john waters on the place for bad taste in contemporary culture
"My whole life has been a trigger warning."
Photography Alasdair McLellan
John Waters was triggered into making Multiple Maniacs. Sickened by the late 60s era of peace and love and rolling around at Woodstock, he sought to create a celluloid atrocity. A cinematic marvel that reveled in religious blasphemy, cartoon violence, and Divine — Water's drag queen heroine and muse — being raped by a giant lobster. In turn, the film — Waters' second — triggered others. The Maryland Board of Censors suggested the garbage can was too good for it. Across the border, censors in Canada decided the best thing for a print of the film was to destroy it.
Waters called it his best review ever, and Multiple Maniacs helped secure the filmmaker's reputation for bad taste cinema that thumbed its nose both at conservative, catholic America and the hippie brigade. But while Waters's notoriety grew from his later work like Female Trouble, to the mainstream breakthrough Hairspray, Multiple Maniacs was resigned to the filmmaker's closet where it gathered dust.
This month, a cleaned up version of Multiple Maniacs finally makes its way unto cinema screens in the UK (it premiered in New York City over the summer). "The potty mouthed cavalcade of perversion" — the name given to Waters gang of perverts, punks and puke eating provocateurs in the film — remains in full flow.
What is your abiding memory of the Multiple Maniacs shoot?
The cavalcade of perversion was filmed on my parents' front lawn. When you see it leaving that's their house behind them. The shot of Divine in the one-piece white bathing suit, looking in the windows, that was just the neighbor's house. We didn't even ask. Suppose they'd been sitting there eating breakfast.
You filmed some of the most outrageous scenes like that around your parents' house and in a Catholic church. How did you get away with it?
Well, I got away with it sometimes. In Mondo Trasho, we were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit indecent exposure. In Pink Flamingos I went to court and had to pay a $5,000 fine for obscenity. So I didn't always get away with it. I didn't snitch on the priest [who only found out at Multiple Maniacs' first screening that the scene he let his church be used for involved Divine, rosary beads and a sex act]. I never told where we filmed it.
The film was made in spirit of rebelling against hippie rules, and you've since been motivated in a similar way against political correctness.
Yes, even though I think I am politically correct.
How are you politically correct?
The message is the same: don't judge other people until you know the full story. And not to be a separatist and to listen to other people's opinions and if you don't believe them. If you don't agree with them, you make them laugh. That's the first way you can get someone to change their mind. So I still think that's politically correct.
Is there a place for that kind of nuance considering the the current U.S. presidency?
Well, I've gotten away with it for 50 years. Certainly Trump is an easy target. It's hard to make a parody of a parody in the first place. But I'm looking forward to a new kind of social activism. I hope it happens. I hope college students get away from their textbooks and stop studying and get out there and do something.
Is Multiple Maniacs a film that should come with trigger warnings now?
Well, I wouldn't give 'em. My whole life has been a trigger warning. I was amazed when I first heard about a trigger warning. I said, 'you're kidding?' You mean you have to warn students you might challenge what they're thinking? I thought that's why you went to college.
What do you think of safe spaces?
I don't think there should be such a thing. I think no one should want to be in a safe space, if they do, they shouldn't go to school. They should sit at home in their house.
What perplexes you about modern culture?
Oh, sometimes the lack of wanting to see controversial things. I still don't understand why young people would prefer to go to a cinema in a mall over an old movie theatre that's been restored. I don't understand stadium seating.
What amuses you about modern culture?
I'm amused and really respect kids who figure out how to get what they want. They get in and they don't fear rejection. Somewhere, no matter where they're from, they stand out. Kids ask me 'how can I make movies?' I say 'if you're asking me you're never going to make 'em.' You have to think I'm going to do this and you figure out a way to do it. It's like hitchhiking. A hundred cars may pass you but you only need one to pick you up to take you where you are going. You only have to get one person to give you the money. You need two people to like it, one more person than you.
Multiple Maniacs is in UK cinemas from February 17.
Text Colin Crummy
Images courtesy of John Waters