Week 21 — Maryland
Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), and Desperate Living (1977), all written and directed by John Waters, with David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, Liz Renay, Danny Mills, Susan Lowe, Jean Hill and Divine
The group of us stood in the glow of the television screen on the 3rd floor of the Naugle dormitory on the campus of Messiah College in Grantham, a small hamlet just outside of Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania — myself, Eric Fennell and I few others I can’t remember specifically.
I took another bite of pizza and watched the cavalcade of perversity unfold in front of me.
I had read about John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. I thought I was prepared — but then … it appeared.
A naked man on the television. He climbs onto a small stage as “Surfin’ Bird” provides the soundtrack to what is about to go down. The man lies down on his back, spreads his legs and …
It was singing. Oh god … his asshole was singing.
Eric had nearly reached for the stop button on the VCR earlier in the film during a sex scene involving live chickens, but I stopped him. This time, I let him turn off the film. It was okay. We all needed a chance to take in what we had just seen.
Never mind that that part of the body had never been seen by us outside of pornographic films. (Hi, mom!) It was the context that freaked us out. It was singing! The pizza I had been eating felt like a lump in my stomach.
We continued with the movie … that is, until one more scene forced Eric’s hand to the stop button. If you’ve seen Pink Flamingos, you probably know what scene I’m talking about. Not the ending of the film, where portly transvestite Divine eats a handful of dog shit only seconds after it comes out of a poodle’s ass.
The scene I’m talking about is “the greatest gift a mother could give her son,” the part in which Pink Flamingos just crosses the line into XXX fare. I won’t say any more, lest I ruin the moment for those of you who have not seen the movie. If you see it, I want you to be shocked. I want you to think to yourselves “They won’t go there” and then have them go there and back and there one more time.
John Waters’ early films are meant to be watched with your jaw hanging on the floor. The Baltimore native makes no attempt to cover the fact that, with his early movies, he wanted audiences to be grossed out, freaked out and — now that these movies can be watched in the privacy of your own home rather than as part of a midnight show at a sleazy downtown theater — with one finger on the “Stop” button.
Yet, there’s more to Waters’ movies than the type of shock one can easily receive nowadays by clicking on a few links after searching on Google for “Two Girls, One Cup.” We may be desensitized now, but from the early 1970s until the late 1990s — or when I was a 20-year-old college student and the Internet had yet to become the portal into the grotesque it is now — the idea of a “singing asshole” was pretty far out stuff. Waters has come a long way as a filmmaker. It only takes a few minutes of watching his debut feature-length film, Mondo Trasho, and comparing it to the films he would make several years later, to see this progression.
Mondo Trasho, Waters’ debut, is extremely rough in terms of audio and video quality, one point on which most reviews I’ve read of the film seem to give it a pass. Not me. It’s possible the copy I watched was just bad — a bootleg obtained off of the Internet — which is the only way to watch the film since it has never had an official release because of music licensing issues. However, there are issues with the film that can not be attributed to it being a several-generation old copy. The camerawork is shaky. There are points where the cameraman clearly intends to zoom out but accidentally zooms in. It’s shot in black-and-white. Clearly the choice to shoot in this format was financial and not aesthetic. The audio is also terrible. Mondo Trasho is essentially a silent film and the soundtrack is all 1950s era Rock and Roll songs and movie scores which, according to most accounts, was recorded from Waters’ record collection. However, it’s not the type of music that’s the problem. The music is great. It’s just that the music is so scratchy and distorted, it’s painful to listen to. It sounds like the records are being played with a sewing needle and a piece of paper rolled into a cone. I may sound like I’m harping a bit, but I feel the need to warn you should you seek this movie out.
If you can tolerate the “nails on chalkboard” audio and grainy video, you still might find Mondo Trasho hard to sit through. The movie, filmed entirely in Baltimore, involves a woman played by Waters’ childhood friend Mary Vivian Pierce who goes to a park and is accosted by a “shrimper,” or foot fetishist. She agrees to let her toes be sucked and appears to get pleasure out of the act, during which she has some type of Cinderella fantasy. Just when things start getting boring, Waters’ resident diva Divine shows up, driving a convertible through the park. Divine, distracted by a hitchhiker she imagines naked, runs over Pierce’s character (known only in credits as “Bombshell”). Rather than drive away, Divine decides to take Bombshell with her. Divine drives an unconcious Bombshell around Baltimore meeting an assortment of odd characters and getting into various strange situations. In the end, Divine has Bombshell’s feet replaced with chicken feet that she can click together to transport herself anywhere in Baltimore.
It sounds more fun than it is, essentially because of long stretches of the film in which nothing happens. I shouldn’t say nothing. People walk from one place to another. They sit. Since one of the most enjoyable things about a John Waters’ movie is the dialogue, the fact that Mondo Trasho has very little dialogue is essentially not allowing him to use one of his best tools. The stories behind the movie are probably more entertaining than the film itself — like how Waters and company were arrested or nearly arrested filming the nude hitchhiker scene.
The biggest disappointment for me is that Mondo Trasho lacks that singual “singing asshole” moment Waters’ fans have come to expect from his older films. Fortunately, he would have that moment in his second film, Multiple Maniacs.
Multiple Maniacs stars Divine as “Lady Divine,” a member of a traveling freak show which includes such horrifying acts as “Two real-life queers kissing each other!,” as the show’s “ringmaster,” played by Waters’ reoccurring cast member David Lochary, puts it. (For the record — and I assume most of you know this but I’m going to say it any way just in case — John Waters is openly gay and elements of his films like I just described are meant to be satirical.)
The star of the show is — who else? — Divine, who in this movie is the girlfriend of Lochary — who calls himself “Mr. David” here. The show, by the way, is really just a front in which Mr. David, Divine and the rest of the participants use in order to kidnap and rob people. In the case of Divine, murder is often involved as well.
Divine, who keeps Mr. David in line by claiming she was behind the Manson murders, begins to suspect that her boyfriend is cheating on her with a new woman who has been showing up to their performances. Her suspicions are confirmed when the owner of a local bar calls her up and tells her that Mr. David and this mystery lady — played by Vivian Pierce — are together at the bar. Divine heads downtown to confront them but is assaulted and raped on the way. Disheveled, disgraced and disheartened, Divine makes her way into a nearby church for what I referred to previously as the movie’s “singing asshole” moment.
And this is the moment: In the church, Divine meets a strange woman played by yet another Waters’ regular, Mink Stole, and the two of them have a sexual encounter in which Divine is sodomized with rosary beads. During that encounter, she sees visions of Jesus Christ and the events leading up to his crucifixion. To top it all off, from what I can tell, the sex scene between Stole and Divine was filmed in a real church. I can’t help but imagine Waters and his crew of misfits sneaking into a church late at night and filming the scene as quickly as possible before they get caught. Don’t let me be misunderstood. This scene is something like 15 minutes long and, if it’s not really that long, it at least felt that long. At the end of the scene, Stole wipes off the beads — and I throw up a little in my mouth.
You may be reeling so much from the scene in the church that you might miss my favorite part of the movie, in which Lady Divine murders a room full of people then is raped by a giant lobster. The lobster, in the movie’s opening credits, is credited as Lobstora. Lady Divine is so moved by the experience that she is transformed into a monster — a raving, foaming monster. She carjacks a woman and drives to downtown Baltimore where she stumbles around mumbling “You’re a maniac now,” while passersby — many of them probably unaware that they were being filmed for a movie — flee in terror.
Like when King Kong plummets from the top of the Empire State Building, it brings a tear to my eye when the National Guard shoots Lady Divine dead to the sound of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.”
Waters was still getting the hang of the whole art of film making with his second movie, Multiple Maniacs. Still, it’s a big step for him in terms of the technical aspects of making movies.
The most important thing about the film, however, is the proper introduction of Divine, the character. She is the sadist for whom violence is a turn-on. She is the self-proclaimed filthiest actress alive. Harris Glenn Milstead would continue playing the character of Divine for several more movies and remain a fixture in Waters’ films until his death in 1988. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is Divine who makes the earlier films of John Waters so special. As the most charismatic member of Waters’ Dreamlanders acting group and certainly the most talented, Divine makes these films worth watching. The best scenes in any of Waters early movies involve Divine and, when she’s absent from the screen for a long period of time, they tend to get kind of dull.
Audiences felt the same way. Whether they loved her or hated her, Divine caught people’s attention whereever she went. After the release of Pink Flamingos and its follow-up, Female Trouble — the two films starring Divine which followed Multiple Maniacs — Divine became a celebrity among the midnight movie crowd and the punk scene. (Did I mention she sang too?) As a result, the woman born Harris Glenn Milstead was not available when Waters planned to shoot his next film, Desperate Living.
In my opinion, it can.
The first thing that’s noticeable about Desperate Living is that it looks like a real movie — as in, Waters and company went out and used the money they made off of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble and bought some decent equipment.
Desperate Living is The Wizard of Oz meets Thelma and Louise. Mink Stole plays a neurotic … uhm … “desperate housewife” named Peggy Gravel. Stole is hilarious in the opening scene, in which she proceeds to have a nervous breakdown after kids playing baseball outside of her house hit a ball through her window. “They’re shooting at me!” Her mood only gets worse when she walks in on her two children naked and playing doctor. “Our children are having sex!”
We meet Peggy’s husband and her overweight black maid, Grizelda, played by newcomer to Waters’ clan, Jean Hill.
When Peggy and her husband get into a fight, Grizelda intervenes and murders Mr. Peggy Gravel by sitting on his face and smothering him to death. Peggy and Grizelda are on the lam when they are stopped by a perverted policeman who lets them go in exchange for a pair of their panties. The policeman, played by a guy named “Turkey Joe,” points Peggy and Grizelda in the direction of Mortville, a shantytown full of social outcasts, most of them lesbians. The two women rent a room from lesbian Mole McHenry, played by Waters’ regular Susan Lowe, and her lover, Muffy St. Jacques. St. Jacques is played by Liz Renay, beginning the trend of Waters casting real-life felons in his movies. Renay was the girlfriend of mobster Mickey Cohen and served over a year in prison on perjury charges.
Mortville is ruled by the evil Queen Carlotta, played by a frightening Edith Massey, who gets her kicks by issuing ridiculous “royal proclamations,” such as declaring it “Backwards Day” and forcing everyone to walk and wear their clothes backwards.
The queen’s daughter is Princess Coo Coo, played by Vivien Pierce, who is in love with the local garbage collector. After Coo Coo elopes with the garbageman — who lives in the local nudist colony — the queen is outraged and banishes the princess. Instead of leaving Mortville, Coo Coo hides out at Mole and Muffy’s house, but is ratted out by Peggy — who is repulsed by Mortville and its residents. As a reward for turning in the former princess, Queen Carlotta makes Peggy the new princess. The queen then gets Peggy involved in a plot to kill off the population of Mortville by infecting them with rabies — beginning with Coo Coo.
Fortunately, Mortville’s residents rise up and overthrow the queen and execute Peggy by shoving a gun up her ass. Then they roast the queen on a spit. All the residents of Mortville feast as the film comes to a close.
So, yeah … it’s a pretty odd movie but not a bad one. As I mentioned before, technically it feels more like a real movie than most of Waters’ past films. As far as the story, there’s so much going on that you soon forget that Divine isn’t a part of it.
Will Desperate Living disgust you? Oh yeah. The most outrageous scenes in this films are the ones that involve nudity and, while Renay isn’t awful to look at, the rest of the cast is better off clothed. Still, if you’ve ever wondered what a 400 pound woman and a 100 pound woman making love looks like, this is the movie for you. At least Massey keeps her clothes on in this one.
Waters would make one more R-rated film, Polyester, before his mainstream breakthrough in Hairspray. From there, he would continue making his oddball little films — albeit with larger budgets than in the past. Where does the money come from? Someone out there must have realized that attaching Waters’ name to a movie guarantees an audience. In addition to bigger budgets, Waters would work with bigger stars — Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Melanie Griffith, Tracey Ullman, and Johnny Knoxville. All the while, he would continue to employ his Dreamland gang — Stole, Renay, Vivian Pierce and, of course, Divine.
I’ve seen all of John Waters’ movies and I think he’s hilarious. You may not. You may think he’s immature — a valid point which I can’t argue against. However, I will say that — like him or not — we need filmmakers like John Waters. We need people to antagonize the status quo. We need people to laugh in the face of political correctness. We need a counterculture. If not, we might forget what it’s like to be surprised. Art would be dull. Life would be dull. Artists would find themselves forced to paint with only the “acceptable” colors of the palette. A filmmaker like John Waters isn’t afraid to use all the colors, mix them together and invent new ones. Nobody forces you to borrow from Waters’ palette — and maybe you shouldn’t. Some of the colors he uses are downright ugly. Still, it’s nice to have the freedom to use them if you’d like.
That’s just my opinion. I’m sure for other people — particularly those in the LBGT community — John Waters’ movies mean something else.
You want to know why John Waters rules? Because he was into “tea bagging” long before tea bagging became synonymous with radical Republicans. Check out his 1998 film Pecker if you don’t believe me.
I am intrigued by Waters’ latest project which is rumored to be coming out this year — a holiday movie starring Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey called Fruitcake. There may not be any singing assholes in it (at least I hope not). However, if it’s anything like Waters’ past creations, at least subversively it’s going to push people’s buttons. I’m sure he’d like it no other way.
Next week: Boston legal!
Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs and Desperate Living on YouTube
Matt D.’s Top Five Gross Out Moments in Film (The Non-John Waters Edition)
5. The “barf-o-rama” scene from Stand By Me (1986, directed by Rob Reiner) “Lard-ass! Lard-ass!” Pay attention. Eating and regurgitating will be a theme here.
4. A tie between any one of the many speed eating/vomiting scenes from Taxidermia (2006, directed by Gyorgy Palfi) and the Mr. Creosote scene from Monty Python and the Meaning of Life (1983, directed by Terry Jones)
3. The dinner scene from Dead Alive (1992, directed by Peter Jackson) I dare you to eat pudding again after watching this.
2. The horse semen scene from Jackass Number Two (2006, directed by Jeff Tremaine) … and let me tell you, between the two Jackass movies — I have yet to see the third — it was hard narrowing it down to just one scene. This one, however, was the sickest in my mind.
1. The Circle of Shit from Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini) A literal feast of shit. Is it a metaphor for fascism? Maybe. Is it positively stomach-churning? You bet.
What scenes from films you’ve seen have had you running for the bathroom or nearest trashcan? Leave me some feedback and let me know!