Indie provocateur John Waters’ breakthrough movie, Pink Flamingos, is currently rated NC-17, and the text provided by the MPAA to justify the rating sums up the nature of the film: “For a wide range of perversions in explicit detail.” After directing two no-budget black-and-white features, Waters was ready to make a big noise with his first color feature, so he applied his signature cheerful insouciance to the task of creating the most disgusting characters ever filmed. Accordingly, Pink Flamingos depicts a war between two depraved criminals for the title of “Filthiest Person Alive.”
The star of the show is, of course, Waters’ singular muse, the 300-pound drag queen Divine, who plays a character named Divine—although the character often travels under the alias “Babs Johnson.” Living in a trailer with her odd family, which includes an adult son and daughter as well as Edie (Edith Massey), an overweight senior who sleeps in a crib and spends every waking hour eating eggs, Divine/Babs finds fulfillment by committing crimes and grotesque acts. For instance, she nearly runs over pedestrians while driving, and she urinates in public like an animal. Meanwhile, Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her husband, Raymond Marble (David Lochary), lead a similarly revolting lifestyle. They kidnap young women, hold the women hostage in their basement so the women can be impregnated by their servant, Crackers (Danny Mills), and then sell the resulting babies to lesbian couples—using the profits to bankroll their drug operation.
Even a partial list of taboo acts performed in Pink Flamingos is startling—especially when one considers that only some of the following behavior is simulated. Divine/Babs performs fellatio on her son. A flasher ties sausages to his penis before displaying himself to innocent bystanders. A party guest does a strange puppetry routine involving his sphincter muscle. Revelers kill police officers and eat the bodies. Two people have sex while mutilating chickens. And, in the most notorious scene of Waters’ filmography, Divine/Babs eats dog feces. (As Waters himself proclaims in the exuberant voiceover that precedes the dog scene, “This is a real thing!”)
Crudely made and deliberately tasteless, Pink Flamingos ventures so far past revulsion that it enters the realm of the surreal—and yet in a (very) strange way, it’s a rather sweet film. Waters’ affection for the weirdo characters (and the brazen performance-artist types portraying them) is contagious, and Waters has an unmistakable flair for comic irony. Scoring a montage of Divine/Babs doing foul things with ambiguously gendered rock star Little Richard’s classic tune “The Girl Can’t Help It” is droll, and it’s hard not to laugh at such stupidly funny lines as, “I guess there’s just two kinds of people, Miss Sandstone—my kind of people and assholes.”
Which, incidentally, encapsulates the whole perverse joie-de-vivre that drives Waters’ cinematic exploits. In the world of Waters’ movies, freaks are the cool people and straights are the ones who don’t get the joke. That’s a beautiful thought, even if Waters delivers it in Pink Flamingos via some of the ugliest imagery ever captured on film. In other words, if your tolerance for the repugnant is low, give Pink Flamingos a wide berth and content yourself with Waters’ later work, which explores similar thematic material in a less confrontational way. But if you’re eager to prove your mettle by enduring something truly nasty, rest assured Pink Flamingos goes about as far as any movie you’ll ever encounter. Word to the wise, though—don’t eat while you’re watching.
Pink Flamingos: FREAKY