Within the religious institution that is cinema-going in New York City, there is a single church that stands highest above all the other repertory theaters and art houses. No, it’s not the First Church of Film Forum Our Lord and Savior, or The Anthology Film Archives of Latter Day Saints. I’m speaking instead of that apex of aperture, that fortress of flicker, that stronghold of shutter speed that is The Film Society at Lincoln Center. Only here, and a very select few others, is there a practice followed by only the truest believers and the most faithful members: the hours-long wait in the standby line for a chance at witnessing that once-in-a-lifetime screening.
For me, as for countless others, this wait would be my most grueling test of faith. To see John Waters’ first two films—Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs—plus a short, “The Diane Linkletter Story,” all on 16mm prints never to be shown again, it was worth it.
In the case of this screening—the centerpiece of a complete Waters retrospective—the three-hour wait ended up being just as fascinating an experience as the films themselves. Okay, maybe not quite as fascinating, but when you’re competing with Waters-level smut, scandal and sleaze, plus his hilarious post-screening commentary, how could it be? The line was, if nothing else, a highlight in an evening of highlights, and one which I feel deserves some attention.
So it was directly after class on that delightful Thursday afternoon in September when I began the trek to Lincoln Center. Being about 4:00, and with the show starting at 7:00, I thought I would certainly be at the front of the line. How naïve are the newest initiates.
The following is a minute-by-minute account of the highlights. All times are approximate.
4:26pm: I show up at Lincoln Center in blithe spirits after a casual afternoon stroll from the subway station (I’m usually late, so this detail is especially important. I’ve never arrived at Lincoln Center not out of breath and sweating from a two-block sprint). There are two lines, one standing and one sitting. The standers look nice enough.
I look at the other line. Some are on lawn chairs, some just sitting on the ground. Their air of aggression makes me uncomfortable. “Street life,” I think, in the same condescending tone as the suburban WASPs held hostage at the ‘cavalcade of perversion’ in Multiple Maniacs. (Don’t worry, my just deserts are soon to come.) I stand in the other line.
4:53pm: Now the line is starting to move. This surprises me; I expected to be standing for a few more hours, and my legs were just starting to fall asleep. A number of people are let into the theater, and after a few more minutes of waiting, the manager arrives to tell us that there are no more seats for the 5:00 short films. It’s then that I realize what awaits me.
5:04pm: Moving to the other line, I now know what to do. “Fool me twice” I think. There is a girl in her twenties sitting at the end of the group, smoking a cigarette. I am intimidated by this, but soon swallow my uncertainty and ask her if this is the line for the 7:00 show. She looks me up and down, and then gives a nod. This intimidates me further. I sit down anyway.
5:11pm: After settling into the line, coming to terms with the fact that this is where I’ll be spending my next two hours, I see another girl arrive. I count my place in line (I’m #12). She sits in front of me, next to the other girl. Make that #13. They begin conversing in German. They know each other? One of them produces a small pouch of tobacco and begins to roll a couple cigarettes. It took me a minute to understand that this was indeed just tobacco.
5:21pm: They have burned through a few cigarettes by now; tensions must be high. The man next to the girls asks where they’re from and I can’t understand their answer. Neither can he, but he acts like he does. He attempts to explain to them who John Waters is. I wonder how they even found themselves here, and laugh at what’s in store for them. By now the guy is really trying hard with these girls, which I also laugh at. They roll a few more cigarettes.
5:27pm: I now notice that one of the German girls looks exactly like Bette Davis, especially as she takes another drag.
5:39pm: Bette has managed to compress her entire life story into twelve minutes. Her suitor acts like he understands. She takes another drag. I try to read a bit of The Iliad, but my attention is again taken by a lady who sits down a few folks ahead of me (now #14) next to someone she “knows.” She looks to be in her mid fifties. (We’ll soon find out that she is “23.”) She is clearly not sober. We are all uncomfortable.
5:55pm: Since she sat down, the lady has been talking nonstop, and I feel like a fool for listening. Looking behind me I now notice that the line has grown considerably. A few “long lost friends” have rediscovered each other at the front of the line. After a recount, I’m #16.
6:15pm: A disheveled man runs past the line and into the theater. We are perplexed. All but Bette, who takes another drag.
6:17pm: The man runs out of the theater holding a Time Out New York Magazine with John Waters on the cover. He side steps past us, gripping the magazine with both hands, holding it only inches from our noses.
“I got his autograph!” The man screams. “See! John Waters! JOHN WATERS!”
He laughs, spits, and laughs again. “Right there! He’s just sitting inside! He’s an old man!”
Bette leaves to investigate. I am now #15. She returns, her quest unsuccessful. #16 again.
6:23pm: The management, now realizing that the number of people outside their building may be a problem, finally arrives. They tell us that only a small number of people will get in, but that they’ll try their best to make it as many as possible. This upsets the drunk lady.
6:30pm: Yet another manager arrives. Now she can begin her attack.
“Excuse me! Hey!”
The manager turns around.
“Yeah you. I tried buyin’ tickets online! But they said I had to buy em in person!”
The manager is as perplexed as the rest of us, and attempts to explain that the show sold out very quickly. This is John Waters, after all, and his fans are clearly insane.
“Well I tried to order the tickets, and it said no. Now I don’t know why. Apparently you guys were selling tickets!”
The manager, trying his damnedest to keep it clean, tells the lady that he’s sorry and he’ll do his best to get us in. He exits. This does not appease the lady, who mumbles to herself everything we’ve been thinking.
“Fuckin’ bullshit. I tried to buy those tickets online and it said no! It’s just fuckin’ bullshit.”
Bette smokes to this.
6:40pm: Beside the rantings of the lady a few spots ahead of me, and the other folks who have found their way to the front of the line (I’ve stopped counting where I am), it’s been a rather uneventful ten minutes. The line must be appallingly long, as passers-by keep stopping and staring at us like we’re part of some sort of freak show. On second thought, looking us over, maybe it’s not the length of the line.
The manager arrives again, and the lady is ready for him.
“Hey come here!”
He walks over to her, saying nothing.
“Why am I waitin’ in line? I tried to buy tickets but it said no!”
The manager apologizes yet again.
“This is just shit. It’s fucked up.”
Now a younger lady has just joined the guy a few spots behind me. Without having the warm up time that the rest of us had, she is taken aback by this lady’s behavior.
“Oh my. Did she just curse? My goodness.”
I laugh to myself thinking of how she’ll react to the live chicken decapitation at the beginning of Mondo Trasho or the puke eater in Multiple Maniacs or whatever John Waters, the self proclaimed “pope of trash,” is going to say on stage.
Fortunately, her remarks go unheard by most. The more intoxicated lady continues with the likes of “Fuck these guys. I’m gonna do whatever the fuck I want.”
The young lady responds to these with a Victorian “oh my” or “did she just curse?”
This song and dance goes on for a few minutes until both have had their fill.
6:51pm: Bette, by now, has rolled more cigarettes than I can count.
The drunk lady a few people down notices this. She remembers that she needs some nicotine. “Kin I have one-a-thos?”
Bette doesn’t understand.
“Cigarette.” She mimics smoking.
Bette nods and rolls the lady a cigarette. She gives it to me, along with some matches, and without question I humbly deliver it to the lady.
In return the lady asks if she wants a shot of vodka.
Bette Davis just looks at her.
“Vodka,” the lady asks. “VOD-KA?”
Bette still has no clue what the lady is talking about.
The lady pulls out an old plastic water bottle, only half full. She unscrews the cap and stretching her arm over me, waves the open bottle under Bette’s nose for inspection. On account of the language barrier, she speaks like Tor Johnson. “Here. Drink. Vod-ka. Good.”
Bette finally grabs the bottle and takes a small sip. Realizing what it is, she takes a few more sips and hands it back to the lady, who takes a far more confident gulp.
She rolls another cigarette.
6:55pm: I notice two old Puerto Rican ladies that have been staring at us for a few minutes. After making eye contact with me, they begin to approach with caution. They ask what the line is for, and I attempt to explain that it is for John Waters, the guy who makes those wacky good-for-nothing picture shows they’ve been hearing about in all the scandal sheets. They ask who we are and I explain that we’re the wacky good-for-nothing fans. They leave.
6:58pm: The manager arrives to finally let a select number of us in.
He counts off each person as they enter. 1-2-3-4, the suspense is agonizing. As we’re moving towards the theater in single file, I turn around and wave like I just got the last spot on the boat to America (not realizing it’s the Titanic). 13-14-15 and…stop. He puts his hand right in front of me, now #1.
7:01pm: These few minutes of waiting are by far the most agonizing of the evening.
7:04pm: While I’m waiting to get into the theater, John Waters peers out from another door. With his signature pencil mustache and wild sport coat, white white shirt buttoned to the very top, he is immediately recognizable. I give him a nod of approval and, after first looking left and right first to make sure I’m nodding to him, he just gives a tight lipped, all understanding, sympathetic smile. He knows what his fans are like.
As if by John Waters’ own doing, the manager suddenly starts waving us in, counting off until he is beyond earshot. It is only minutes later that I am in that theater, about to partake in some of the biggest, sickest cinematic thrills of my life. What was so unique about this experience was the audience—more so, perhaps, than the films themselves. A highly reactive audience always improves a film, but never had I spent two hours before a movie getting to know the people I was about to watch it with. Regardless of how well I truly got to know those people, in that theater watching early John Waters films in their original 16mm form—okay, only partially: the print for “Mondo Trasho” was disappointingly deemed un-projectable, a testament to the importance of taking care of prints as rare as these—we all had a bonding experience quite unlike any other. With each laugh came a new confession and a new discovery. Seeing what some people laughed at and what others didn’t (the German girls didn’t laugh once, and left halfway through Mondo Trasho) I slowly began to know these people far better than I ever could have just by standing in line with them for a few hours. Sober or not, they were a revelation.
One of John Waters’ most well known “waterisms” goes something like: “Get more out of life. See a fucked up movie.” I would like to offer my own variation on the theme: “Get more out of life. Wait in line to see a fucked up movie.”