Pink Flamingos

Pink Flamingos
Director: John Waters
Screenplay: John Waters
Stars: Divine (Divine / Babs Johnson), David Lochary (Raymond Marble), Mary Vivian Pearce (Cotton), Mink Stole (Connie Marble), Danny Mills (Crackers), Edith Massey (Miss Edie), Channing Wilroy (Channing), Cookie Mueller (Cookie), Paul Swift (The Egg Man)
MPAA Rating: NC-17
Year of Release: 1972
Country: USA

Female Trouble
Director: John Waters
Screenplay: John Waters
Stars: Divine (Dawn Davenport / Earl), David Lochary (Donald Dasher), Mary Vivian Pearce (Donna Dasher), Edith Massey (Aunt Ida Nelson), Mink Stole (Taffy Davenport), George Figgs (Dribbles), Roland Hertz (Mr. Davenport), George Hulse (Mr. Weinberger), Marina Melin (Shirl), Cookie Mueller (Concetta), Ed Peranio (Wink), Michael Potter (Gator)
MPAA Rating: NC-17
Year of Release: 1975
Country: USA
John Waters Volume 3 DVD Cover

What makes the early trash cinema of John Waters so unique is the breadth of his influences and how those influences found their way into his manic, often repulsive low-budget midnight flicks. Cinematically, he was influenced by surrealists such as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, experimental filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol, and the horror schlock of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Politically, he was inspired by radicals and terrorists such as the Weathermen and Abby Hoffman, which fueled his disgust for peace-loving hippies and the bourgeoisie. Waters professed an obsession with car wrecks and the Charles Manson family, and he packaged his raunchy antics with the flair and creativity of P.T. Barnum at his ballyhoo best. Waters was punk before there was such a thing, and the undeniable power of his radical movies in the early 1970s persists in their continuing ability to shock, outrage, disgust, and delight—often all at once.

Waters' supreme achievement was 1972's Pink Flamingos, a deranged home movie that took the midnight circuit by storm with its trashy excess, low-brow aesthetic, and raunchy delight in whatever perversions Waters could dream up. Pink Flamingos is the nadir of its genre, and, as Waters has said numerous times, it is the movie he has had to compete with for the last three decades.

As with all of his earliest movies, Waters filmed Pink Flamingos with his group of friends and close associates who called themselves the Dreamlanders after Dreamland Studios, the small Baltimore production company Waters founded in his bedroom in the late '60s. This group included the 300-pound transvestite Divine (a.k.a., Glenn Milstead), Mary Vivian Pearce, David Lochary, Cookie Mueller, and Mink Stole (all actors), Vincent Peranio (production designer), and Pat Moran (casting director).

Waters always described the group as an "extended family" and often compared it to the Charles Manson clan. The Manson connection was especially meaningful to Waters, and Mason-related themes and props show up repeatedly in his work (he even dedicated Pink Flamingos to "Sadie, Katie, and Les," three members of the Manson family). Manson was like a deranged muse to Waters, who has noted the influence openly and proudly: "We wanted to do the same thing as the Manson family," he once said. "We wanted to scare the world."

And scare the world he did with Pink Flamingos—at least certain parts of the world. Flamingos did shock and outrage, but it also found a loyal audience who shared in Waters' manic sensibilities and warped sense of humor, turning it into one of the most successful movies to play the midnight circuit throughout the 1970s.

Pink Flamingos is the epitome of the John Waters gross-out film, a self-proclaimed "exercise in poor taste" that was calculated to do nothing more than smash taboos and transgress social boundaries. The film includes graphic scenes of incest, cannibalism, rape, bestiality, murder, transexuality, castration, and, of course, the infamous final sequence that shows in one, unedited shot, Divine picking up a freshly dropped dog turd, sticking it in her mouth, and, as described in the screenplay, "giving a s--t-eating grin to the camera and the audience." This final scene was so shocking and nausea-inducing that one writer noted that "one is aware that a limit hasn't so much been reached or passed, but totally ignored."

The simplicity of the story is testament to Waters' gross-out goals. Divine stars as Babs Johnson, the matriarch of a trailer-dwelling family-gang that relishes its tabloid label of "filthiest people alive." Thus infuriates Raymond and Connie Marble (David Lochary and Mink Stole), who feel that their business of kidnapping and impregnating women in order to sell the babies to lesbian couples and their involvement in fronting money to a chain of heroin pushers in the inner-city elementary schools qualifies them for the title. Thus, the movie engages in a constantly escalating battle of one-upmanship, as the two families vie for the coveted title.

Part of the effectiveness of Pink Flamingos is due to its clunky, home-movie quality. One critic aptly described it as having "the grainy look of a pornographic home-movie." Shot in rough 16mm and edited by Waters himself, much of the film is painfully amateurish: Waters relies heavily on the zoom lens for no real purpose, the sound is often muddled, and many of the edits are clumsy and call too much attention to themselves. But, this is primarily what gives the film the quality of actuality. Like avant-garde films of the '60s, Pink Flamingos relies on its cheap look to separate it from the formula-like Hollywood product. Although Pink Flamingos, at a budget of $12,000, represented a quantum leap over Waters' previous feature-length black-and-white efforts, 1969's Mondo Trasho (which had no sync sound) and 1971's Multiple Maniacs, it is still far from "costly" in its aesthetics.

The home-movie quality of Pink Flamingos enhances the grossest aspects of the film because it gives the viewer the impression that little was done to fictionalize the activity on-screen. This is also enhanced by Waters’ satirical use of hard-core pornography in one scene and his reliance on performers with no shame about flaunting their odd behaviors. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film on its 25th anniversary: "Pink Flamingos was filmed with genuine geeks, and that is the appeal of the film, to those who find it appealing. What seems to happen in the movie really does happen. That is its redeeming quality, you might say. If the events in this film were only simulated, it would merely be depraved and disgusting. "

With this emphasis on actual physicality, it is easy for a viewer to come away from Pink Flamingos with the idea that the manner in which Divine's trailer-park clan lives in the film is the same way the filmmakers themselves lived in reality. Richard Corliss noted that, "The film was so raw and assaultive in its mondo-trasho fashion—a prime example of cinéma sploshité—that it made viewers feel it was made by those crude people onscreen." The effect has been so powerful that Waters has spent the last 30 years trying to convince people otherwise. "I don’t live like my movies," he said in an interview in 1988. "None of my people do. We'd all be in mental institutions."

Waters was, of course, faced with quite a challenge in following up Pink Flamingos. Digging deeper into his fascination with criminality, he devised the twisted Female Trouble in 1975, which plays on the idea that "crime is beauty." Of course, in a John Waters movie, "beauty" usually implies something freakish and grotesque, which is exactly what he delivers.

Divine stars as Dawn Davenport, a juvenile delinquent in 1960 whose life is set on a collision course with criminal media stardom when she runs away from home after her parents refuse to buy her the pair of cha-cha heels she wanted for Christmas. Her life then becomes a strange odyssey from obscurity to notorious stardom as she morphs into a deranged, murderous performance artist who finds her greatest moment is when she is strapped into an electric chair after being handed a death sentence for murder. Most of the Dreamland cast members appear in various roles, including David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce as the fascistic owners of a beauty salon who brainwash Dawn to suit their "crime is beauty" theory, Mink Stole as Dawn's bratty daughter who becomes a Hare Krishna, and Edith Massey as Dawn's next-door neighbor who, in an amusing social twist, is terribly distraught over the fact that her son isn't gay.

Female Trouble is every bit as outrageous as Pink Flamingos, even if it is a bit more heavy-handed in trotting out its themes linking crime and high fashion. It does show that Waters was beginning to mature (if that's the right word) in his filmmaking, consciously linking his absurd imagery to tangible themes, rather than a general urge to offend everyone. The movie can be best seen as an early stab at satirizing the media and the overwhelming hype that is lavished on high-profile criminals, a theme to which Waters would later return in Serial Mom (1994). His filmmaking style had not changed much in the three years since he made Pink Flamingos, as Female Trouble continues the low-brow aesthetic of clumsy framing and an awkward use of zooms and pans, although technical advances allowed for better sound and smoother edits.

Waters would only make one more underground movie, 1977's Desperate Living, before slowly making his way into the Hollywood mainstream with his first studio effort, 1980's Polyester. Viewing his earlier work in light of what he has done in the last decade, it's tempting to say that Waters had "sold out" or "lost his edge." In recent years, he has tried to reclaim some of his manic roots with films like Cecil B. DeMented (2000), but as Waters himself admits, he has simply mellowed with age. Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, on the other hand, have not, and they will always remain some of the most incendiary and hilarious trash ever committed to celluloid.

John Waters Collection Volume Three: Pink Flamingos / Female Trouble

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 (both films)
AnamorphicYes (both films)
AudioDolby Digital 1.0 monaural (both films)
Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo (both films)
SupplementsPink Flamingos
Audio commentary by writer/director John Waters
12 deleted scenes with Waters' introduction
Original theatrical trailer

Female Trouble
Audio commentary by writer/director John Waters
Original theatrical trailer

DistributorNew Line Home Entertainment
Release DateOctober 2, 2001

Pink Flamingos was restored in 1997 for a theatrical re-release to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The running joke is that, when John Waters saw it projected at that year's Sundance Film Festival, he said, "It's doesn't deserve to look that good." The same could probably be said for this DVD, which presents Pink Flamingos in all its grotesque glory in a new anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer. The movie was shot in 16mm full-frame and that is how it was projected theatrically in the '70s, but New Line has apparently decided to go with the matted aspect ratio used during its 1997 re-release and on the Criterion Collection laser disc. The image looks as good as it's ever going to, given the limited nature of the cheap film stock Waters used back in 1972. The color saturation is a little bit deeper and brighter than on the Criterion laser disc, but there are some definite signs of age in the forms of nicks and scratches.

Female Trouble, also presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) even though it was originally shot full-frame, looks roughly the same as Flamingos, having also been shot on 16mm. The darker scenes in Female Trouble seem particularly grainy, although most of the film looks surprisingly clear and smooth. Apparently, this is the first time Female Trouble has been available on home video in its completely uncut version, but I'm not sure how this cut differs from the one previously available on VHS. All told, this is as good as these two films will probably ever look, definitely better than they looked when they played the midnight theater circuit in old, worn-out prints.

Both Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble are presented with either their original monaural soundtracks or in newly mixed stereo soundtracks. Either way, they both sound appropriately bad. Shot with a single microphone news-style, the soundtrack on Flamingos is terribly limited, but that is how it has always sounded. No amount of digital trickery will ever make this movie sound good. Female Trouble, also recorded in monaural, sounds roughly on par with Flamingos. It still has an amateurish quality, but the musical tracks are quite clear, and the overall soundtrack is generally hiss-free.

Both films include all-new screen-specific audio commentaries by John Waters (Waters had recorded a commentary in 1997 for Criterion's 25th anniversary laser disc of Pink Flamingos, but it is not the same as the commentary included here). As on all of his commentaries, Waters is both hilarious and informative, citing his many influences and often laughing in almost exasperated tones at his own outlandishness of three decades ago. His commentaries are replete with comments like "I don't know what I was thinking here..." or "I don't know where I got that from..." or "I'm not going to try to defend this now..." However, what makes Waters' commentaries on these early films so engaging is the palpable sense of how much he enjoyed working with the people who appear on-screen, many of whom have died over the years. Waters evinces a palpable nostalgia for his friends and associates that probably would have made the Waters of 1972 gag. Yet, it's surprisingly touching and adds an additional layer of meaning to these trash classics.

Pink Flamingos also includes a dozen deleted scenes that had previously appeared on the Criterion laser disc. Waters appears on-screen to introduce the various segments, most of which run less than a minute in length. Both discs also include original theatrical trailers for the movies, presented in anamorphic widescreen.

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Overall Rating: (3.5)

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