Trash, Spectacle, Sentiment
By Madeleine ConnorsSeptember 27, 2023
John Waters was kicked out of NYU film school for smoking marijuana. Even that incubator for original filmmakers couldn’t handle him. Now, among people I know, announcing yourself as a graduate of NYU film school is a shorthand for being an uppity, social-climbing brat (I should know, I’m one of them). It’s so much cooler to be John Waters. He’s a degenerate and an iconoclast, making even the most daring artists look like uninspired conformists. In fact, I don’t know anyone who dislikes John Waters. If I did, I would think it was an easy tell that they were boring and had bad sex.
Almost an hour into Multiple Maniacs, the protagonist—a murderous drag queen—gets raped by a giant lobster. The scene plays for slapstick laughs, and in the screening at the Academy Museum on September 21, the audience was cackling. (If a filmmaker attempted this today, he would naturally be crucified, but Waters pulls it off.) The 1970 film has not lost its sting, even decades later. Waters manages to violate every taboo. The film is delightfully obnoxious and crass. Minutes into the film, a man slurps up his own vomit. Later, in the pews of a church, a lewd sex act occurs using a rosary. It’s the kind of movie that makes you wonder why today’s films are so tedious and lifeless. Today, most surreal comedies reaching at edginess and rambunctiousness come off as tired pastiches of better John Waters films.
Like all the characters in Waters’s films, the sex-crazed junkies of Multiple Maniacs have a lot of heart. In his introduction to the film, Daniel Crooke, a senior programmer at Outfest, described the movie as “a cornerstone of American underground cinema.” Crooke noted: “I think of the film, for all its cannibalism and vomit, as being unbearably romantic.” Beneath the shock and spectacle is unrelenting joy and a celebration of queerness. The actors, composed of Waters’s friends, seem genuinely amused by each other on screen as they trip over dialogue. One of his collaborators and topless vagrants in the film, Cookie Mueller, is intoxicating to watch (and is also a prolific writer whom I’m embarrassed to have discovered only recently).
At the John Waters: Pope of Trash exhibit at the Academy Museum, visitors can find much of the gore and sentiment that make up his films. The exhibit follows his film career chronologically, and culminates in a delightful look into his cult following. Multiple rooms feature memorabilia from the director’s career, from vomit bags to some of the iconic costumes from Hairspray. I was particularly amused with the original scripts of his films pinned to the wall, scratched onto yellow paper in flowery cursive, emphasizing the lo-fi nature of his productions. The exhibit highlights Waters’s influence on an entire artistic generation, starting with his relationship to the Beat poets and New York art scenes in the 1970s. Waters was also an essential and vocal activist during the AIDS crisis and the early LGBTQ rights movement.
There’s something ironic about Waters, whose career is synonymous with the counterculture and being an outcast, getting honored at the stuffy and self-important Academy Museum. When he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Waters quipped that he was “closer to the gutter than ever.” He also dedicated the award to his loving parents. This moved me, the impulse to be strange and disgusting and still honor your parents. I think that’s what all artists want—the good ones anyway.
Photo by contributor.
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