Studio: The Criterion Collection
Mar 27, 2017 Web Exclusive
John Waters is so often heralded as the King of Filth, the Pope of Trash, and any number of tasteful/tasteless honorifics, but rarely is Mr. Waters ever recognized as the Poet of Trash, the Laureate of the Tasteless, the Lyricist of Litter, the Bard of Bad Taste. Especially in his early films, like Multiple Maniacs – newly restored by The Criterion Collection – Waters has a way with words, weaving in gorgeous, long winded monologues, speeches, and reveries into his viscerally appealing (or appalling?) scenes.
Even at the opening of Multiple Maniacs, made on a shoestring budget in 1970, Waters has his emcee, Mr. David (David Lochary), deliver an extended speech aimed to tempt audience members to see, as he puts it, “the show you want – Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions, the sleaziest show on earth!” Not only does Waters have an ear for DIY entrepreneurs of their time, the side show performers and the language of the travelling circus act, but Waters imbues the monologue with his distinctive sensibility: namely, he, and the rest of his Dreamlanders, could not be having a better time.
Formally, Waters’ wordy dialogue is quite enamored of alliteration and the exchanges between Lady Divine (who else but the inimitable Divine) and Mr. David remind one of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s, particularly films like Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living and To Be or Not to Be. His words have a musical quality to them, and with dialogue scenes between two people, there’s an easy switch between the soiled Shakespearean monologue and the screwball tête-à-tête of dialogue.
Waters’ skill at writing dialogue that can fluidly slide from acrobatic to lugubrious also exists in exchanges between Cookie Divine (Cookie Mueller), Ricky (Rick Morrow), and Mink (Mink Stole). What’s fascinating about this particularly impressive job is that the content often falls within the purview of Waters’ iconic bad taste: hippies, rape, murder, blasphemy, etc. Waters offends with such aplomb and expertise.
What I’ve always found fascinating about John Waters and his brand of camp can be laid out in his screenplays: they are beautiful and shocking, and the joyousness of the form offsets what would probably instill the most repulsion. There is commitment from everyone to these words, and Divine’s performance stands out (as it often does). She elevates his writing into even weirder and more beautiful territory. Waters loves the juxtaposition of what might be considered conventionally talented writing against unconventional subject matter. The “Rosary job” that fills the middle of the film, where Divine and Mink hookup in a church pew as images of Jesus is on His way to be crucified are intercut, is such a finely written telling of the Stations of the Cross, its very eloquence is what makes the scene so outrageous.
Certainly, as Multiple Maniacs is Waters’ second feature, it’s rough around the edges, and it shows in his occasionally disinclination to self-edit. The talkiness of the dialogue can sometimes be a chore, less worthy of being entranced than in other scenes where there’s a perfect conciseness in addition to the visual aids.
What Multiple Maniacs shows us, however, is that Waters has always been uncompromising in his daring, which includes marrying the lewd and the lyrical together, as they should be.
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