The Film: 'Pink Flamingos' (1972), Dir. John Waters
Starring: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole and Danny Mills.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: The real reason? I haven't seen 'Pink Flamingos' because it sounds absolutely disgusting. Not in a high-minded moral way, mind you, but in a "this sounds like it may actually make me sick to my stomach and I'm not sure I'm up to that challenge" way. But that's the kind of answer that makes me sound like a wimp, so this paragraph is just a placeholder until I can think of a decent lie. Oops.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: Outside of its title and presence on every known list of "top cult movies," I know very little of John Waters' 'Pink Flamingos.' This is one of those strange cases of a film's infamy overpowering the film itself -- I'm fairly certain that a lot of people in my generation are familiar with the film's reputation but don't know anything about what goes on in the film itself. And that's if they have even heard of the film. If any filmmaker inhabited a very specific niche, it's Waters.
So, without further ado, here's what I do know about 'Pink Flamingos.'
Divine, easily the most horrifying of movie drag queens, plays a particularly disgusting individual concerned only with claiming the title of "filthiest person alive." Others decide to compete against her in a display of white trash bravado and faster than you can say "This is the plot of the movie?", all sorts of horrible business is occurring right before your very eyes, a ninety minute cinematic geek show that dares you to watch as things get increasingly revolting. I want to say this sounds like an early example of raunchy comedy, but "raunchy" feels like a word invented to describe man-children played by Jim Carrey slipping in poop in mediocre mid-90s comedies. Perhaps the word I'm looking for isn't raunchy, but rather "evil." 'Pink Flamingos' sounds like an evil comedy.
Truth be told, I haven't been this frightened of a movie in this column since 'Cannibal Holocaust.'
Being more familiar with Waters as an off-screen personality than as a filmmaker, I find it easy to imagine him making this movie just because he knows he'll get a kick out of watching an audience squirm. Will 'Pink Flamingos' work for me in the comfort of my home or is this something best served by a trip to your local independent cinema for a sold-out midnight screening packed full of people seeing the film for the hundredth time? Will it's reputation hold up or have the ravages of time dulled its fangs down to round nubs? Well, I suppose it's time to find out.
Post-Viewing Reaction: Whenever I gather screenshots for this column, I search through the film at hand and look for frames that sum up the film. Sometimes it's an iconic image, sometimes it's just a striking composition, but I take the process very seriously. It's important to me to find shots that will define the film for anyone reading.
That's not going to happen with 'Pink Flamingos' because every shot that gives you an actual glimpse into this film's pitch black heart does not belong on a website that caters to movie fans of all tastes and ages. So if you're a twelve year old movie lover who's disappointed that I can't share an image of a man performing on stage with a "singing" anus, feel free to add this movie to your Netflix queue so you can see it yourself. No one's stopping you. In the meantime, you can enjoy the handful of relatively clean images I managed to cull from the film. They're the only ones.
Yes, "Pink Flamingos" manages to live up to its borderline mythological hype quite nicely and I'll admit to having to stare at my feet on more than one occasion to avoid losing my dinner. Surely that's the point. You don't make a film that climaxes with your lead character eagerly devouring freshly, uh, released dog feces without harboring some secret hope of an audience made up of squares like me barfing into their popcorn. There had to have been some point in production when John Waters pulled his eye away from the camera, giggled and shook his head, flabbergasted that he was actually getting away with this.
Actually, you can quite clearly see how Waters got away with the film just by looking at the credits. He was practically a crew of one, writing, directing, editing, producing and acting as his own cinematographer. He shot on weekends and scrounged up the budget during the week. The resulting film looks as primitive as they come -- it's badly shot, cheap looking and the entire soundtrack is muffled, masking an dialogue that is pitched lower than a piercing scream (but enough of the characters shout all of their lines to make this only a minor issue). You can say what you want about the final product, but Waters is not making a single compromise to his vision. It may be rough around the edges (and through the middle and on the top and on the bottom), but it's his movie. It's as pure an undiluted artistic vision as they come.
With that out of the way, this is the point where I'm allowed to say that I didn't care much for 'Pink Flamingos' and really can't fathom putting myself through it again. With the entire cast simply competing to be "the filthiest person alive," no one finds time to be likeable or interesting, they only find time to have bizarre chicken-infused sex or operate rape dungeons to turn a profit on the infant black market. It's actually impressive just how despicable each and every character in this movie is and how completely irredeemable their actions are; there is never a single attempt to let us like these people. This thing is like the 'Salo' of comedies -- it's just too ruthlessly unpleasant to sit through more than once but once you've seen it, you will never un-see it.
Although other films have attempted similar shock comedy over the years, most don't have what 'Pink Flamingos' has: honest-to-god freaks. I use that term endearingly. These are not actors (and by that, I mean their acting is just simply not very good) and they are not in a glossy Hollywood production that would allow them to fake what they're doing. No, these are people that Waters dug up and showcased on film, a joyful middle finger to anyone with a shred of dignity. Because these people are obviously real (the obese mother looks uncomfortably happy and content sitting in her baby carriage) and because the film's crude production doesn't allow for most of this to be faked (and things that are faked, like a series of murders, are very poorly executed), we can't take comfort in thinking it's only a movie. "Pink Flamingos" is an anarchy-fueled gut punch to decency. You just have to admire the nerve on the display.
At the same time, the movie's campy storyline and community theater acting manage to undercut much of the film's nastiness, keeping it possible to watch. The film may lack things like a decent story, but Waters and his cast bring a nice sense of self awareness to the table. They know they're being disgusting and they're having a grand 'ol time doing it. The appeal of the film lies in tapping into the weird joy of everyone involved -- the script feels like it was written around a series of escalating dares involving what everyone would and wouldn't do.
When all is said and done, is there a point to "Pink Flamingos" outside of it being shocking just for the sake of it? There are twinges of slight social commentary (Divine's trailer trash, blue collar family does take on a sociopath, apartment-dwelling upper class couple, after all), but I think the truth is that Waters discovered a basic truth: people like watching really, really disgusting things. The Internet may offer a daily smorgasbord of depravity, but 'Pink Flamingos' did it first, nearly forty years ago. Just as there is not point for people to watch certain Internet videos that I won't describe here because I don't want to lose my job, there is no point in watching 'Pink Flamingos' other than being able to say you've seen it. To say anything more about the film would be to give it too much credit. I can't help but think that John Waters would agree with that.
Next Week's Column: Well folks, we're just about ready to wrap this particular line-up of films. Next week, I'll take on a triple feature of Clint Eastwood westerns ('High Plains Drifter,' 'Pale Rider' and 'The Outlaw Josey Wales', to be specific) and that'll leave only one remaining film for the following week -- Fredrico Fellini's classic 'La Dolce Vita.' Voting will return next week with a brand new batch of movies to choose from!
'Return to Oz'
'On the Waterfront'
'Sex, Lies and Videotape'
'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'
'The 39 Steps'
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'