Saturday, 13 August 2016
1,001 Films: "Pink Flamingos" (1972)
No-one - perhaps not even the director himself - would go as far as to describe Pink Flamingos as a good movie, but it stands as a key work in the John Waters filmography. After a couple of minor cinematic infractions, Waters had broken through by 1972, starting to reach a public that divided along the lines of the wider America into those freaks and longhairs who dug him, and those squares and stick-in-the-muds who didn't. His typically mischievous response was to pit one faction against the other in a fight to the death, while also addressing the burgeoning stardom of monster-in-chief Divine, by asking her to play herself (or a version thereof), hiding out from her nascent celebrity in a trailer full of outcasts. This loving family unit comes under threat from the Marbles (Mink Stole and David Lochary), sociopathic snobs deploying a veneer of suburban respectability to conceal all manner of heinous sins and crimes.
There follows a battle to secure the title of Filthiest Person in America, in which Waters sets out what might be understood as a career philosophy: that your most uptight haters are only jealous of the dirty pleasures being enjoyed everywhere else, envious that the grass is considerably muckier on the other side of the fence. In Pink Flamingos, these pleasures notoriously involve - and it might be best if you imagine the following being read off a scroll call after the sounding of some ceremonial trumpet - chicken fucking, unusual use of a frankfurter, one singing anus and actual coprophagia. Hide behind the cushions if you must, but it remains one of the few Waters films to boast not just a plot but a subplot: watching the Marbles burning down that trailer, one's mind can't help but go out to all those robber barons who've turfed the underprivileged and vulnerable out of their homes over the centuries.
Of course, there's equally much you and your conscience will just have to wrestle with: a glorified home video aesthetic, spotty narrative continuity, grungily repellent sex scenes (replete with larky Seventies attitude to sexual abuse), some rather bathetic setpieces. (Rather than light up in flames, the trailer just slumps to the floor.) What holds it together are Waters' showman instincts, there from the word go. He writes very funny lines for performers who barely have a clue how to deliver them ("Mama, no-one sends you a turd and expects to live!") and plays a succession of old-timey rock 'n' roll tunes that keep even the more rancid material buoyant; the coda, which remains wince-inducing even after decades of committed gross-out humour, is the Waters equivalent of having his leading lady declare "you ain't seen nothing yet!" - although he gets her to do it through shit-smeared teeth. (We had to wait for the Internet to come along for anything that might top it.) For best consumption, see it with the most refreshed and open-minded people you know.
Pink Flamingos is currently unavailable on DVD.