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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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Review

Review: Mansfield 66/67 (Dir. P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, 2018)

Once Jayne Mansfield’s star began its descent in the 1960s, the hour-glass-figured actress continued to court publicity wherever she could get it, fast becoming a reality TV star of sorts. She would appear in the tabloids seemingly inebriated (pills and booze they claimed), and photographed during many-a wardrobe malfunction, that 40″ chest fighting for freedom and yet she continued to work – completing Single Room Furnished – before her life was tragically cut short aged 34.

A year earlier from the crash that would claim her life, Mansfield appeared in a photoshoot with Anton LaVey, the High Priest of The Church of Satan and it was soon suggested that she was now a Witch worshipping at the altar of LaVey – the Satanist who would allegedly place a curse on Sam Brody, Mansfield’s lover at the time. Brody would die in the car alongside Jayne on that fateful night on June 29 1967, and it is these last two years of the actress’ life that husband and husband filmmaking producers P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes (Dear Mom, Love CherRoom 237) concentrate on in their documentary.

Mansfield 66/67 is far from ordinary in its form, combining dance numbers, songs and monologues (performed by students of Leeds Beckett University) intercut among the archive footage, animated reenactments, photographs, and newspaper clippings. There is a cast of adoring fans and conspiracy theorists including John Waters, Mamie Van Doren, Kenneth Anger, Cheryl Dunye, Yolanda Ross and Drag artist Peaches Christ, as well as insights from Los Angeles historian Alison Martino and academics Dr. Eileen Jones, Dr. Eve Oishi, and Dr. Barbara Hahn. It is a fascinating and visual delight with a tone befitting its subject.

While the film makes no bones about focussing on salacious scandal and rumour – there is even a disclaimer at the very beginning – it doesn’t hurt it. Just as sex sells so does conjecture and falsehood (we are living in the Fake News era after all), and amongst the knowing kitsch and farce a solid argument is made positioning Mansfield as a feminist icon. One that suggests she transcended her sexual identity, and exploited the sexist culture which, some will continue to argue, exploited her. Amidst the Pink Palace, heart-shaped pools, jewels, Chihuahuas and overtly sexualised image, this woman who spoke five languages, played the violin and piano to concert level, and mothered five children was, in fact, liberated.

This highly intelligent documentary is a wonderfully weird watch, and while dressed largely in pink and fluff, it has a lot to say about the expectations placed upon women, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, much like the woman at the heart of its soul. Mansfield 66/67 is an entertaining exploration about the lasting impact of myth and the rise of the women’s movement. A film full of fun, love and admiration for the underestimated blonde bombshell, who was original, self-reliant, determined, and fabulous, and appeared to live her short life to its fullest.

Did the Devil make her do it? Damned if I know.

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Review

Review: I am Divine (Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz, 2013)

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 Cinematic audiences have been very used to men ‘donning a dress’ in order to hide or covet something over the decades. In Some Like it Hot (1959), Gerry and Joe (Jack  Lemmon and Tony Curtis) needed to flee the city after witnessing a Mob hit. Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) became Dorothy Michaels to secure a recurring role on a soap opera in  Tootsie (1982) boys dressing as girls have caused mayhem in horror films; the definitive, of course, being proto-slasher, Psycho (1960)There have been road movies with drag-artists aiming for acceptance – self as well as societal – and life contentment amid lipstick, chicken fillets, and feather boas like in The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994) and To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1995). Plus, there are men wishing to extrapolate the maternal realm with the help of prosthetics and spirit gum like Albin/Albert (Michel Serrault and Nathan Lane respectively) in La cage aux folles/The Birdcage (1978/1996) or Daniel Hillard and Euphegenia Doubtfire. The genre, if one can suggest there is one, straddles comedy and tragedy and rarely offers anything in between.

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When Harris Glenn Milstead shimmied and sashayed in his little (operative word being ‘little’) numbers, people took notice. Wearing a dress seemingly freed him and enabled him the life he coveted,  he unapologetically introduced the world to his alter-ego: Divine. And oh, what a woman – loud, brash, crude, angry and trashy (often by her own admission). Lady Divine didn’t give two flying kitten-heels what people thought of her and with the help of childhood friend, John Waters, and make-up artist/costume designer extraordinaire Van Smith, they not only set out to prove that she was, not only, the most beautiful woman in the world but the filthiest.

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Jeffrey Schwarz’s I am Divine is a labour of love, mixing contemporary interviews with archival footage, the documentary is warm, affectionate, and presents a touching portrayal of a larger-than-life transgressive – yet defining – drag artist and actor who was deeply loved by his friends, family and contemporaries. While Milstead’s story is far from unusual: ‘Glenny’ was chubby and bullied for his effeminate nature, his mother even took him to the Doctor who confirmed (!) that there was more femininity lurking beneath the surface of the masculine Milstead child. At 17, he met John Waters and the rest, as they say, is history. Divine was determined to be a star and, wherever possible, look like Elizabeth Taylor while doing it.  

Schwarz paints a riotous, compelling, and wonderfully edited picture celebrating the generous, sweet-natured and fearless icon without ever resorting to the overtly camp or sugary twee. There is some darkness – the drug-taking, the food addiction that more than likely contributed to his untimely death but Divine made the most of his time in the world, as one time member of theatre troupe The Cockettes, a solo recording artist, stand-up comedian, and as an actor. Not just any old actor either, an evolving and defining one – he was trash-talking Babs Johnson (Pink Flamingos) and Dawn Davenport (Female Trouble); frumpy and unfulfilled housewives Francine Fishpaw (Polyester) and Edna Turnblad (Hairspray); hot-blooded Rosie Velez in Comedy/Western Lust in the Dust. There were male counterparts too (like Earl Peterson and Arvin Hodgepile) and he even enjoyed on-screen clinches and kisses with childhood-crush, Tab Hunter.

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Sadly, Divine passed away in his sleep the night before he was due to start filming as a series regular on Married With Children, and as this documentary states unequivocally; he was adored. A man who had a  heart as big as his body, an icon to many but especially those who have ever felt different.

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Review

Review: Excision (Dir. Richard Bates Jr., 2012)

Being a teenage girl can, for want of a better word, suck. Fighting against changes you cannot control, whether they be bodily, emotional, and/or familial; attempting to force yourself to fit into whichever societal mould proves popular can be exhausting, often heartbreaking and wholly unnecessary (survival and hindsight can be a wonderful thing). Within the horror genre, females are often victimised, punished for sexual transgression, through the finality of death, as per the ‘slasher’ movie or can be depicted as teenagers and aligned with the abject. This abjection can be in the form of literal law-breaking, often by committing murder, seeking pleasure through the perverse and/or the secretion of bodily fluids, most often menstrual blood. While some female critics/theorists have read these texts as a further attack of their gender by patriarchy, these “monstrous femmes” have rendered some of the most memorable female protagonists recorded on celluloid. These include cult favourites Sissy Spacek as Carrie (1976, dir. Brian De Palma), Katharine Isabelle in Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett) and now AnnaLynne McCord’s astonishing portrayal in Richard Bates Jr’s Excision (2012).

McCord, best known as a spoiled, rich blonde in the re-vamped 90210 delivers an, in any other generic movie, award-winning performance as socially awkward Pauline. Physically, she is unrecognisable with lank, greasy brunette hair, acne strewn blemishes and hunched stance. She embodies a complete smorgasbord of emotions and characteristics and goes against the ‘norms’ of the female in horror, specifically in her lack of sexual reluctance, aspirations to be a surgeon and the oblivious way in which she approaches life. Most significantly, she is no passive victim. Pauline lives in picket-fenced suburbia in a repressive family unit headed by her castrating mother Phyllis (Traci Lords), emasculated father Bob (Roger Bart) and ailing little sister Grace (Ariel Winter). Phyllis exerts her maternal authority over the whole household and is determined to raise her daughters through the Church and the formality and etiquette of cotillion. At the crux of the difficult, terse and often cruel mother-daughter relationship is the ferocious need for the other’s love and acceptance.

 Pauline is a sociopath but manages to convey levels of real empathy.   She is gauche, fiercely intelligent, obsessive and delusional and suffers vivid dreams, of which only the audience is party; these are often sexually indulgent and display necrophiliac fetishes.  For all of the blood, gore and toe-curling masturbatory fantasies, at Excision’s heart is pitch black, offbeat, comedy. These comedic moments are most evidently displayed in the ingenuity of the casting: John Waters as Pauline’s Preacher-cum-psychiatrist, Malcolm McDowell as her maths teacher and former adult film star Lords as her mother, plus losing her virginity to Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) rounds things off nicely. Bates’ directorial debut is truly impressive, made with deliciously demented precision, a fierce sense of humour and, as its title suggests, is incredibly cathartic.