“‘Demonstration as theater,’ because then you got the headlines, and then you made your point. And there was a lot of competition for those headlines then [the 1960s]. So, it was theater as protest, certainly, which is something that, until the Seattle riots recently, kids don’t even know about… They know ‘I have a dream,’ they know Martin Luther King, they know Malcolm X, but they don’t know all that weird stuff… this is like a radical movement against cinema, which there hasn’t ever been one, but [laughs]…”–John Waters, Pink Flamingos commentary
DIRECTED BY: John Waters
PLOT: Divine, winner of a contest to determine the “filthiest person in the world,” has gone into hiding at a trailer park with her egg-obsessed mother, randy son Crackers, and “traveling companion” Cotton. The Marbles, a couple who make a living by kidnapping women, impregnating them, then selling the babies to lesbian couples for adoption, are jealous of Divine’s title, believing they are filthier specimens of humanity. An escalating war of outrageously foul pranks between the two camps eventually results in arson, murder, and consumption of doggie-doo.
- According to John Waters, neither his own parents (who financed Pink Flamingos), nor Divine’s mother, ever saw the movie; in fact, they were “forbidden” to see it.
- The film’s budget was $12,000 (about $68,000 in 2014 dollars). It made a reported $6,000,000 in its original run and perhaps an additional $12,000,000 in subsequent video rentals.
- The movie is dedicated to Sadie, Katie and Les, the Manson Family names of Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie Van Houten. During the film you can also see graffiti (painted by the crew) reading “free Tex Watson.” Waters says that the Manson Family and their recent trials were a big influence in this “anti-hippie movie for hippies.”
- The chicken that was killed during the sex scene between Crackers and Cookie had been bought from a man who was selling them as food, and was cooked and served to the cast afterwards.
- Waters wrote a sequel to Pink Flamingos called Flamingos Forever; plans to film it were scrapped due to the reluctance of Divine to reprise the role in middle age and the 1984 death of Edith Massey.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh my. There is a phrase that was coined for images like those in Pink Flamingos: “what has been seen cannot be unseen.” A naked woman covered in fresh chicken blood, a rectal closeup of a curious proctological case study, and of course the film’s grand finale (and reason to exist)—300 pound transvestite Divine using her gullet as a pooper scooper, gagging down dog dirt with a grin—are all candidates. If we want to chose something less nauseating to remember, we can consider the vision of Divine herself (himself? itself?) as the takeaway image, since this is the movie that introduced the iconic drag queen—a character who looks like Elizabeth Taylor during the “Big Mac” years, if her makeup had been designed by a grateful but seriously stoned Ronald McDonald—to the wider world.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: About a 300 pound woman (played by a man) living in a trailer who is harassed by a couple of “jealous perverts” because she is anointed “the filthiest person in the world,” Pink Flamingos is a parade of hard-to-swallow, tongue-in-cheek perversities played out in an unreal subculture where society’s values have been turned on their head. It’s the ultimate stoned, amoral underground atrocity, an obscenity shouted at the normal world by angry freaks.
Clip from Pink Flamingos
COMMENTS: If you’re not offended by something in Pink Flamingos, then please go see a psychiatrist. The movie’s reason to exist is to shock and offend human decency; to fail to be offended is to admit you have none. That doesn’t mean you can’t also laugh while being shocked, because John Waters’ movie is indeed witty: he has an ear for ridiculous dialogue that can be both outrageously profane and absurdly formal (“oh my God almighty,” says Divine, upon opening a surprise package, “someone has sent me a bowel movement!”) But I suspect Waters himself would want to avoid the kind of person who finds nothing in Pink Flamingos to be disgusted by. If dookie-munching murderess Babs Johnson or the toe-sucking white slaver Marbles are your role models, seek professional assistance immediately.
Pink Flamingos posits “filthiness” as a state to aspire to, with all of the connotations the word carries: physically dirty, sexually obscene, and morally wrong. The film is dirty, nauseatingly so, especially due to its focus on scatology: the turd in a box, the guy with the prolapsed rectum, and Divine’s famous “that’s not chocolate” snack. Edith Massey even gets dirty by scarfing fried eggs with her bare hands. If you’re looking for filthy sexual perversion, this movie has it all. It manages to make sex look pretty unappetizing, with flashing (enhanced by the sausages attached to David Locary’s member), rape, she-males, artificial insemination, and ridiculous episodes of “shrimping” (toe-sucking). There’s even brief, awkward incestuous fellatio between Divine and her son Crackers. But the movie wasn’t content to stop there: taboos against bodily functions and kinky sex could be broken in a lighthearted way, but to truly shock and offend you need cruelty and sadism. So, almost all of the main characters in the film have a mean streak that comes across in their everyday behavior. Connie Marbles humiliates a job seeker, and, when she and Raymond pick up a hitchhiker, they’re not just content to kidnap her for their sex dungeon, but they must immediately be rude (Mr. Marble’s response to the hitchhiker asking him where he got such a nice car is a sneering “at a car dealership, where do you think?”) Divine gets her jollies on her way to a shoplifting trip in town by teasing another hitchhiker, pretending that she’s about to pick him up, then speeding off when he approaches her. These “filthy” people are simply hateful out of habit, nasty by nature, and it’s no surprise when they castrate servants or stage executions for the press.
The filthiest act in the movie is not Divine’s coprophagia, although that is without question the film’s most nauseating moment. No, the filthiest, most depraved act is the chicken sex scene. Crackers is raping Cookie (who, unbeknownst to him, is a spy for the Marbles), and demands she grabs a chicken and hold it between their thrusting bodies. As they simulate bumping uglies, he snaps the chicken’s neck and rubs the blood all over her nude body, while Cotton watches them through a window (presumably masturbating). Waters, who for some reason doesn’t like chickens (he also killed them in his earlier feature Mondo Trasho) has held fast and not apologized for the scene, even though he admits to regretting some of the other elements of the film, such as dedicating the movie to the Manson girls. In his 25th anniversary comments, Waters said, “I eat chicken, and I know the chicken didn’t land on my plate from a heart attack. We bought the chicken from a farmer who advertised ‘freshly killed chicken.’ I think we made the chicken’s life better… it got to be in a movie… and then right after the next take, the cast ate the chicken.”
The argument is disingenuous, a feeble justification. No one but the most radicalized PETA-ite objects to the killing of a chicken. What we object to is John Waters killing a chicken for entertainment purposes (and mainly, his own entertainment, not ours). This is not a case where an animal was killed incidentally, like in an old Western movie where a horse was purposefully tripped in order to simulate being shot. This is intentional; the point of the scene is to spill a chicken’s blood, and to deliberately mix it with rape imagery in order to push the audience’s moral buttons. The scene could have been simulated with the same effect; like a snuff film, however, it gets its frisson from the fact that it’s real. The chicken assassination exposes Pink Flamingos‘ agenda: not only does the movie have nothing greater or more ambitious on its mind than the desire to shock the viewer, it has no ethical qualms about using whatever means necessary to outrage us. You think that, if Waters believed he could have gotten away with using a kitten instead of a chicken, he just might have (“we got it from the shelter, it was going to be put to sleep anyway…”) The chicken scene is the point that Pink Flamingos crosses the line from being a black comedy about sociopaths to actually being sociopathic itself. Something about Flamingos takes me back to the schoolyard playground, with Divine playing the part of the unpopular fatso who would eat bugs for the brief spasm of attention, and Waters as the weird kid who amused himself by pulling the wings off of flies.
And, to borrow a title from a future Waters affront, it’s a dirty shame, because Pink Flamingos real-life crimes cast a foul stench over a film that is often clever and inventively bizarre. The parade of shocks and surprises never lets up or slacks for a moment, and you really never can predict what is waiting round the next plot bend. Waters’ dialogue has a purplish poetic perversity to it: one of the more printable examples is Raymond’s declaration of love for Connie, delivered in between sucks on her toes: “I am yours, Connie, eternally united through an invisible core of finely woven filth, that even God himself could never ever break!” Waters throws bizarre details into Pink Flamingos consistently skewed world: Connie Marble’s hair is dyed flaming orange, while hubby Raymond’s do is slushie blue. In 1972 such novelty hair coloring was unheard of outside the circus, but what sets the Marbles apart is that they’ve colored their pubes to match. In the film’s one genuinely surreal touch, the flapping furniture tosses Connie Marble off of it when she tries to sit down, a lingering effect of Divine and Crackers’ curse when she licked the couch cushions. Edith Massey’s character—a feebleminded granny who lives in a crib and is obsessed with everything about eggs—is a brilliant creation, simultaneously comic and nightmarish. The overwrought, campy acting and deliberately atrocious camerawork (dialogue scenes often feature amateurish zooming and refocusing on the various speakers), elements appropriated from exploitation movies, add to a unique atmosphere that wobbles between comedy and repugnance.
A word on the “Beware” rating here. “Beware” doesn’t mean the movie is objectively bad or boring. In this case, it means that this is a movie you may want to consider skipping—and if you do decide to watch it, gird your loins. Although Pink Flamingos has morally reprehensible moments, it’s definitely a weird movie, and one that, like Divine, is too big and flamboyant to ignore. In fact, if you have to watch one shock-for-the-sake-of-shock film, content aside, this is the one to pick. It’s one of a very tiny number of films in its filthy genre that is actually funny and shows a creative vision. As Waters himself points out, “it’s easy to be shocking, even unintentionally, but it’s difficult to be witty and shocking.“
Although he’d probably never admit it, I think that Waters realized that with Pink Flamingos he had crossed a line of bad taste that appalled even him, or at least reached the outer limits of what he was willing to try. Trashy and nihilistic as they were, his later movies never lapsed into the documentary-style geek show behavior seen here. And they were better—if less notorious—movies for showing just that little bit of restraint. It’s amusing to realize that a movie like Female Trouble, which includes a scene of Divine raping herself, then biting off the umbilical cord when she gives birth, represents Waters exercising cinematic restraint. But at least in his post-Flamingo films, no one had to gargle with mouthwash and brush their teeth immediately when the cameras stopped rolling, and no real livestock were used in the sex scenes. Despite losing their chance at cinematic immortality, I think chickens everywhere would breathe a sigh of relief at that news.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“If the events in this film were only simulated, it would merely be depraved and disgusting. But since they are actually performed by real people, the film gains a weird kind of documentary stature. There is a temptation to praise the film, however grudgingly, just to show you have a strong enough stomach to take it. It is a temptation I can resist.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (1997 re-release)
IMDB LINK: Pink Flamingos (1972)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Pink Flamingos | Trailers from Hell – Mark Helfrich discusses the film over New Line’s original trailer for Pink Flamingos (which did not include any footage from the movie, only testimonials from audience members)
Dreamland News: Filmography: Pink Flamingos – Sadly, due to broken links, there is little left here aside from this fansite operator’s synopsis/review of the movie
Glenn Milstead – the Man Behind the Makeup – An interview with Divine by Huw Collingbourne, conducted in the 1980s and reconstructed from the interviewer’s notes (the original has somehow been lost)
Pink Flamingos and Other Filth: Three Screenplays by John Waters – Waters’ screenplays to Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and the unproduced sequel Flamingos Forever
DVD INFO: New Line’s 25th Anniversary Edition of Pink Flamingos (buy) includes 15 minutes of extra footage, as introduced and narrated by John Waters. This is the version of the film that played theaters in the 1997 re-release. The disc also includes a very informative and entertaining commentary by Waters, whose genial, almost avuncular style of conversation is always a contrast to the filth onscreen. The disc also includes New Line’s original trailer that promoted the movie as a midnight event film without ever hinting at what it was about.
The disc can also be had (with the same extra features) as part of the eight-disc set entitled “Very Crudely Yours, John Waters” (buy), which includes most of Waters’ major films: Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester, Hairspray, Pecker, and A Dirty Shame. If you only want to feel a little filthy and that set’s too much of a commitment, you can pick up “The John Waters Collection #3” (buy), which pairs Flamingos with Female Trouble for a sicko double feature that will leave you needing to take two showers.
(This movie was nominated for review by many readers, but the first one to make it her top priority was annie, who anointed it “weird straight through.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)