Dubbed as “An exercise in bad taste,” John Waters’ Pink Flamingos is just that but not just because it contains a litany of vulgarity – both sexual and scatological. For the most part it’s a terribly made film with poor editing, uncreative cinematography, and bad acting; it makes up for it with amazingly funny dialogue that’s still relevant almost 40 years after its initial release.
Here is the original trailer from the early ‘70s (this version, featuring John Waters’ introduction, originally appeared on the Criterion laserdisc). I feel this aptly sums up what’s so great about this immensely bizarre film.
I’m not sure I can elaborate sufficiently about Pink Flamingos’ cultural importance – I wasn’t even alive yet – but knowing a little about America and our puritanical hang-ups I can just imagine what this film represented in 1972. It was an age following the Cultural Revolution, nine years after the JFK assassination, and at the beginning of what I consider the best decade for American cinema. It’s the decade which both saw film come into its own and also become an even bigger commercial product with the introduction of Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars (which changed the relationship between studios and filmmakers and also enlarged the merchandising associated with movies). It gave us Lumet’s Network, Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and immensely profitable films like the before mentioned works by Hollywood’s most notorious filmmakers. The documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is rife with people claiming Spielberg and Lucas killed film’s creativity and although this is quite possible this decade also gave us films like Waters’ Pink Flamingos.
As part of the Enzian Theater’s Cult Classic series tonight featured Waters’ most notorious film. After viewing this over a decade ago and swearing I’d never see it again I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to witness it on a big screen. The print was fabulous and even featured Waters’ commentary and deleted scenes, from the 1997 re-release, after the feature. The audience tonight, like that in the trailer above, responded with laughter and gasps – the film still has the power to shock after so many years.
Even though I believe Pink Flamingos contains some quite shoddy filmmaking I can’t discount Waters’ excellently hilarious dialogue. Below are a few of my favorite lines from the film.
Divine: “Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!”
Sandy Sandstone: “Eat the bird bitch!” (In reference to giving the middle finger)
Divine: “Connie Marble, you stand convicted of assholeism!”
Cotton: “Murder merely relieves tension, Mr. Curzan. For murder to bring happiness, one must already be happy and I am- completely at peace with myself, totally happy.”
There are countless others but I can’t remember them all off the top of my head.
Moving on towards the characters and scenes in Pink Flamingos, there are moments featuring bestiality with chickens, a man running around with various meats tied to his penis and flashing unsuspecting women, Divine going down on her son Crackers (Danny Mills), and so much more. One of my favorite characters is Edie, played by Edith Massey – a woman obsessed with eggs who eats them disgustingly and also leaves the remnants all over her body. Edie is also in love with the “Egg Man,” who comes around to deliver eggs every day (eventually they get engaged). Edie sits in a playpen all day in her underwear and is either 300 pounds or going on it and is a terribly unattractive woman; she’s also an awful actress. However, Edie’s horrid performance is offset by Waters’ incredible dialogue and the film’s aesthetic which relies on trash and low budget grittiness for success. Amazingly, it works.
There are also moments featuring Divine placing a steak under her/his privates and walking around downtown Baltimore, a man servant named Channing (Channing Wilroy) masturbating and then placing his semen into a syringe to impregnate a hitchhiker kept captive in a basement dungeon, and more. The most notorious moment in the film comes at its conclusion, when Divine goes up behind a dog and eats its feces. It’s disgusting but hilarious at the same time; watching Divine smiling in-between gagging over the dropping rolling around in her mouth is difficult but funny. It’s really the kind of movie which requires a strong constitution and an openness only some have. Even I have difficulty with scenes like this.
This film promotes bestiality, homosexuality, transgenderism, transvestites, cannibalism, murder, indecent exposure, eating dog shit, exhibitionism, kidnapping, slavery, rape, extortion, and so much more. Of course it’s all done in good fun and actually condoning any of these activities (or at least the ones which harm others) is done in jest. Waters states at the end of the print I saw that some people actually believed Divine was wanted by the police and the film was authentic. Maybe it’s the low budget aesthetics; maybe it’s that they’re stupid – who knows? I just can’t understand why anybody would believe the events in Pink Flamingos could possibly be real: the acting is so terrible and only works within the film’s context. It doesn’t demonstrate any form of reality whatsoever.
I have no idea why I love Pink Flamingos. Maybe it’s like finishing a great but difficult novel like Joyce’s Ulysses: you feel accomplished for enduring it and like you’ve gained something from the experience. Even though Pink Flamingos is less than 90 minutes it can feel long at times and this is because Waters’ scenes don’t move quickly (possibly because of a dismally small budget and long takes) but it’s probably more because of the absurdity and vulgarity. If you can endure something of this sort – a film where everybody’s vying to be the world’s filthiest person – it’s possible you’ll love Pink Flamingos. I did.