Our review of Very Crudely Yours: The John Waters Collection, published August 22nd, 2005, is also available.
"Life affirming characters, that's my specialty."—John Waters
An attack on the American family. An attack on taste. John Waters, always amused by audience reactions to the spectacle, calls it "an exploitation film for art theaters." Roger Ebert, apparently nervous about a film that crosses so many lines, says it "should be considered not as a film but as a fact, or perhaps as an object." But does it live up to its legend?
Facts of the Case
This is the story, narrated by the sensational Mr. Drag (the voice of John Waters) of Divine (played by Divine, blurring the line between fiction and documentary), the filthiest person alive. Under the all-American alias of Babs Johnson, she lives in a trailer with her son Crackers (Danny Mills), her retarded, egg-obsessed mother Edie (Edith Massey) and her "companion" Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce). But her tabloid notoriety does not sit well with Raymond and Connie Marble (David Lochary and Mink Stole), who want fame for their drug-running, baby-selling, porn-fueled empire.
In the war over the title of "filthiest person alive," are any of us safe?
I like John Waters. Yes, I get grossed out by Pink Flamingos, just like you do. How can you not, watching that notorious final scene, where Divine gleefully downs a mouthful of doggie doo? Yuck. But I also find his movies very funny. I suppose the question really comes down to how you characterize the question of "filth."
"Filth" in Pink Flamingos, for all the disgusting imagery, is really a code word for rebellion against conformity. Is power achieved through total commitment to a code of behavior or individual will? As the Nixon era reached its peak, America was divided into two families. The first and larger was the American middle-class, the suburban world of tract housing (and pink flamingos) and bland conformity. The second was the counterculture, the "hippie" movement, which opposed conformity—but replaced suburban idealism with a new conformity that required its members to play at individualism while slavishly listening to the same music and spouting the same slogans. This second family showed its darker side the same month as the famous Woodstock concert, with the attack of the Manson Family. The Manson Family v. the American Family. Like a backwoods clan feud, this opposition defined the social climate of our national territory. And those who refuse to conform to either side become invisible, like the narrator who gleefully details the war between Divine and the Marbles.
The family of capitalist America: a photo of Nixon in the post office reminds us of the Vietnam War, and the apocalypse brewing just outside (Edie fears all the chickens might run out). The Marbles are fascism itself, reducing pleasure to a commodity and embracing the mundane (in one cut scene, Divine takes one look at the Marble home and screams in horror, "Central heating! How repellant!"). Class politics, the divide in Nixon's America between the mainstream and the counterculture, becomes a war over who defines propriety, who can control "filthiness." Pink Flamingos is the ultimate tale of suburban competition, of "keeping up with the Joneses," the game all good American families of the '60s were expected to play. But the Marbles work too hard at it. For Divine and family, filthiness comes naturally. There is joy in their transgression. Divine marches past graffiti that announces "Free Tex Watson" (one of the Manson clan), drawing a parallel between these two visions of America. Both are monstrous and destructive. But only one of them still seems to offer some sense of fun. In her final press conference before executing her competition, Divine announces that she will one day be queen, and we are left to wonder: who would you rather be ruled by, the fascists or the anarchists? Oh well, at least the anarchists do not seem to be quite so uptight.
Influenced by Warhol, absurdist theater (and lots of Genet), and radical politics, John Waters set out to commit a "comedy crime" with Pink Flamingos and assault our traditions of family—all types of families and their attempts conformity. The "family" of gay culture: Divine as a drag queen "to scare other drag queens" (as Waters notes on his commentary track), mocking the restrictive codes of taste within gay culture. Reproductive politics: the Marbles imprison kidnapped women, allow their butler Channing (Channing Wilroy) to impregnate them, and sell the babies to lesbian couples—trashing all concepts of heterosexual monogamy. Edie lives in a baby crib and consumes eggs, her role as mother inverted completely as she destroys all reproductive potential. Of course, the Manson Family gets singled out for particular attention, as the film is dedicated to the women who participated in Manson's assault on America (which included murdering a pregnant women—how much more anti-family is that?). Thus, Divine's family may pose as heroes, but their joy is the pure freedom of a post-apocalyptic world.
All of this makes Pink Flamingos sound grim and dark, but it is anything but that. It is terribly, perhaps terrifyingly, joyous. How can you not laugh at the sequence where Divine and Crackers break into the Marbles' house and lick all the furniture, causing it to reject its owners? How can you not laugh as the Egg Man (Paul Swift) struggles to wheel his massive bride Edie up the hill? How can you not laugh at the scene where the perverted Raymond Marble, who flashes women with meat tied to his penis, is flashed back by a pre-op transsexual?
Well, I think it is funny. As Waters himself remarks, "It is obscene, but in a very joyous way." As usual for the films in the John Waters Collection, Waters provides a witty and breezy commentary track for Pink Flamingos, telling great anecdotes throughout. It is particularly amusing here to listen to him stumble scenes like Channing's bizarre artificial insemination plan or the chicken-snuffing sequence and admit that even he is a little horrified at parts of this movie. He is more than happy to point out all its flaws (from the shoddy camera work to the cheap sets), and seems to enjoy the film all the more for its youthful rebelliousness, a real product of the 1960s.
This restored copy of the film (created for its 25th anniversary in 1997) includes a dozen cut scenes hosted by Waters (plus a commentary track in which he laughs at his own hosting). The segment runs immediately after the end of the feature, but can also be accessed from the menu. Waters also introduces New Line's original 1972 trailer for the film, which features critic quotes, audience interviews, and lots of cheering and laughter—but no actual footage from the movie! Overall, the restored print keeps the scratchy, home-made feel of the movie, while cleaning up the dirt and fading. The soundtrack is offered in its original mono, or a 5.1 remix, but given the production values, there is not a whole lot of difference between them, except with the music tracks playing over long stretches of silent footage—check out the looks from the Baltimore locals as Divine saunters down the street.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Cannibalism. Bestiality. Homosexuality. Transvestitism. Transsexualism. Incest. Sado-Masochism. Coprophilia. Shrimping. If Pink Flamingos suffers from a major flaw, then it is in its attempt to be an encyclopedia of perversion, both silly and serious. The litany of filth often becomes stagy: how far can we go next? And much of it is pretty hard-core for a non-erotic film. Plot is merely a crutch for the next garish spectacle. Nowhere is this more obvious than the notorious "doggie doo" scene, which is tacked on at the end of the film for effect, to break the divide between Divine-the-character and Divine-the-actor. Perhaps Roger Ebert is right: this film is more spectacle than cinema. It overruns genre and narrative and seeps into our cultural mythology. And it still does so with a wry smile.
I have seen this film described as nihilistic, but it is most certainly not. It is inclusive. In Nietzschean fashion, Waters makes it clear that once you destroy all possible taboos, all possible "no's," you have left is an infinite "yes." In a way, Pink Flamingos is a necessary film for John Waters' career, the catalog of horror and political statement (Divine's press conference at the climax in which she announces "Filth is my life!") that must be made in order for Waters to make Female Trouble, his first fully-realized satire. Just as Sade had to write the terrifying 120 Days of Sodom before he could write the terrifically funny Justine. Pink Flamingos is deliberately anti-erotic: a distanced and satirical attack that removes sexual desire in favor of laughter. And nothing is more politically rebellious than laughing at your enemies and at yourself. Then all the barriers fall.
Packaged at a reasonable price with the sharp Female Trouble, John Waters fans (or anybody who relishes films that push the envelope of propriety without being mean-spirited) will want to add this film to their collection. Although I have some criticisms of the print quality on Female Trouble (see that review for more details), I must say that New Line has done a great job with this edition of Waters' most notorious film.
As Waters has already plead guilty to committing a "comedy crime," this court recommends that he be released with time served. The jury is polled to see if anyone needs psychological counseling after screening this film. Everyone else is free to go. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary Track with John Waters
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