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: U.S.
Pink Flamingos Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Pink Flamingos

John Waters’s early trash cinema—a grotesque treasure trove of repulsive-inspired low-budget midnight flicks—emerged (escaped?) from a unique stew of cinematic, cultural, and political influences. Cinematically, Waters drew from 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 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, juvenile delinquents, and the Charles Manson family, and he packaged his raunchy antics with the flair and creativity of P.T. Barnum at his ballyhoo best/worst. 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.

For all his copious output from the late 1960s through the early 2000s, Waters’s supreme achievement remains the notorious Pink Flamingos, a deranged home movie that took the midnight movie circuit by storm with its trashy excess, low-brow aesthetic, and raunchy delight in whatever perversions Waters could dream up and put in front of his camera. Pink Flamingos is the nadir of its genre, and, as Waters has said numerous times, it is the movie with which he has had to forever compete.

As with all of his early movies, Waters filmed Pink Flamingos with a 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. The group included the plus-sized drag queen Divine (a.k.a., Glenn Milstead); actors Mary Vivian Pearce, David Lochary, Cookie Mueller, and Mink Stole; production designer Vincent Peranio; and casting director Pat Moran. Waters always described the group as an “extended family” and often compared it to the 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 demented 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 it. Flamingos did shock and outrage, but it also found a loyal audience who shared in Waters’s manic sensibilities and warped sense of humor, turning it into one of the most successful movies to play the midnight circuit throughout the 1970s.

As a self-proclaimed “exercise in poor taste,” Pink Flamingos was calculated to do little more than smash taboos and transgress social boundaries. The film includes graphic scenes of incest, cannibalism, rape, bestiality, murder, 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 shit-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’s gross-out goals. Divine, who had appeared in all of Waters’s previous films, 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 inner-city elementary schools qualifies them as the filthiest. Thus, the movie engages in a constantly escalating battle of one-upmanship, as the two families vie for the coveted title.

One critic aptly described Pink Flamingos as having “the grainy look of a pornographic home-movie,” which aptly summarizes its clunky style. Shot on 16mm reversal film and edited by Waters himself in the attic of his house, much of it 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, at the same time, that very cheapness gives the film the quality of actuality. Like the avant-garde films of the ’60s that Waters so admired and sought to emulate, Pink Flamingos relies on its bargain-basement look to separate it from formulaic Hollywood product. Although Pink Flamingos, at a budget of roughly $12,000, represented a quantum leap over Waters’s previous feature-length efforts, Mondo Trasho (1969), which had no sync sound, and Multiple Maniacs (1971), it is still far from “costly” in its aesthetics.

The home-movie quality of Pink Flamingos enhances its grossest aspects because it gives the viewer the impression that little was done to fictionalize the activity on-screen. This is also enhanced by Waters’s satirical use of hard-core pornography in one scene and his reliance on performers with no shame about flaunting their odd behaviors and less-than-ideal physiques. 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 his entire career 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.”

Having now seen Pink Flamingos numerous times over the years, I can attest to the fact that the idea of the film is much better than the film itself. This is not to cast aspersions on Waters’s unique achievement, but rather to suggest that my ability to enjoy watching the film has eroded to some extent with age. In fact, I find that some of it now borders on the unwatchable (and I’m not just talking about the coprophagia at the end, which has always makes my gorge rise): the characters’ endless, repetitive ranting, the wandering camera zooming in and out with no clear plan, the amateurish acting, the grinding halt of the plot in favor of documentary-like capturing of human freakiness, the clear abuse of live poultry—all of these things that once made the film so bracing, edgy, and ludicrously exhilarating to my younger self now feel a bit like a chore to get through. Yet, I still cannot help but admire on some twisted level what Waters was able to accomplish and the verve with which he accomplished it; the very fact that we are still talking about the film 50 years—50 years—later (it shares an anniversary with The Godfather) and the fact that it was officially inducted by the Library of Congress into the National Film Registry a few years ago, is testament to its enduring impact and legacy—for better or for worse.

Pink Flamingos Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
Audio
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Two audio commentaries by writer/director John Waters, from the 1997 Criterion laserdisc and the 2001 DVD release
  • Divine Trash (1998), a feature-length documentary by Steve Yeager
  • Video conversation between Waters and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch
  • Tour of the film’s Baltimore locations, led by Waters
  • Deleted scenes and alternate takes
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Howard Hampton and a piece by actor and author Cookie Mueller about the making of the film, from her 1990 book Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJun 28, 2022

    COMMENTS
    This is the second time The Criterion Collection has released Pink Flamingos, the first being back in 1997 on laserdisc in celebration of the film’s 25th anniversary (when John Waters saw the restored film projected at the Sundance Film Festival, he quipped that the film didn’t deserve to look that good). Well, here we are another quarter-century later, and now Waters’s notorious midnight classic looks better than ever, boasting a new 4K scan of the film’s original 16mm Ektachrome positive, which has been stored all these years in Waters’s attic. The transfer was supervised by Waters himself and is now framed in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The film was originally shot open-matte and screened in 1.33:1, but ever since the 25th Anniversary theatrical re-release and subsequent home video releases, it has been framed at 1.85:1 (including Criterion’s laserdisc). That framing always felt tight to me, with a lot of heads cropped off at the top (not that Waters’s framing is worthy of Antonioni or anything). Framing it in the less horizontal 1.66:1 aspect ratio alleviates that to some degree, but there is still a decided lack of headroom in many shots. Aside from that, the image looks great (at least in terms of visual quality; I will leave assessment of the grotesquerie on screen up to you). Colors look good, and there is a definite improvement in detail from previous editions, although I should note that the image is quite soft throughout due to the source material. However, because the scan was made from the original 16mm film, rather than a 35mm blowup, we don’t have any exaggerated grain. The soundtrack was remastered from the 16mm magnetic track and the 25th-anniversary-edition soundtrack (I am guessing that came into play for the scenes in which music had to be switched out for rights reasons) and sounds as good as possible. The soundtrack was always a bit shoddier than the imagery, partially because Waters recorded the music directly from his own personal phonograph collection, but it works with the film’s homemade aesthetic.

    The supplements here should make fans of the film quite pleased. The disc includes two Waters commentaries, one that he recorded in 1997 for the Criterion 25th anniversary laser disc and one he recorded in 2001 for a New Line double-disc DVD set. 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 five 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’s commentaries on these early films so engaging is the palpable sense of how much he enjoyed working with the people who appear on-screen, almost all of whom have since died. 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. Another major supplement is the inclusion of Steve Yeager’s feature-length documentary Divine Trash (1998), excerpts of which were included on Criterion’s laser disc (the film was still in production at the time). Yeager’s film is a fascinating piece of work that digs deep into both the production of Pink Flamingos and the body of work that Waters and the Dreamlanders created in the late 1960s and early ’70s. It is structured around a 1972 interview with Waters that is intercut with then-new interviews with a wide range of people, including Waters’s parents and brother, Maryland film censor Mary Avara, film critic J. Hoberman, and Dreamlanders Vincent Peranio, Mary Vivian Pearce, Pat Moran, and Mink Stole. The disc also includes a dozen deleted scenes that had previously appeared on the Criterion laser disc and New Line’s DVD, and an original theatrical trailer. My favorite supplement, though, is a newly produced featurette in which Waters returns to two of the central filming locations: the two-story house that was used for the Marbles’s home and the rural land where Divine’s pink trailer was parked. Waters travels to each location and interacts with the current occupants. The house (in which Waters lived during the film’s production) is now owned by a metal-band drummer who gamely allows Waters to walk through the house and even lick the banister (which looks exactly like it did in the movie). The location of the trailer is now part of the front yard of a large McMansion owned by a former NASA astronomer and his wife. These very sweet and conservative-looking senior citizens admit to having watched the film (although it took them three times to get all the way through it), and they even get out a metal detector to try to determine if the burned remains of the trailer were buried on the property or hauled away. It is a true gem.

    Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)




    James Kendrick

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