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Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Multiple Maniacs (Dir. John Waters, 1970)

He is regarded as The Pope of Trash and now John Waters’ third feature film, unavailable for decades, has been “restored, remastered and re-vomited” by premium label The Criterion Collection, following a limited release in arthouse theatres.

Multiple Maniacs stars Waters’ merry band of misfits, including David Lochary, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Edith Massey. Those who would appear in most of his subsequent films, and led by the Queen: Miss Lady Divine, who we first see lying naked on a chaise longue, her Rubenesque derrière framed and in close-up. She leads the sideshow of “freaks” within Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversion, a travelling band of “real, actual filth”. There’s a naked human pyramid, bra fetishist, a women giving oral pleasure to a bicycle saddle, a Jonesing addict, “actual queers kissing” and a bonafide puke-eater. Of course this is all a ruse, a front to house psychotic kidnappers and murderers. The brains (and beauty) of the outfit is Lady Divine. She’s the leader, the matriarch, think Ma Barker by way of a transgressive Elizabeth Taylor, who will do right by her people if they do right by her. Woe betide anybody who, for example, cheats or betrays.

Shot on 16mm and made with a $5000 budget – via a loan by Waters’ father – Multiple Maniacs is deliberately offensive and grotesque. It has an avant garde sensibility, with low contrast grainy black and white film stock, which makes the sprawling chaos, horrible camerawork and zoom abuse more bearable. For all its gleeful delinquent subversion, it actually has a lot of charm. Sure, it glorifies carnage and wears its anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois respectability, and sacrilegious, cannabilistic heart on its sleeve but it does so with such veracity, it’s admirable. Disgusting and atrocious, it may be but it’s also hilarious.

Hippy values take a few knocks, there’s a definite anti-war vibe to the denouement but it celebrates art via the Warhol and Lichtenstein pictures on an interior wall, its Czech New Wave style, and even surrealism – it’s hard not to think of Dalí when Lobstora rears its rapey pincers. Nothing is sacred. Least of all Catholicism. There is religious iconography dotted amongst the mise-en-scène, and The Stations of the Cross is even recreated as Divine receives a seemingly never-ending “rosary job” from Mink Stole, in a Church pew. All to the strain of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Waters and his maniacs deliver on the blackest of comedies. All dialogue is frantic, emphatic and, at times, stilted and a little repetitive but that’s the Waters way. He and his friends, some from childhood, some dropouts from NYU created a filmmaking family which celebrated difference, embraced outsiders and misfits, and forged an artistic front for freaks. Divine was the heartbeat; loud, brash, crude, angry and trashy. She didn’t give two flying kitten heels what people thought of her, she knew she was beautiful.

In the words of the great auteur himself (oh, he’d hate that): “To understand bad taste one must have very good taste. Good bad taste can be creatively nauseating but must, at the same time, appeal to the especially twisted sense of humour, which is anything but universal.” Multiple Maniacs is a transgressive, blasphemous, and iconic piece of celluloid. It won’t be for everyone, but for those of us with a wicked sense of humour and good bad taste, it will be a religious experience.

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Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Grey Gardens (Dir. Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, 1976)

The mother/daughter relationship is a profound one and not often placed under the microscope. In 1976, two filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles (co-directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer) chose to do just that with their documentary, Grey Gardens, which the Criterion Collection restored a few years back, and released on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK.

The Grey Gardens of the title is a 14-room house in the Georgica Pond neighbourhood of East Hampton, owned by Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her then-husband Phelan. Upon divorce, Phelan provided his wife, Big Edie and their daughter Little Edie with living costs. Once those funds had dried up, the house fell into disrepair and in ’72 the Suffolk County attempted to evict the two women and demolish the property. The press’ interest lay in whom the Beale’s were related to, one-time First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

Like with all documentaries, there is a level of manipulation, almost certainly, voyeurism and a vested interest in the subjects viewed. This is one of the few that appears to have no ulterior motive other than depicting Big Edie and Little Edie just as they are/were. It is a wonderfully weird piece of work; a character study of almost morbid fascination about privilege, crumbling Patriotism, and those two extraordinary women who thrived amongst reclusive squalor and the crumbling detritus of their lives.

There is a home-video quality to Grey Gardens which although beautifully restored still contains a graininess which adds to its authenticity and intimacy. Often filmed outside, the natural lighting means that colours within the frame are stunning as Little Edie takes centre stage in her colourful ensembles and jewellery adorned headscarves. At times, it is hard to avert one’s eyes from what is onscreen, their eccentricities are, initially, hard to comprehend but both women have such warmth and veracity that the audience is soon taken in. One of the most beautiful aspects of the film is the lack of narrative time – the only indication is the dilapidated wall within the large expanse of foyer in the house and the noticeable hole in the wall gets bigger as the raccoon they share the house with (along with some 52 feral cats) makes itself a home.

Observing these two amazing women are the Maysles brothers who strike up such a seemingly genuine rapport with our main ‘characters’ that it is truly a joy to experience. In one of the disc extras, within the confines of the
scrapbook, it is stated that: “A few years ago, two brothers fell in love with a mother and her daughter.” Thanks to Criterion’s 4K restoration of the original negative we get to experience this visually beautiful love story first hand, sound quality is sublime and the mono track reproduces Little Edie and her mater’s dulcet singing voice to perfection.

Grey Gardens shows us a tender, loving and, at times argumentative, mother-daughter relationship; full of ups and downs and yet their commitment to each other and their way of life never faltered. Both are unapologetically wonderful and weird in equal measure. We should all embrace a Little Edie.

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Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Only Angels Have Wings (Dir. Howard Hawks, 1939)

Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) disembarks the San Luis after it docks in the small South American port of Barranca. An unemployed showgirl and looking for company, she falls in with two fellow countrymen, Les Peteres (Allyn Joslyn) and Joe Souther (Noah Berry Jr) – American airmail fliers who frequent the, seemingly, only bar in town. Ran by ‘Dutchy’ (Sig Rumann), the bar/restaurant/general store/hotel/gathering place and headquarters of Barranca Airways is the place to be, where a toss-of-a-coin can get you a steak or the chance to be in the air.

Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), steely boss and general chauvinist makes his presence heard and seen; dressed flamboyantly in high waisted trousers, a gun belt and a large Panama hat worn on a jaunty angle, think saloon-dwelling Indiana Jones type. It is a quintessentially glamorous and sensitive Grant, however; there is an underlying darkness which is rare. A man, as the film’s original trailer declares, who has a “propeller blade for a heart and an eye for a pretty girl.” The pretty girls in question, although as per the Hawks way far are from just that, are Arthur and Rita Hayworth (looking far less Spanish than she had previously) and they are ably supported by Thomas Mitchell (Gone With the Wind, It’s a Wonderful Life) and Richard Barthelmess (Broken Blossoms, The Dawn Patrol).

If anybody can make an aviation adventure-dramedy with real levity and musical numbers blend in such a way it is Howard Hawks. The plot is slight but the dialogue; pacing and verbal wit, superb special FX and lighting (oh how Hawks could light a movie) flesh out the otherwise simple story, accompanied by a wonderful score by Dmitri Tiomkin. What carries it is the maverick machismo of these high flying men, their friendships, loneliness, camaraderie and even love. Love for each other and love for the air, there is little glory in what they do and certainly no flag flying but they are there day-in-day-out regardless of the peril. Not unlike all of those other men preparing to forge their own close barracked friendships following the Only Angels Have Wings release in 1939. 

The Criterion Collection launched in the UK on April 18th 2016 with a small, yet defined, assortment of filmic goodies on Blu-ray for the discerning cinephile – this film included – and has continued to grow. Only Angels Have Wings is the Hawks not often discussed; a hidden treasure made all the more valuable by the love and attention shown by Criterion’s beautiful restoration. The crisp sound and perfect transfer/picture quality will make an audience believe they are in that South American Port of Barranca.