Multiple Maniacs (John Waters, 1970)

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A classic Dreamland production that somehow had managed to pass me by, Multiple Maniacs may just be Waters’ true masterpiece. Unlike Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble, where Divine’s characters are driven by perhaps overly-cartoonish grandiose ambitions of infamy and depravity, Maniacs‘ incarnation of Lady Divine has her pettiness and hyperbole balance one another out to the point that her motivations seem typically, dare I say, reasonable?

Early enough in Waters’ career for his influences still to shine through, the spectator is able – encouraged, even, to pick up on references to Jack Smith, Buñuel, Pasolini; the cinematography’s roaming imperfections, in relation to sporadic yet vital use of post-production overhead narration allows the aesthetic to range from genuine vérité to a semi-neorealist Flaming Creatures. Consequently perhaps, although Multiple Maniacs clearly intends to shock, disturb and disgust, its portrayal of sexuality borders at times on the legitimately erotic.

Coming closest therefore to addressing the Dreamlanders’ actual desires, it is unsurprising that Maniacs effectively represents their actual principles, too, before they become refracted into different characters in later films. At the heart of Multiple Maniacs‘ philosophy is the celebration of family, however alternative it may be, and, accordingly, that the greatest sin of all is betrayal. Pink Flamingos addresses the same issues of protection of an alternative family structure, but the threatening forces are external tribalist animosity. Polyester recognises the internal threat of betrayal, but within a bourgeois heteronormative nuclear family. Multiple Maniacs‘ power stems in many ways from its reflection on the need for unity within queer social relations, to such an extent that its prolonged jump-cut sequence between Divine and Mink’s “rosary job” and Jesus, first feeding the “5000,” and then being given the kiss of death by Judas, and his inevitable crucifixion, cannot be interpreted purely as simple sacrilege. Instead, this is Waters himself engaging with the parabolic.

Considering the motley crew of reprobates involved in this and practically all productions of Waters’, Multiple Maniacs is the perfect love letter to what was to come.

 

****1/2

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In the Shadow of the Sun (Derek Jarman, 1981)

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(Screened at Cafe OTO with a live score performed by Psychic TV)

In the Shadow of the Sun exists essentially in the dead-centre of a triangle made of Lucifer Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1974), Begotten (E. Elias Merhige, 1991), and From the Pole to the Equator (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, 1987). As one might thus expect, it is an oneiric, haunting and paradoxically apocalyptic world-creation, wholly intoxicating in the well-established avant-garde-cinematic mode of queer orientalism and yet, in eschewing a good three-quarters of the campiness we would associate with Anger or Jack Smith, the contrast between skeletal ritual masks and race/class-signifying top hats allows Shadow to approach a slight critique of the colonial “magickal tourism” so often in play. Note I do say “approach,” rather than “reach,” however there is a notable absence of naiveté within the gaze of these blown-up 8mm images.

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The use of repetition and superimposition, as with Jarman’s earlier shorts (from which some of Shadow‘s footage is evidently lifted) invokes a particularly cabbalistic reading of montage – a visual praxis of solve et coagula – that demands numerous rewatching and reinterpretation. I certainly plan to oblige.

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Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs, 1957-2004)

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Between its anarchic genderfuckery in the form of Jack Smith, its sociopolitical cynicism and its extended, barbed, and wholly sardonic use of found-footage from throughout Hollywood’s history, Star Spangled to Death may potentially warrant the bizarre honour of being the American Underground’s radical response to Myra Breckinridge. However, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, compared to the tragically disorganised and honestly quite dull 94 minutes of fairly uneventful camp posturing, Star Spangled‘s 7 hours genuinely fly by.

Building on the avant-garde’s propensity for creating film analysis in the form of film itself, Star Spangled exploits 20th Century Hollywood and TV broadcasting’s dominance over the Western world to, in turn, critique that world itself. By focusing itself multiple times on, but by no means limiting itself to, milestone figures of cinema’s development Al Jolson and Mickey Mouse (and the indisputable influence of blackface minstrelsy over both), it allows the intersectional ideologies of Capitalism and racism flowing through the film industry to be revealed in clearer terms than even Comolli and Narboni might have achieved.

Throughout the film, text appears, sometimes for only one or two frames, often challenging the assertions of documented figures such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and it invites us to become Laura Mulvey’s partially-dreaded “possessive spectator” – disrupting and restarting the film as many or as few times as we care to read Jacob’s comments – in so doing, we engage in some of the same techniques as him.

However, Star Spangled exists not solely as a found-footage documentary, nor as an essay film, rather as the synthetical product of these two dialectics which, in turn, results in what may only be described as “fiction” – Jacobs and fellow artist friends playing “characters” such as Jack Smith’s “The Spirit Not of Life But of Living.” As is the case with Jacob’s Little Stabs at Happiness, there are wistful, tragicomic references to the fallings-out Jacobs experienced with Smith and co. before the end of the film’s production. Star Spangled of course, is all the more poignant for its gestation period outliving not only Smith’s firm friendship with Jacobs, but also Smith, himself, who died of complications related to AIDS the lion’s share of 15 years before the film’s completion. In the final chapter reaches a level of deep profundity when it references Smith’s apparent inability to shake off the internalised queerphobia instilled by a hardline Christian education, believing himself deserving of his fate, followed rapidly by footage of the anti-Gulf War 2 protests in New York, in which Jacobs believed he had encountered Smith’s ghost, in the guise of a similar-looking young protester, leading chants and drum circles.

Star Spangled to Death is a blisteringly angry, bitingly funny, but most of all desperately vital masterpiece of American Underground cinema, documentary and anti-kyriarchal self-expression.

 

*****