John Waters—queer film visionary, perennial prankster, and Baltimore's bohemian of bad taste—released Pink Flamingos in 1972. At the time, it was perhaps the most outrageous movie ever seen at the American box office. (After all, it includes a scene where Divine, Harris Glen Milstead's proto-punk drag-queen character who appears in many of Waters's early movies, literally eats dog shit.)
But for Waters, Pink Flamingo was a toning down of the odious aesthetic for which he'd eventually become infamous, a sensibility he brought into being with his lesser-known 1970 predecessor, Multiple Maniacs. The long-out-of-print "celluloid atrocity" has been restored by the Criterion Collection and debuts at New York's IFC Theater today.
Multiple Maniacs, like all of Waters's films, takes place in his hometown of Baltimore. It follows Divine alongside Waters's cast of so-called Dreamlanders, including Mary Vivian Pearce, David Lochary, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, and Edith Massey, as they take their traveling fetish circus, "The Cavalcade of Perversion," on the road. Eventually, they decide they've grown bored of all conventionality and turn to robbing and murdering their audiences—and each other—instead.
The film is chock full of Waters's signature dark comedy: Members of Divine's troupe eat puke and take drugs, Divine has lesbian sex in a Catholic church using a rosary as a dildo, and Divine is, at one point, raped by a 15-foot-tall lobster. Near the film's end, in a Godzilla-like scene, Divine stalks a sidewalk, terrorizing everyone in sight, before being gunned down by a firing squad to the tune of "America the Beautiful."
VICE spoke with Waters to discuss his film career, Lady Divine's legacy, and to ask, after nearly five decades as a moviemaker, what's next.
VICE: What inspired Multiple Maniacs?
John Waters: I was trying to figure out what was still legal to show on screen, as far as censorship went. So it was many things—exploitation and underground films, the Catholic Church, the movie Freaks, Pasolini. I just wanted to make a startling movie, which I think it actually still is.
How long did it take you to make the film?
I was on LSD, I can't remember! This was the first movie I made with dialogue, where my characters could speak, and we would shoot it when we had money. I wrote it as we went along. I think it took eight or nine days.
"[Divine] didn't want to be a woman—he wanted to be a monster." —John Waters
How does the film reflect the social and political realities of life in the late 1960s and early 70s?
Well, it was made at the height of the hippie years, but certainly it's a punk movie, even though nobody knew what punk was then. The hippies that liked it then turned into punks. I think it was a parody of what would be considered politically correct today. I wasn't much of a hippie, but I was a yippie—yippies were political. And, in a way, the film was a political act. It was an outlet for our anti-social humor.
Is the rosary scene a reflection of your early life in the Catholic Church?
The rosary scene is something that even I had never done. But I rebelled against the church—the first thing I ever rebelled against, my mother told me, was when they asked us to take the Legion of Decency pledge, to pledge that we wouldn't see sinful movies condemned by the church. I refused, and I was eight years old.
Filth is a theme that runs throughout Multiple Maniacs and, later, Pink Flamingos.
Well, first the word was "camp," which was so corny to me. To me, camp is two older queens talking about Rita Hayworth under a Tiffany's lampshade. Then the word became "trash," but I had already done trash with [1969's] Mondo Trasho, so, to me, that word was used up. But "filth" had a nice punch to it. It sounded a little criminal, a little dangerous. People were already calling me trash, and I needed to go further. In Multiple Maniacs, David Lochary was trash, Divine was filth, and together, they reached a new level of comic hideousness.
Divine was punk before punk. She has this 1950s stay-at-home-mom aesthetic, but her hairstyle and makeup are very punk. In what ways did your relationship with Divine's legacy change over the past fifty years?
Well, as you know, Milstead died in 1988. Today, he's more respected than ever. Luckily enough, he died right after Hairspray opened, and he got all those great reviews.
He didn't want to be a woman—he wanted to be a monster. After he died, he got great reviews for the early movies. I'm still shocked he is dead, really. I bought a plot in the same graveyard, so did Mink and all my friends. We're all going to be buried together. We call it "Disgrace Land." I think that his influence is still very much felt. I'm proud of that for him, because he was such a good actor.
Drag mirrored Divine in the years following those films.
I completely agree. Every drag queen on RuPaul's show has been influenced by Divine. They're all hip now. When I was young, drag queens were not hip. They all just wanted to be their mothers. [Divine's] biggest influence was Elizabeth Taylor. He smoked Salem cigarettes because she did. [In the film] I framed Divine right in front of Warhol's Liz, and Divine's hairdo in Multiple Maniacs is definitely styled after a demented Liz Taylor.
You also use Baltimore as one of your muses. What is it about Baltimore that inspires your films?
It's the only city on the East Coast that's cheap enough to be a bohemian in. Baltimore always had a great mixture of people. It was rich kids, poor kids, black kids, white kids, gay kids, and everybody hung around together. To me, that was the big influence—the world of bohemia.
You've held careers as an artist and comedian, on top of filmmaking. What's next for you?
Oh, I've had loads of careers. I like them all the same. They're just different ways to tell stories.
And lots! I'm working on two books. I'm booked for the next few years. I'm fine. I got a job—just none of them are movies right now.
Multiple Maniacs opens today, Friday, August 5, in New York City at the IFC Center. Director John Waters will be present for a Q&A after the 7:20 PM show.
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