The title of a recent essay in The New York Times Magazine asked a question that's worth returning to: "When everyone can be 'queer,' is anyone?"
In the piece, writer Jenna Wortham probed the social explosion of queerness, perhaps best illustrated in the contemporary profession of gender identities: transexual, bigender, gender fluid, two-spirit, agender and so on. Even the word "queer," Wortham writes, "has come to serve as a linguistic catchall for this broadening spectrum of identities, so much so that people who consider themselves straight, but reject heteronormativity, might even call themselves queer."
The niggling sense is that queerness has become something of a trend, that it has been de-politicized and commodified and drained of what Wortham calls its "revolutionary potential." A useful figure in understanding this trend is American gay filmmaker John Waters. In a career spanning nearly five decades, Waters has morphed from a transgressive cult filmmaker to a supplier of big-budget Broadway musicals and self-parodying cameos on The Simpsons. Like queerness itself, John Waters has been mainstreamed.
Yet in 1970, Waters was an aggressively weird underground concern. The recent remastering and re-release of Multiple Maniacs, his second feature, offers an opportunity to get reacquainted – not just with the perverse, filthy bent of Waters's early output, but with a radical, confrontational configuration of an American queer cinema that's worlds away from contemporary prestige romances such as Carol or LGBTQ problem pictures such as Freeheld. Multiple Maniacs doesn't court respectability. This is a film in which a voluptuous drag queen is anally pleasured with a rosary in a church pew, while a bloody montage of Christ's passion and suffering unfolds in her mind.
Multiple Maniacs opens with a gaggle of suburban, pearl-clutching, suffocatingly straight-types being lured into the "Cavalcade of Perversion" – a travelling sideshow of fetishism operated by Lady Divine (Divine) and her boyfriend, Mr. David (David Lochary). The image of Mr. David promoting the show as abounding with "acts that would make any decent person recoil in disgust," works as a handy metaphor for Waters himself.
The idea of the filmmaker as a carnival barker, baiting audiences with the latest or strangest spectacle, has a long history: from Dr. Caligari to Roger Corman through to the stumping theme-park showmen of the Jurassic Park films. It's as if Waters's early cult features are themselves a menagerie of freaks, queers, pervs, junkies and devourers of various excrement – the "Puke Eater" of Multiple Maniacs' cavalcade feels like a dry (or wet?) run for the infamous sequence in Waters's 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos in which Divine cheerily chows down on a fresh coil of dog plop.
Like the aghast audience tempted into Divine and Mr. David's big top, Multiple Maniacs' presumed viewer is meant to find all this stuff – as well as the displays of rape, murder, glue-sniffing, depravity and blaspheming that follow – at once titillating and revolting.
Nevertheless, for all its ostensible unpleasantness, Multiple Maniacs is cheapo, indie, queer American cinema at its most adversarial and thrillingly vicious. In its violence, perversion and utter truculence, it's an exhilarating, darkly funny and strangely timely reminder of a moment when queer cinema, like queerness itself, was still a deviant and dangerous form – crackling with revolutionary potential, and seemingly un-commodifiable.