Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Multiple Maniacs (1970)
Commentator: John Waters (director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor)
1. Frequent Criterion Films partner, Janus Films, has been a big part of Waters’ life, and he’s thrilled to be recording this track on the day this film was actually premiering in a Janus art theater. They “were the first ever to show [Ingmar] Bergman to me when I was in high school, I’d see art movies and it was always Janus Films. Criterion always was a class act with what kind of films they’d pick, so I’m incredibly honored that they’d pick to distribute this movie.”
2. “Is it ironic, or is it a natural ending to my career in the best kind of way,” he says regarding his arrival on the Criterion label. He adds the film is what he started with (it was his first proper feature) and “what I’m ending with.” Did I miss a memo? Has he officially retired? I’m not usually depressed this early in a commentary.
3. The credit roll was “written” with press-type on a long roll of shelving paper.
4. He wonders if Gaspar Noe has seen the film and in particular the credits as the ones for Irreversible bear some similarities.
5. The cameras they used were of the 16mm variety, “the kind they used to shoot the news,” and they overlapped the audio by 24 frames which made it impossible to cover scenes from various angles because it was near impossible to edit together. He says the film was sturdy though as evidenced by it being in his attic for years, “and here we are today.”
6. The opening scene was filmed on his parents’ front lawn “because we wer afraid of the police because we had been arrested for making the last movie, Mondo Trasho.”
7. His parents funded the film, “and I paid them back with interest at the end.”
8. He points out a joke that no longer works when someone brings out a tray of hamburgers for one dollar. “The joke was it would be really expensive. Now I routinely in Provincetown go to this place that has $18 hamburgers, so times have changed.”
9. He’s enjoying pointing out all the “shocking” moments that today are utterly harmless from foul language to two men kissing.
10. His biggest influences at the time were foreign films “that were used to break the taboos. But at the same time I was going to see nudist camp movies and going to the drive-in and seeing gore movies.”
11. He was crushed to discover a long time ago that his movies “did not work in the grindhouses and drive-ins because those audiences didn’t think those films were funny. They were screaming in the horror movies. They were jerking off in the sex movies. We were laughing and embracing them… and always one step removed in irony.”
12. Divine’s appearance here is inspired in part by Elizabeth Taylor, “and oddly enough I met Elizabeth Taylor at the end of her life, and she kind of looked like Divine.”
13. His parents were great friends wit Mary Vivian Pearce’s until the pair became “juvenile delinquents” together forcing the adults to stop speaking to each other for a decade.
14. Regarding Divine and gender pronouns, Waters followed a simple structure. “I call Divine her when he’s in a movie dressed as a woman, and I call him in real life because Divine was never a her except for when we’re talking about the character. Divine never ever walked around dressed like a woman.” He adds later that Divine never wanted to be a woman, he wanted to be a monster. “He wanted to be Godzilla, not Miss America. Other drag queens then hated him because they knew he was making fun of it.” Waters says they were dressed like real female icons, “and he would come looking like this with fake scars, carrying a chain saw, and people would not go for it.”
15. The Puke-Eater is actually eating cream corn. “I don’t know where he is today,” he says, but he’d love it if the man got back in contact with him. He knows the guy’s name doesn’t want to say it in case he’s currently an important CEO somewhere at a company filled with people who don’t know he was once the Puke-Eater.
16. The MPAA didn’t see the movie until 1980 because before then it was never shown for “commercial” purpose in a theater. When the censor board finally watched it the woman was aghast at the obscenity, but since there was nothing explicit to cut she asked a judge to step in and block the entire film. He himself declared the film insulted his eyes for ninety minutes but was not illegal.
17. People used to shoot up acid (as opposed to taking it orally) and “instantly you were on a trip when the needle came out.”
18. The house that comes into view at 15:34 was his childhood home, and the middle window was his bedroom.
19. He points out that Divine has a Boston accent around the 18:50 mark “and he never did later.”
20. The car actually died forcing them to abandon it where they were – an area which happened to be the Baltimore projects – so the trio of actors walked past the camera, hopped into Waters’ car, and they took off.
21. The film’s plot involves Divine making David think he was responsible for the Sharon Tate murder. “When we shot this they had not caught Charles Manson. Nobody knew who he was at all or anything about it.”
22. The Little Tavern is apparently “the worst restaurant” in Baltimore.
23. The film features a character giving out Waters’ real phone number at the time, 235–2354.
24. “Now this is especially hideous,” he says as Mink Stole wipes the rosary clean after pulling it from Divine’s anus. “There’s no possible reason that this shot is in the movie.”
25. The guy shooting up heroin in the church is there solely to be “more gratuitous,” and he’s doing it for real on camera there. “I shot up once in my life, it was with him.”
26. The scene starting at 51:22 is meant to imitate and homage the 1965 Swedish hit I, a Woman.
27. The best review he received for the film came after he sent it to a theater in Canada to see about playing the film there. He never heard back from the theater but instead got “a receipt in the mail from the Ontario Board of Censors that just said ‘Destroyed.’ They just burned the print.”
28. Several of them, including Waters and David Lochary, were arrested during production of their previous film, and when their names were read out in court the police had listed the latter as David Gaylord Lochary. “His middle name was not Gaylord. The cops made it up for a homophobic slur, and it was in the papers. David was furious.”
29. He was very active in the anti-establishment and political scenes, but while he attended protests and riots he says he “learned a long time ago if you want to change someone’s opinion you make them laugh, and then they’ll listen to you.”
30. Waters moved to San Francisco before making his next film and befriended a local theater owner who ran The Palace Theater where the Cockettes performed. He played both of Waters’ films and offered to fly Divine out to SF for a screening. Divine boarded a plane in full drag (“like my kind of drag, not passing as Caitlyn Jenner”), was met at the SF airport by the Cockettes, and “never went back to his other life. We performed together a lot, we would come out before the movie… I would introduce the most beautiful woman in the world, Divine would come out and throw fish in the audience, rip phone books in half, and then fake cops would pretend to arrest us, we’d strangle the cops and the movie would start.”
31. He had to do a quick re-write when Manson was captured. They included the newspaper breaking the story in the scene, and he still has it.
32. Those are cow innards that Divine pulls from the dead man and begins to chew and gag on. “He’s a trooper.”
33. He loves seeing modern reviews approaching and appreciating the film through an intellectual lens, but even he thought upon re-watching it “what was I thinking?”
34. As for where the idea for Lobstora came from, Waters credits postcards from his youth showing a broiled lobster in the sky over a beach filled with bathers, and they would joke about it coming to kill them. He kept the giant suit for years before finally deciding it was taking up too much space and setting it free in the harbor for a sea burial.
35. The man making out in the car is played by Waters’ late brother who died from a brain tumor.
36. The crowd running from the maniacal Divine grew as strangers joined the fray.
37. The restoration team matched their new end credits to the look and style of Waters’ opening down to taping a name on a piece of paper to address an “error.” He loves the little touch – “That really proved to me that Janus and Criterion totally understood the aesthetics of this movie and what the re-release should be.” – and he’s equally thrilled to see the proper music credits.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“We knew no one that could play the straight people.”
“Hmm, licking a bicycle seat.”
“He’s still alive and sort of well? He’s fine.”
“Everybody had the crabs.”
“You know, Bergman had puke. Puke was always the sign of an adult movie.”
“I think people would still pay to come in to see a sideshow where you could see an addicted heroin addict.”
“Before my mom died we used to go on rides to bad neighborhoods.”
“You can always tell when Edith has a line because her head starts moving.”
“Sniffing glue, I did that. It sorta works.”
“There’s no premature ejaculation in the rosary-job scene.”
Multiple Maniacs may not appeal to me – at least not until its third act goes off the rails – but I can listen to John Waters talk for days on end. The man is incredibly funny and knowledgeable, and his commentaries display a memory for detail that is endlessly impressive. From the names of every performer to the local businesses involved in varying capacities, he recalls specifics of this half-century-old film that put most commentators to shame. Fans of the film will love this new Criterion release, but I recommend it even if you’re just a fan of Waters himself.