If Female Trouble (1975) is John Waters‘ greatest narrative film, then Desperate Living (1977) is his inimitable descent into a surreal, kitsch abyss that few could imagine. Desperate Living is Waters’ personal, alternative universe to the parallel world of Busby Berkeley. Seen today, Berkeley’s films are a surreal wet dream, a perverse man’s big budget fairy tales. Waters filmed his perverse anti-fairy tale on a meager budget three years after Female Troubles, although he had substantially more money here than on his previous films. Budget or no, Desperate Living is just as grandiose and epic as anything Berkeley ever produced.
Several years ago I came across a review of John Waters Pink Flamingos (1972) in which the reviewer made the tiresome claim that it wasn’t even a “real” movie (while reviewing it in a ‘movie’ review column). Such is the power of John Waters to provoke.
Waters admirers seem to be divided into two camps; pre-and post Hairspray (1988 ), although it really was Polyester (1981) that ushered in the new “Waters with a budget.” Waters certainly lost two inimitable “stars” in Divine and Edith Massey. While he has never lost his edge, and A Dirty Shame(2005) is a good example of that, Waters post-Polyester films are not mired as steeply in that idiosyncratic Waters’ universe.
Shot on a two thousand dollar budget (Pink Flamingos came in at $5,000 and Polyester, $200,000), Multiple Maniacs opens with the camera panning down credits typed out on white paper.