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John Waters on being exhausted by the stupidity of it all

The maverick director and ‘Pope of Trash’ discusses his 1970 gross-out classic ‘Multiple Maniacs’ ahead of its UK re-release and says of politics: ‘stupid’s coming at you, real quick!’

Satire tends to date quickly; it pokes fun at current events, or it becomes too kitsch too soon, a victim of its own timeliness. It’s hard to make good satire that stands the test of time, but, as cheap as it was to make, Baltimore filmmaker John Waters’ satire has aged like a fine wine. Why? Because he took aim at something that would never go away: the pantheon of good taste. Whether he was mocking Catholic morality, re-envisaging the hideous as beautiful, or subverting gender norms, his films use irony as their weapon of choice and they never fail to shock.

Perhaps the finest testament to this is Waters’s 16mm trash masterpiece Multiple Maniacs. When it was first released in 1970, it was condemned by audiences and censorship boards and even banned in Canada. Was it the scene in which Waters’s star Divine receives a “rosary bead job” in a church (exactly what it sounds like), or the scene in which she gets bloodily raped by a giant lobster? Hard to tell. But when the Ontario censorship board sent Waters a note telling him that the celluloid for the film had been destroyed, he claimed it was the best review he’s ever received. 

Today, Multiple Maniacs is just as offensive. “It’s easy to shock people”, says John Waters nonchalantly over the phone from Baltimore, looking back at the film 47 years later. Waters claims the intention was always more political than to simply cause outrage though, even if he would class Multiple Maniacs as exploitation cinema. “The rosary job in Multiple Maniacs wasn’t about shocking people, it was about attacking censorship – we thought up something that there was no law against showing... it was political.”

Written, shot, cast, directed and edited by Waters, Multiple Maniacs follows Lady Divine on the trail of bloody revenge after her lover cheats on her. She visits the “Cavalcade of Perversion”, a travelling show featuring a group of depraved misfits who perform acts like “puke eating” and rob their audiences at gunpoint. Then she meets a lesbian played by Mink Stole (insert rosary beads here) and the two have a love affair, before finding themselves caught in a massacre. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is – but it remains Waters’ personal favourite of his films. 

Unbelievably, Multiple Maniacs had its premiere in a church basement in Baltimore. “In the 1960s, Unitarian and Episcopal churches were left-wing,” explains Waters, “They’d do anti-Vietnam film screenings. The priests never saw Multiple Maniacs until the night it was shown but they didn’t kick us out. You get the feeling they thought, ‘This is the only way we’re going to get these people in a church’.” Waters subsequently took the film on a tour of the States in his car, paying cinemas to show it at midnight. It was a gamble. “If people didn’t come, I lost the money and if they came, I got the money,” he remembers.  

After 1970, Waters kept the tapes for Multiple Maniacs in his closet, then his attic, in Baltimore. They were seen by no one until recently, when the Criterion Collection retrieved them and Waters agreed that the time was ripe for a proper restoration release. “What they can do technically is absolutely amazing – it looks like a bad John Cassavettes movie now,” he jokes. “I heard dialogue I’ve never heard before and saw things I never saw before,” says the filmmaker, adding: “Don’t worry though, it doesn’t look that good.” 

Waters says the best thing about watching it back almost five decades later is seeing what his notorious cast looked like “when they started out, when they were teenagers”, particularly Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary and Cookie Mueller.

“The priests never saw Multiple Maniacs until the night it was shown but they didn’t kick us out. You get the feeling they thought, ‘This is the only way we’re going to get these people in a church’” – John Waters

Despite the passage of time, Multiple Maniacs is a blacker comedy than ever. “It didn’t get nicer,” agrees Waters, “but if this was made today it would be received even worse, because today you do have the luxury of knowing it's older – you have that distance.” He explains how, in one scene, you can see the actress Edith Massey with a calendar behind her saying November 1969, “like a hostage video”.

What Waters describes as the film’s “ludicrous left-wing propaganda” – about killing cops and ridiculing the Catholic Church – feels poignant in the current right-wing climate, but he admits a few of the jokes didn’t age well. “Lots of kids now don’t know who the Weathermen were – they thought I meant like on the news, they didn’t realise they were this left-wing radical group.” He sighs: “We need the Weatherman now! You left-wing children all ought to look them up and become one!”

When asked if he’s seen any good satire of late, Waters says the best satire he’s seen is in response to Trump’s election. “Yes, I do think it's easy to make fun of Trump, but I went to the Women’s March in San Francisco and the signs were great – they really made me laugh. One said: ‘I’ve seen better cabinets at Ikea’ but my favourite sign just said ‘I can’t even’.” He chuckles down the phone. And how’s he feeling about Trump more generally? “I just feel exhausted from the stupidity of it all. And it’s only the beginning, so we better take a deep breath. It reminds me of a line in Hairspray the Musical about a whole lot of ugly, that’s how I feel – ‘Stupid’s coming at you, real quick!’”

Waters has been in talks with Hollywood about making three films in recent years, but they each fell through. “I got three development deals but none of them got made. The problem is the indie film world as I know it is no more – the last two films I made didn’t make money, the last two books I wrote were best sellers. That’s the way it is,” he says. Multiple Maniacs then will, for many people, be a rare opportunity to see a John Waters film that they’ve never clapped eyes on before.

According to Waters, it will also be a welcome opportunity for audiences to be shocked by something that doesn’t centre on current politics, something that is rare at the cinema today. “Hollywood makes these million dollar gross-out movies and they might be shocking but they’re not good," he complains. "The only thing I see that shocks me did so because it was such Oscar bait – all these movies that are way too long or too obvious or trying to be sanctimonious, like they’re coming from the mountain top of Ghandi – that doesn’t shock me in a good way.”

It’s hard to imagine anything shocking the man William Burroughs described as “the pope of trash”, the man who convincingly claims that “shocking people is easy”. Waters can’t help but agree: “Everything now tries too hard,” he says, dismissively. And with that, he’s off to work on his next book, Make Trouble, a gift book for problem graduates. “I was always a writer and I always told stories. If I can’t make a movie I write a book, if I can’t write a book, I do spoken word. I’m still finding new ways to tell stories.”