Too Late or Too Soon? The Subtle Art of the Well-Timed Charles Manson Joke

Charles Manson is right up there with Adolf Hitler as a monstrous historical figure whose name is over-cited for easy, #edgy punchlines. The Manson Family murders obviously never came close to matching the body count or continued political atrocities resulting from Hitler & the Nazi Party, but there’s an easy shock value to Charles Manson’s sensationalist, highly-publicized crimes that makes his name just as frequent of a punchline. The joke, no matter how tasteless, has been run into the ground over decades of repetition in South Park episodes, Sam Kinison routines, and Marilyn Manson album titles to the point where it’s too old hat to be effectively offensive. There may have been some minor uproar after Quentin Tarantino’s recent announcement that he’ll be dramatizing the Manson Family murders in his signature tongue-in-cheek way with the upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but most of the outrage surrounding the production has focused on the casting of known-abuser Emile Hirsch & Tarantino’s public statements making light of Roman Polanski’s rape charges. Outrage over his potentially glib treatment of the Sharon Tate murders has been put on the backburner as people address fresher wounds. Our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, was similarly too late to the table to shatter any monocles with its own Charles Manson humor. There’s a performative transgression to Live Freaky! Die Freaky! that acts as if making light of Charles Manson & Sharon Tate was crossing a sealed taboo barrier never before addressed in comedy, despite decades of preceding shock-value art to the contrary. Like Tarantino’s still-in-production Manson movie, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! had to find other, less seemly ways to offend than relying simply on citing Charles Manson’s crimes in a humorous tone (namely through “ironic” misogyny & homophobia).

If timeliness is the key to a truly offensive Charles Manson joke, it’s doubtful that anyone could claim the honor more convincingly than John Waters. On the commentary track for the Criterion Collection release of his 1970 feature Multiple Maniacs, Waters explains the ways the developing account of the Sharon Tate murders changed the shape of the film during production, as the story was still playing out in the headlines. Early in the film, Divine teases her lover (played by David Lochary) by threatening to turn him into the police for killing Tate, even mocking the “P-I-G” carving in her stomach, a real-life detail. Waters explains, “When we shot this, they had not caught Charles Manson. No one knew who he was or anything about him.” Later in the film, Lochary says as much when he holds up an actual newspaper revealing Manson’s involvement in the Tate murder, absolving himself of the crimes Divine attempted to in pin on him, exclaiming, “I’ve never heard of these people!” That scene was quickly re-written the day the paper was printed, making for what has to be the earliest Charles Manson joke on celluloid. When John Waters & The Dreamlanders were joking about Charles Manson, the humor actually was transgressive, an effect that had only dulled & diluted by the time Live Freaky! Die Freaky! arrived over three decades later. When you read positive responses to Live Freaky! Die Freaky! online, they typically liken director John Roecker to Waters, saying his work is “in the comedy style of films like Pink Flamingos.” I’m not buying the comparison. The two directors may have overlapped in thematic territory & subject, but the timing of their arrival completely alters the effect & context of the material. When John Waters joked about The Manson Family murders it was a dangerous, culturally taboo act of true political transgression. By the time John Roecker did the same it was a hack bit that had lost all that impact through decades of dilution, like a kid playing dress-up as a Dangerous Artist.

It’s important to remember the cultural context in which John Waters was making his Charles Manson jokes. As he explains in it on the Multiple Maniacs commentary, the political upheaval of the late 60s countercultural made it feel as if the world were ending. Before turning to filmmaking, Waters poured his political angst into protesting, rioting, and writing for leftist mags. He describes his crew as being pissed-off, dysfunctional hippies who would later become punks & bikers – counterculture types who had not yet established their own niche. His filmmaking was an extension of that political unrest, using humor to both process the absurdity of a culture in chaos and “using humor as terrorism to embarrass your enemy.” When Waters jokes about The Weather Underground & killing cops in Multiple Maniacs, it’s coming from a real place of anger against the cops who arrested his crew while filming Mondo Trasho and added a homophobic slur to David Lochary’s name in their reports. When he jokes about Sharon Tate’s death, films anal lesbian acts involving rosary beads in a Catholic church, or *gasp* shows “two queers kissing like lovers on the lips!” in the film, he was bucking against very real constrictions of censorship, genuinely pushing the envelope of what was allowed by law. Censor boards in America attempted to shut the film down in outrage only for judges to shrug off the complaints because the acts were tasteless, but technically legal. When he sent prints to a Canadian distributor, border police confiscated & destroyed them, not waiting for a judge to weigh in on their legality. Roecker & Tarantino are only able to make their own tasteless Charles Manson jokes now because those censorship battles have already been won; as Waters explains it, “You can put anything in a movie now,” so that for-its-own-sake shock value no longer holds any political power. When hardcore pornography was legalized, Waters gave up trying to shock the censors and moved on to more narrative-focused works like Female Trouble & Polyester. Roecker & Tarantino are only playing with his broken, discarded toys that have been collecting dust in the attic for decades.

That’s not to say that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can’t or won’t find useful thematic material in the Manson Family murders. There’s no telling how that will pan out until we see the finished product. The dichotomy between the pointed political subversion of Multiple Maniacs and the pointless juvenile posturing of Live Freak! Die Freaky! does suggest that it will be a difficult task, however. John Waters snuck in his Manson Family humor when the wounds were still fresh and the topic was still taboo. John Roecker warns of what could happen when you pretend that same topic still has edge, despite it long having been made acceptable through repetition & familiarity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade.

-Brandon Ledet

John Waters’s Honeymoon Killers

My first thought watching Leonard Kastle’s grimy black & white crime romance The Honeymoon Killers was “Surely, John Waters loves this.” Without any evidence or background context it seemed obvious to me that The Honeymoon Killers’s mix of camp excess & horrific violence was an influence on Waters’s work, especially evident in the early scene where the killers’ first mark is shown atonally singing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub. Even Martha Beck’s over-plucked eyebrows felt like a blueprint for Divine’s signature look, an over-the-top perversion of vintage bad taste in 1950s fashion. The truth is, though, that John Waters was already a fully-formed artist by the time The Honeymoon Killers was released. In fact, his film that most closely resembles Kastle’s, Multiple Maniacs, was released the very same year & already featured Divine in her full, knife-sharp-eyebrows glory. Waters’s work as more a kindred spirit than a direct descendant.

The opening credits scroll for Multiple Maniacs is framed like microfiche, as if the audience were researching old crime reports in archived newspapers. Both Waters’s film & The Honeymoon Killers were inspired by real-life serial killers (the Sharon Tate murder of the 1960s & the “Lonely Hearts killers” of the 1940s, respectively) and lean into the grim, cruel despair of those subjects. You can practically stain your fingers on the films’ cheap tabloid ink. They’re also tabloid-ready stories (one real & one fictional) because their respective killers are romantically linked & commit their crimes as a couple, turning tales of human despair into a kind of in-print soap opera. Multiple Maniacs is much freer to pursue an impossible, fantastic narrative, though, since it was merely inspired by the Sharon Tate murder (and filmed before Charles Manson’s name was even connected to that crime), branching off into its own detached-from-reality criminal fantasy. As opposed to the newlywed grifters of The Honeymoon Killers, Divine & David Lochary’s own theft & murder spree is a long-establish bond involving a traveling side show (Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions) where unsuspecting audiences are robbed at the end of each performance. Both crime/love partner relationships devolve in the same way, though; the male accomplice is caught cheating & the woman goes berserk (to Godzilla-scale effect in Multiple Maniacs).

What’s maybe not immediately apparent in either of these pictures is how that low-fi crime & grime is contrasted with high art sensibilities. Offended by the Hollywood gloss of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, Leonard Kastle stated that with The Honeymoon Killers, “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Waters may have bested him there, setting up his own romantic crime thriller as a side show where odd-looking weirdos perform heinous acts like licking bicycle seats, shooting heroin, and homosexual kissing (!!!) to their literally captive audience’s horror. Where Waters dared to stoop lower in the unattractive details, he also aimed higher with his artistic sensibilities, especially in a scene where Divine & Mink Stole paly with anally-inserted rosary beads while reciting the Stations of the Cross, an Andrei Rublev-esque vision of Christ’s trials intercutting their lesbian foray. That surreality emerges again in an unexplained scene where Divine is raped by a giant lobster, but I fail to recall what Tarkovsky movie that might resemble. Francois Truffaut once stated that The Honeymoon Killers was his all-time favorite American film, as it was the one that most closely approximated the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave. One has to wonder if he ever got to see the less widely-distributed Multiple Maniacs before making that claim (or if it would have made a difference).

Even if Waters was more a contemporary than a devotee of Kastle’s, he surely loved The Honeymoon Killers all the same. In an interview with NPR, Waters recommended The Honeymoon Killers as a personal favorite, quipping, “With internet dating today, this certainly could happen again.” What I’d most like to know at this point is whether that appreciation was mutual. Did Kastle ever see Multiple Maniacs? Would he enjoy it if he had?  Waters’s own aversion to Hollywood phonies & manicured beauty would at least indicate that Kastle may have appreciated it more than Bonnie & Clyde, but having fun with a Dreamlanders-era Waters film would require a little more extreme disposition than just that. It’s subjective which film is the better of the pair, but Multiple Maniacs is undeniably the more extreme.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our examination of Martin Scorsese’s involvement with the film, and last week’s look at its mid-2000s Hollywood-phony equivalent.

-Brandon Ledet

The Best of NOFF 2016 Ranked & Reviewed

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It already felt a little odd last year to post my Belated NOFF 2015 Report a whole month after the festival had concluded. Having attended more than twice the amount of films I caught at last year’s New Orleans Film Fest this time around, it took me even longer to publish a review for everything I saw. Here we are almost two months since the fest had passed and I’m finally gathering all of those titles in one spot. This better late than never round-up is going to be a little more bare bones & listicle-esque than last year’s, since there isn’t much of a worthwhile story to tell about how I caught this year’s screenings. CC & I recorded a more fleshed out recap of our festival experience on Episode #17 of the podcast in case you’re interested in hearing about the weird goings-on at the NOFF headquarters of the Ace Hotel or the surreal experience of watching a grotesque body horror screened at the mostly empty Aquarium IMAX theater. This list is more of a simplistic ranking of the titles I managed to catch at this year’s festival than that kind of a review.

Here’s a ranking of every film I’ve seen that screened at the New Orleans Film Fest in 2016. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. I obviously did not have the opportunity to see everything that interested me at the festival (missing out on Manchester by the Sea, Contemporary Color, and Hara Kiri were particular disappointments). I also had to catch up with a couple titles after the fact, specifically Moonlight & Daughters of the Dust, due to scheduling conflicts. Again, there’s more context for these kinds of programming notes in our podcast episode on the festival. However, I do think it’s worth mentioning here that although (the strangely wonderful & sadly underrated) Girl Asleep was scheduled to screen at NOFF, it was pulled at the last minute and that, with the exception of White Girl, I enjoyed everything I managed to see to varying degrees, which made for an overall positive festival experience. Without further ado, here’s everything I watched at the 27th annual New Orleans Film Fest ranked & reviewed.

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1. Multiple Maniacs – “It’s impossible to divorce the context from the content in this case, because John Waters is such a highly specific stylist & works so closely with a steady cast of nontraditional ‘actors,’ but even if the director had never made another feature in his life I believe the world would still be talking about Multiple Maniacs all these decades later. Horror films this weird & this grotesquely fun are rarely left behind or forgotten and, given the devotion of Waters’s more dedicated fans, I’m honestly surprised it took this long for this one to get its proper due.”

2. Moonlight (winner of the NOFF Audience Award for Spotlight Film: Narrative) – “In Moonlight, Barry Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make a meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively.”

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3. The Handmaiden – “As a lesbian erotic thriller with meticulous dedication to craft & a Tarantino-esque celebration of crime & revenge narratives, the film plays like an unholy combination of the flashier aspects of Bound & The Duke of Burgundy, if you could believe such a thing was possible. It’s a gleefully tawdry art piece that takes great delight in its own narrative cleverness, but also constructs a strong enough visual foundation for its flashy storytelling style to shine instead of annoy. If The Handmaiden were a little uglier or if its bigger reveals were held until its final moments, its tonal balancing act might have crumbled disastrously. As is, it’s too fun & too beautiful to resist.”

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4. Are We Not Cats? – “For all its dirty Detroit soul & doom metal sound cues, colorful Quintron-esque musical contraptions, and horrific flashes of skincrawl gore, Are We Not Cats is a film ultimately about intimacy & mutual addiction. As memorable as its grotesque, psychedelic freak-outs can be, their impact is equaled if not bested by the tender melancholy of lines like ‘When was the last memory you have of not being truly alone?’ The details of the romance that ends that loneliness construct a body horror nightmare of open sores & swallowed hair, but still play as oddly sweet in a minor, intimate way that underlines the film’s viscerally memorable strengths & forgives a lot of its more overly-familiar narrative impulses.”

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5. Cheerleader – “Cheerleader is a surprisingly dark comedy that repurposes the subversive bubblegum pop of 90s teen movies for a quietly surreal fantasy piece. The film exists in a cartoon reality of its own outside time & logic and uses familiar teen comedy beats to establish a darkly surreal mood and a tender mode of complete emotional devastation. It’s subtly brilliant, quietly intricate, and deserves the mass attention of wide distribution, especially considering the way it evokes an era of currently bankable nostalgia by reimagining instead of merely mimicking.”

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6. Ovarian Psycos – “There’s a lesson to be learned in the way Ovarian Psycos broadcasts its profile of the titular feminist biking crew without pushing for disingenuous story beats. It may open itself to accusations of being narratively slight or thematically thin, but the truth is witnessing this group of women simply existing out there in the world is more than enough to justify the film’s existence. Anything more would be dishonest.”

7. Daughters of the Dust – “Julie Dash’s film is a sometimes impenetrable, but often beautiful evocation of a mood & a spirit. It may first appear from the outside to be a historical work about the Gullah people on the precipice of the modern world, but Daughters of the Dust strives to be something much grander & harder to pinpoint than that reductive description suggests and it’s near-impossible not to admire the film’s ambitions even when its individual moments aren’t wholly successful.”

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8. My First Kiss and the People Involved (winner of the NOFF Audience Award for Narrative Feature) – “My First Kiss and the People Involved traffics in the standard indie drama empathy inherent to small scale films about systemic mental health care. However, it also mirrors the helplessness & delusion of its disenfranchised subjects by veering into the unexpected territory of a psychological horror. At times, the film’s tense paranoia & dread of sudden violence plays like the silent horror classic A Page of Madness by way of a classic Hitchcock thriller, which is not at all the expectation or precedent it sets in its more tender, but familiar first act.”

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9. Check It– “Check It works best when it shows the kids chowing on fast food, discussing their Instagram aesthetics, and listening to artists like Cakes da Killa or Dominique Young Unique. It loses a little credibility in its celebratory air when it asks queer kids to change themselves to survive, especially since they had managed to survive on their own despite the overwhelming odds for long enough to make a name for themselves and attract this attention in the first place. If they ever find a way to inspire internal inspiration for change & progress within their own ranks they’ll be unstoppable. It’ll also make for a much less compromised documentary.”

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10. White Girl – “White Girl wants to indulge in the sex & drugs & rock n’ roll lifestyle for easy hedonism, condemn the audience for leering along with it, make a point about white women using POC neighborhoods as consequence-free playgrounds, and then use POC narratives as consequence-free playgrounds. In so many ways the film participates in the very same entitlement it aims to indict.”

-Brandon Ledet

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

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I’ve seen a few John Waters classics like Desperate Living & Pink Flamingos projected on the big screen before, usually with a midnight crowd, but I’ve only had two experiences watching his work for the very first time in a proper movie theater: 2004’s A Dirty Shame & the 2016 restoration of his 1970 forgotten gem Multiple Maniacs. Surely, there’s a bias factor that should be considered when reviewing a work from your favorite director/artist/human being after experiencing it for the first time large & loud with a receptive film fest crowd. My personal devotion to Waters aside, though, Multiple Maniacs is still an excellent slice of go-for-broke shlock cinema. A smaller, arguably nastier provocation than Pink Flamingos, it answers a question I’m not sure I ever would’ve dreamed to ask: what if John Waters made a horror film? It’s impossible to divorce the context from the content in this case, because Waters is such a highly specific stylist & works so closely with a steady cast of nontraditional “actors,” but even if the director had never made another feature in his life I believe the world would still be talking about Multiple Maniacs all these decades later. Horror films this weird & this grotesquely fun are rarely left behind or forgotten and, given the devotion of Waters’s more dedicated fans, I’m honestly surprised it took this long for this one to get its proper due.

I guess I should clarify up front exactly what I mean when I call Multiple Maniacs a horror film. Unlike the subversive horror comedy leanings of Serial Mom, this is horror in the way titles like Spider Baby & Mudhoney qualify. It’s a grimy uncovering of an outside-of-society crew of murderous weirdos, the kind of picture that eventually lead to more conventional slasher genre space carved out by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but didn’t quite have its own established tradition at the time of its release. Waters displays no shame in his getta-load-of-this-freakshow dynamic, opening his film with a literal freakshow: Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions. A carnival barker advertises “acts against God & Nature” to entice the audience & passersby inside the tent, all while feigning mock disgust. There’s gleeful puke-eaters, bicycle seat humpers, and actual real-life homosexuals (the horror!); but the real star of the show is Divine herself, Waters’s most infamous collaborator and, arguably, the greatest drag queen of all time. Divine’s freakshow act is simply her own fabulous being. She holds her audience at gunpoint, bullies all of her employees, and lounges nude in the mirror to give full reverence to her own beauty & divinity. Her turbulent romance with David Lochary’s carnival barker, with its cop-killing violent streak & dual indulgences in adultery, drives the isolated freakshow into the general public, where Multiple Maniacs turns into a legitimate monster movie. Not only does Divine herself transform into an inhuman monster with a formidable body count, the film also makes room for an appearance from a giant monster movie-style lobster just for the sake of it.

It’s tempting to believe that this early glimpse at John Waters’s regular crew of degenerate collaborators, The Dreamlanders, would mostly benefit the already-converted. Surely it’s exciting to see these weirdos in their artistic infancy. Edith Massey seems particularly fresh & unpolished in her natural habitat as a barkeep. It’s weird to know that David Lochary’s look as Raymond Marble in Pink Flamingos was something he exuded all the time. Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, and Divine are all playing prototypes of the characters who would later be cartoonishly exaggerated in other Dreamlander collaborations, with Divine’s monstrous transformation in particular being explained in-film with the line “Every minute she’s alive she’s getting worse & worse!” Waters even draws conscious attention to this “cavalcade of perversions” by naming the characters after their real life counterparts: David, Mink, Cookie, Edith, etc. There’s no doubt that longtime fans of the director’s work would get a kick out of this overlooked gem’s babyfaced cast that newcomers might not tend to care about in any particular way. However, the film does have a recognizable appeal as a genre film artifact even outside of that context and it’s a dynamic largely due to its nature as deliberately campy horror.

Seeing Waters’s “cavalcade of perversions” at work so early in his career is valuable both to fans & newcomers alike because it calls attention to the fact that The Dreamlanders were straight up punks in the era of hippies & suburban sprawl. The surf rock soundtrack, beat-up Cadillacs, crossdressing, and leopard print get-ups of Multiple Maniacs construct a rock & roll nightmare incongruous with its then-current counterculture of hippie niceness. This is a playfully mean movie, one crawling with cartoonish rape humor, gleeful violence, and the single most blasphemous use of a prayer rosary imaginable. It’s no wonder that in Divine’s final moments of mania she’s treated like a Godzilla-esque monster complete with fleeing crowds & an armed military response. The world wasn’t quite ready for her particular brand of perversion and her very existence reads on the screen as a criminal act, one amplified by the film’s microfilm-reminiscent opening credits scroll. That shock value even holds power today, somehow, as I’ve never attended a John Waters screening that didn’t inspire at least one walk-out. Even in a film festival environment there were three hurried walk-outs during Multiple Maniacs. I don’t know if that speaks more to Waters’s reputation as The Hairspray Guy, the aggressive specificity of his sense of humor, or his unique ability to push buttons, but it’s honestly kind of incredible that any film from 1970, before the grindhouse heights of drive-in grotesquery, can disgust people into fleeing in horror in 2016, especially one this unabashedly silly.

Waters is obviously an inexperienced filmmaker in Multiple Maniacs. He catches his players wildly out of focus, he wears his influences proudly on his sleeve (including a poster for Russ Meyer’s Vixen!), he relies heavily on details like nudity & (absurdly unrealistic) rape scenarios for easy shock value, etc. However, the film holds up surprisingly well as a proto-punk provocation, maybe even one with wider commercial appeal than the more consistently celebrated Pink Flamingos, due to its genre thrills as an eccentric horror comedy of sorts. I’ll likely have very few more chances to catch one of his films for the very first time in a public audience environment & this one did not disappoint in the slightest. In an ideal world all of Waters’s back catalog would get this careful restoration treatment.

-Brandon Ledet