Now Would Be A Really Good Time For A New John Waters Movie

Getty Image / Criterion

Now would be a really good time for a new John Waters movie. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this thought. In fact, I’ve thought it a lot in the years since 2004, when Waters released A Dirty Shame, to date his final film as a writer and director. That’s 13 years, the longest gap in Waters’ career since he released his first feature, Mondo Trasho in 1969. He previously went seven years between Polyester in 1981 and Hairspray in 1988. The latter film became a mainstream breakthrough that proved the midnight movie auteur who’d once shocked audiences with everything from lobster rape to the infamous final scene of 1972’s Pink Flamingos — I won’t describe it in case anyone who doesn’t know it is reading this over the breakfast — could make something nice for the multiplexes without losing his identity. So it’s possible he’s using the time to reinvent himself once again. But apparently this isn’t likely.

This week saw the Blu-ray and DVD release of Waters’ second feature, 1970’s Multiple Maniacs, which enjoyed a short theatrical run this past summer via the prestigious Criterion Collection by way of the venerable distributor Janus Films, for decades a premier conduit of international and art films to America. “Janus Films was the first ever that showed Bergman to me when I was in high school,” Waters notes on the disc’s commentary track. “I’m incredibly honored that they picked to distribute this movie and release it. But at the same time is it ironic or is it a natural ending to my career in the kind of way? That it’s what I started with and what I’m ending with.” Uh oh.

On the one hand, it’s hard to hold it against Waters if he did choose to retire from filmmaking. He’s had a great run as a writer and director, one that took him from working with a handful of likeminded friends in the backyards of Baltimore to one that saw him working with major movie stars (often in some of the same Baltimore neighborhoods). He’s also on the record as growing frustrated with the movie business. In 2008, he came this close to making the Christmas-themed comedy Fruitcake with Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey only to watch the company behind the film collapse.

And it’s not like he’s not busy elsewhere. No doubt tending to the legacy of Hairspray’s adaptation into a hit musical keeps him occupied. He writes books, including Carsick, which chronicles his adventures hitchhiking across America and the new gift book Make Trouble. And he’s become a celebrity himself, cameoing in movies and just generally being in demand as John Waters. Why work hard planning a movie that’s never going to happen if all that time couldn’t be better spent just being John Waters?

On the other hand, doesn’t it feel like the right time for a John Waters comeback?

“My script then probably was a reaction to the entire world falling apart,” Waters continues on the Multiple Maniacs commentary. “Altamont. The Manson murders. In ’69 everything went crazy.” Even if Multiple Maniacs didn’t contain explicit references to Manson, the madness of the era would still be evident. Waters now labels his affiliation at the time as “Yippie,” essentially a Yippie with radical politics. And while it’s tough to pin down a political agenda to his early films, it’s impossible to imagine them without the turmoil of the times around them.

Drag performer Divine, Waters’ longtime friend and muse, stars in Multiple Maniacs as Lady Divine, the leader of a freak show featuring acts designed to offend gawkers from the straight world with the spectacle of “real actual filth” like “fags, dykes, and pimps.” (Highlights include two men kissing and a junkie suffering from withdrawal.) After giving their paying crowds an eyeful, they rob them.

There’s something to offend everyone in Waters’ early films, but while shock value is part of his method — Waters even wrote a very good collection of essays with Shock Value as the title — what really makes them work is their ability to make viewers uncomfortable, both with what they’re seeing and how it relates to what they believe. It’s easy to single out the big moments in Waters’ early films — I haven’t even mentioned Maniacs’ infamous “rosary job” sequence — but it’s the unsettling atmosphere that makes them work.

In a later scene, for instance, Divine has a lengthy conversation with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, a violent radical, as they engage in a nude make-out session. Like most scenes in the movie, it goes on and on in an unbroken take in which the actors trade unrepentantly awful lines from Waters’ witty script. (“What ugly children they have!” remarks one character while rifling through a stolen wallet in a different scene.) Watching such moments creates a kind of cognitive dissonance: It’s remarkable and daring and entertaining and… Oh God please cut away to something else this is really hard to watch!

In Multiple Maniacs straight world looks ridiculous. The counterculture underground looks ugly and morally bankrupt. Waters’ films offer comfort to no one. If they weren’t so funny, it would be hard to tell them apart from the sleazy exploitation films that inspired them. They would probably have faded from memory for all but connoisseurs of vintage grotesqueries like The Sinful Dwarf and Alice in Acidland. But they are funny. And smart. And cutting. And that makes all the difference.

Waters traded in some of that shock value as part of going mainstream via Hairspray and its follow-up Cry-Baby. He also traded in some of those films’ timeliness. Both are period pieces focusing on the rebellions of decades past, albeit rebellions with contemporary relevant, particularly Hairspray’s good-natured but unrelenting assault on racism. The films that followed — Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented — found Waters mixing some of those movies’ mainstream friendly cuddliness with the shocks of old.

Some worked better than others, but A Dirty Shame, despite earning mixed reviews and losing money, found Waters striking a nice balance between different phases of his career with a story of a repressed housewife (Tracey Ullman) whose head injury turns her into a sex addict and introduces her to a strange sexual underground just below the surface of suburban Baltimore. It’s a fun movie that, despite its NC-17 rating, didn’t look that out of place in the multiplexes of 2004 while also hearkening back to the discomforting classics of Waters’ early years. It’s sweet, but it also features a character named “Mr. Pay Day” who shows up for “a little scat chat.” A John Waters movie, in other words.

Wouldn’t now be a good time for another one? In case you haven’t noticed, that whole world-falling-apart feeling of 1969 has come back into style, whether we asked for it or not. And while much has changed in the world of film and elsewhere, I have a hard time thinking Waters wouldn’t fit perfectly into the current landscape. The madness of the moment, with its naked reemergence of racism, sexism, and homophobia, its normalization of cruelty, and its unexamined pieties, calls out for the distortion of a funhouse mirror that makes everyone who peers into it a little ill at ease.

A lot has changed since Multiple Maniacs, which was shot on 16mm film for around $5,000 by Waters and the group of friends now collectively known as the Dreamlanders after Dreamland, Waters’ production company. “We were just banded together like a cell, really, that was doing political action but for movies,” Waters says. There’s really no recreating that, but it’s not like Waters has passed the torch to anyone else. Others have cued off his ability to shock — “I’m retired. I’m a filth elder. I’m the Henry Cabot Lodge of filth,” he described himself in a 2000 interview — but Waters’ sensibility, his ability to win audiences over with laughter while pushing them outside their comfort zones — then pushing a little further — has remained uniquely his own. And in times like these, it’s missed more than ever.