense of humour about it too and that’s why I think the release has been received very well, certainly way better than when it came out. On Rotten Tomatoes we now have 100% favourable reviews, which even I think is ridiculous.”

This is a first for us, a filmmaker talking down his own movie. “Well, you know, I mean, it has its flaws, God knows. I should be in jail for zoom-lens abuse for one thing. When I saw [the restored version] I thought, ‘Finally, it looks like a bad John Cassavetes movie!’ Which it kind of does now.” 

We remind Waters that we can’t remember Gena Rowlands ever being attacked by a giant horny lobster, as notoriously happens to Lady Divine towards the end of Multiple Maniacs. It’s here, when talking about his film’s most outrageous and schlocky scene, that Waters lets slip some of his art house ambitions. “Oh lobsters have been used in surrealism forever, from Salvador Dali to Jack Smith,” he says.

This isn’t the only high art reference in Multiple Maniacs. In the apartment belonging to Lady Divine’s usually shirtless daughter (Cookie Mueller), you’ll spot posters for Roman Polanski's Cul-de-Sac and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema, two respectable art house titles that were as bracingly transgressive as anything Waters was cooking up. 

“That was my apartment!” he says “We didn’t put up one thing for the movie; that was my living room. And so yes, I always was influenced by art films and exploitation films, and that’s why I tried to create a new genre which was exploitation films for art theatres. And that’s what my films still are.” Waters' taste still tends towards the arthouse: “If you look at my ten best list on Artforum every year, they’re all bad taste art movies.” Do check out those lists, Waters would have made a fierce film critic. We commend him on how he describes Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! – “The best accidentally gay movie ever made by a known heterosexual director” – on his 2016 best of list. “I do try to give a good blurb,” he laughs.

While it’ll be great to see another John Waters film in theatres, it’s a pity fans can’t be celebrating a new feature. And the sad truth is, we may never get one. “I don’t think I even make movies any more,” he says. “I haven’t made one for ten years.” We urge him to get back in the saddle. In Trump's America, we need disobedient filmmakers like him more than ever.

When we bring up his nation’s new overlord, Waters is surprisingly laid-back. “I’ve lived through liar Nixon, Aids, killer Reagan, dumbbell Bush, I’ll get through this idiot,” he says. “My real fear is that he’ll get impeached for something, which I probably would be for but Pence is so much worse. The problem is he looks and acts presidential – in a scary way, but he could win another term. I don’t think Trump will. I’ll be amazed if he even lasts through this one.”

While the chances of a new John Waters film in the near future are slim, we can take heart from the fact that his influence is everywhere. Filmmakers as diverse as Pedro Almodóvar, Todd Solondz and Harmony Korine all owe him a debt for smashing down cinema’s barriers of respectability. Waters reluctantly agrees to his legacy. “Let’s say I made bad taste 1% more respectable. Even that fancy Tom Ford movie [Nocturnal Animals], which I liked, when you see one of the killers taking a shit... I don’t know, without me maybe it wouldn’t have gone quite as far,” he says, cackling with delight. “I realise that’s a dubious thing to take credit for.”

Multiple Maniacs screens at Glasgow Film Festival: 16 Feb, GFT, 9pm | Multiple Maniacs is then released in selected cities nationwide 17 Feb by Park Circus and on Blu-ray 20 Mar by the Criterion Collection

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