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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: 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.