I love everything about movies. I am fascinated by how movies are made. I am entertained by watching movies. I am enlightened by reading about movies. For just over a century, audiences the world over have gone to the movies to see stories told in exciting, shocking, and innovative ways. The imagination and technical craft that goes into crafting a truly great piece of cinema serves as a testament to the pinnacle a person can reach as an artist. And then there are those who just gloriously trash everything!
Last week, I went with a friend to see a movie at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. As much as I love the movies, I don’t go as much anymore. Going to the movies costs time and money. Plus, streaming media with low-rate monthly subscriptions have provided audiences with thousands of titles at their fingertips, so who even goes out to the movies anymore? Well, I do. While it may not be as often as I would like, I make it a special occasion. I don’t go out and see every Hollywood blockbuster or every “Best Picture” nominee, but I see things that strike me in different ways. I make it an event for myself; a treat. Because that is what going to the movies is for me, a treat. So I’m rather selective and choose films very carefully. Though, sometimes, there is no careful thinking. Sometimes, I know that I have to see something just based solely on one name. Last week, I saw a John Waters movie.
I adore John Waters so much. He is an incredibly well-spoken and intelligent person. And for those unfamiliar with his work, they seem surprised at just how big of a perv he is. Not only that, but they also seem slightly uneasy with the fact I enjoy the work of the Prince of Puke! While Waters’ later theatrical output has softened up and is more accessible (Polyester, Cry Baby, Serial Mom, and Hairspray), it is his earlier work that resonates with fans and where Waters has exhibited his more specialized and nuanced taste; or about as nuanced as a drag queen eating dog shit can be.
The screening at the Music Box was for his second feature-film Multiple Maniacs. Produced in 1970, it became a rarely seen film and still has never been released on DVD. Janus Films, in association with the Criterion Collection, remastered the film and distributed it to a few select theaters this year and giving it the audience and attention it deserves. In the film, all of the Waters’ Dreamlanders (the name given to the band of actors who appear in most of his early work) are present. David Lochary plays the ringmaster for a travelling circus. But not just any circus. It is a cavalcade of perversion masterminded by Lady Divine. It is there you’ll see perversion unlike any other including homosexuals, a man eating puke, armpit fetishists, and so much more. Unsuspecting audiences are lured to the free shows where they end up being held captive and robbed by Lady Divine herself! As tension brew between Lochary and Divine, Lochary plots with Mary Vivian Pearce to kill Divine.
The other Dreamlanders appear to drive the narrative including Cookie Mueller (who plays Divine’s daughter and helps her plot), Mink Stole (a transient lesbian who Divine encounters in a church), and Edith Massey (the diner owner who stirs up trouble). Like many of Waters’ other works, Divine plays the mother to the group or some kind of maternal figure. In her all glory, Divine demands the attention and respect one reserves for authority figures.
Multiple Maniacs featured many shocking moments that can only be found in a class John Waters film. Divine appears naked multiple times. Mink Stole penetrates Divine with a rosary in a church in a sex scene juxtaposed with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And Divine is raped by a giant lobster creature after stabbing multiple characters to death. Classic John.
Divine is really the star of this film, as well as several other Waters’ films. Born Harris Glenn Milstead, he later started dressing in drag. It was Waters who ended up giving him the name “Divine,” a transformative moment for mother of all drag queens.
Outside of Waters’ movies, Divine developed a cult following and each branched out into other art forms. Divine commands the spotlight, so it should be no surprise that she would get into music. From 1981 until her death from an enlarged heart in 1988, Divine released multiple HI-NRG and synth-pop recordings. Amongst original recordings such as “Shoot Your Shot,” Divine also produced campy covers of classic such as “Walk Like a Man” as made famous by the Four Seasons.
If you’re going into delve into Divine’s musical career, you have to be open to challenging conventional aesthetics. While Divine affected a female voice in her roles in movies like Polyester, her singing voice is gruff and abrasive. For me, Divine’s signature track “I’m So Beautiful” 1984. It is the perfect declaration of who Divine is. With vocals over a standard 80s synth-pop backdrop, Divine lays it all on the line. She commands attention. Leading up the chorus, she raises her voice commanding you to look at her because she is beautiful. She even reinforces this claim by saying that you gotta believe she is beautiful. While she is out walking the street and feeling the heat, she’s going to steal the show because there ain’t nobody better than her.
The flip side to the song is that it is an anthem about accepting everyone as beautiful regardless of their body type. Divine was an unhealthily large person, but that didn’t stop her from wearing skimpy clothes and showing off some skin. “I’m So Beautiful” is a song about acceptance and doing things your own way because who has the right to stop you from living your life, having fun, and commanding respect and attention? Divine delivers this song like a force of nature. Died way too young, she lived faster and harder and in a more entertaining fashion than many of us.