Pink Flamingos: John Waters Cult Midnight Movie

pink_flamingos_posterJohn Waters rose to national fame with a series of shaggy, amateurish, Baltimore-set and shot features, which later became cult works. Offering a unique vision and distinctive perspective on American life, his early work attacks suburban life as his target—it’s his pleasure dome.

Waters exploded into the cultural scene in 1972 with “Pink Flamingos,” his third feature, a darkly comic, unwholesome parade depicting murder, bestiality, rape, dismemberment, coprophagia, and other dizzying sexual perversions.

“Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble,” and “Desperate Living,” which Waters has labeled the “Trash Trilogy,” contest the boundaries of conventional morality while challenging American censorship. In these camp movies, he places “filthily lovable” characters in intentionally outrageous, deliberately contrived situations, investing them with hyperbolic dialogue. A notorious scene from “Pink Flamingos” added a non-sequitur to its ending. It shows in one continuous take–without the benefit of artifice or special effects–Divine stooping to eat a dog’s excrement. In the same movie, viewers are exposed to the spectacle of an “Egg Lady,” begging for poultry from her crib, and to the rape and murder of chicken.

A transgressive black comedy, “Pink Flamingos” is an auteurist effort–written, produced, directed, edited, and “composed” by Waters. For the score, he donated several of his single B-sides and hits of the 1950s and 1960s. Made on a shoe-string budget of $12,000, it was shot on weekends in Phoenix, a suburb of Baltimore. The shoot was a gratifying experience, personally and collectively. The set was like a hippie community, as the cast and crew operated out of a farmhouse without hot water and other facilities.

pink_flamingos_3The movie has little to do with the tropical fowl that stands sentinel during the opening credits. “The reason I called it ‘Pink Flamingos’ was because the movie was so outrageous, that we wanted to have a very normal title that wasn’t exploitative,” Waters said. “To this day, I’m convinced that people think it’s a movie about Florida.”[i]  It certainly did not reflect Waters’ personal background, whose home was done in good taste. His mother, the president of a garden club, cultivated flowerbeds and precise hedges.  In their suburb, lawn ornaments, especially plastic pink flamingos, were anathema. “I don’t remember ever seeing a pink flamingo where I grew up,” he mused. “I saw them in East Baltimore.”

“Pink Flamingos” made an underground star of Divine, the flamboyant 300-pound transvestite. In the next decade, the duo developed what could be described as a version of the famous Josef Von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich relationship—without that couple’s notorious sex, gossipy intrigue, and sado-masochistic relationship (acknowledged by both director and star). Divinebegan his career as a joke, mocking the desire of drag queens to look pretty, but there was always rage in him and sometimes outright hostility. “Divine was hassled and bullied a lot as a boy,” Waters recalled, “I’m proud that I gave him an outlet for his anger and revenge. The people that used to beat him up later stood in line and asked for his autograph.”[iii] This was the sweet smell of revenge–not to mention irony–for both director and leading lady.

When “Pink Flamingos” was initially shown, it caused controversy due to its perverse acts, all performed realistically in explicit detail. After screenings at universities and basements across the U.S., the film was distributed theatrically by Saliva Films, and later by New Line Cinema. Over the years, it has become a “notorious” classic, and one of Waters’ most profitable pictures, grossing worldwide north of $10 million.

In this film, Waters depicts a dysfunctional family before the term was invented and became popular. Divine plays Babs Johnson, a criminal on the lam from the FBI hiding out in a trailer. She lives with her obese dim-witted, egg-loving mother Edie (Edith Massey), her degenerate son Crackers (Danny Mills), and her duplicitous traveling companion Cotton (Mary Vivian Pierce). They all share residence in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, framed by two plastic pink flamingos.

In the past, the wading birds were a “straight” (in both senses of the word) attempt at making working-class neighborhoods more attractive. “The people who owned them had them for real, without irony,” Waters said. “My movie wrecked that.” Over the years, flamingos have become a fixture of high-end sensibility, shorthand for tongue-in-cheek tackiness and camp. The lawn sculptures have become “loaded objects” of rich people mocking bad taste.  The real plastic flamingos are now extinct, because, as Waters explains: “You can’t have anything that innocent anymore.”

pink_flamingos_2The film’s central theme is the desperate need to achieve celebrity status by all and any means. After learning that Babs has been named “the filthiest person alive” by a tabloid paper, her jealous rivals, Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary), set out to take the title away from her and destroy her career.For Babs’ birthday party, the Marbles send her a box of human feces with a card addressing her as “Fatso,” signed by “The Filthiest People Alive.” Their act enrages Babs, who now seeks revenge. Well ahead of its times in subject matter, the plot depicts the Marbles as managers of an “adoption clinic,” a black market baby ring. Their strategy is to kidnap young women, impregnate them by their gay servant Channing (Channing Wilroy), and sell their babies to lesbian couples that are found unfit for legal adoption. The proceeds are then turned into pornography and narcotics; they finance a network of drug dealers.

Along with the expected verbal assaults, Waters also breaks visual taboos. Raymond makes money by exposing himself in public parks with an extra-large Kielbasa Weiners tied to his penis. Outraged by the sight, the ladies flee and Raymond steals their purses. One of the film’s most infamous scenes involves sexual intercourse between Crackers and Cookie (a spy disguised as a date), crushing a live chicken between their bodies while being watched voyeuristically by Cotton through the window. The plot switches back and forth between the Marbles and their schemes and Babs’ entourage and their reactions. When Channing dresses up as Connie and imitates her speech, he is locked by the nasty madam in the closet.

The party’s guests are entertained by a topless dancer with a snake, and a contortionist who flexes his anal sphincter in rhythm to the song “Surfin’ Bird,” and Waters makes sure to show in close-up the actor’s butt and complete control over his muscles. The disgusted Marbles call the police, but Babs and friends kill the cops with an axe, which was given to them as a present, alongside lice shampoo (A 200) and a pig’s head. The guests then go beyond what Bunuel describes in his outre film, “The Exterminating Angel,” and proceed to eat the corpse.

Babs and Crackers spread “filthiness” in the Marbles house by rubbing items, an activity so erotic it leads to an exciting oral sex scene, with Babs performing fellatio on her own son. In this scene, Waters comes as close any director to showing a semi-erect penis as mom goes down on her son. No wonder those scenes were cut from some early versions. Acts of brutality and revenge, centered on the characters’ genitals, continue. Set free, the captive women, previous chained and impregnated by force, emasculate Channing (off-screen), and the horrified Marbles find out that Channing had died from his bleeding penis.

There is no conventional acting in most of Waters’ early pictures, just loud screaming and declaration of speeches, laced with funny one-liners. Consider Babs’ proclamation of her “filth politics” manifesto: “Blood does more than turn me on. It makes me come. And more than the sight of it, I love the taste of it. The taste of hot freshly killed blood. Kill everyone now! Condone first-degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!”

pink_flamingos_1In a “kangaroo court,” the Marbles are sentenced to death, accused of “first-degree stupidity” and “assholism.” Though offered a chance to defend themselves, the Marbles opt for execution. Tied to a tree, coated in tar and feathers, they are shot by Babs, proudly handing the hungry media a juicy scoop of “live” homicide. By this point, Babs has flaunted her obesity in a dozen colorful outfits (which change from scene to scene), dominated by red, white, and blue, all clinging tight to her skin, until she decides to change her appearance for a more modest one, when they relocated to Idaho (why Idaho?) The notorious ending depicts Babs, Crackers, and Cotton walking down the street in their new home in Boise, Idaho! Babs spots a little dog with excitement and hunger, waiting for him to defecate. And when the canine does she throws herself to the ground and puts his fresh feces in her mouth. She proves, as the narrator (John Waters) states, that she is not only the filthiest person, but also the filthiest actress in the world.

Waters’ grotesque film goes far into the bizarre and the extreme, but it maintains a peculiar, even naive endearment. “I’ve never just tried to gross you out–not even at the end of ‘Pink Flamingos.’ I’m always trying to make you laugh first.”[vi] While refraining from making political statements, Waters’ films are not devoid of ideas. “I always have something to say, but I never get on a soapbox. The only way I can change how anybody thinks is to make them laugh. If I start preaching, they’ll walk out.”

Some of Waters’ films had premiered in Baltimore churches and later in that City’s Senator or Charles Theatres. When they played in San Francisco (where he lived for a while) and in Provincetown, Waters himself promoted the screenings on Commercial Street, as he remembers: “The Provincetown Bookstore would give me the whole window and I would turn it into a billboard. We would go out in costume and hand out all the flyers for two weeks.”

“Pink Flamingos” premiered in late 1972 at the third Baltimore Film Festival, held on the campus of the University of Baltimore, where it played to sold-out audiences for three shows. The movie aroused particular interest among fans of underground cinema after the success of “Multiple Maniacs,” which had begun to be screened around that time in New York City and San Francisco. Later, Waters’ films were among the first to be picked up for distribution by New Line Cinema, established in 1967 by the visionary lawyers and film lovers Bob Shaye and Michael Lynn. With few exceptions (“Cry-Baby” was released by Universal), New Line would produce and release most of Waters’ pictures.

Giving middle-class audiences a shake-up, “Pink Flamingos” had an effect on punk culture with its royal-blue hairdos and half-shaved heads. In the 1970s, on Halloween night, youths could be spotted in the West Village, especially in the gay neighborhood of Christopher Street, imitating Divine and her cohorts. “Pink Flamingos” gained loyal following–and repeat viewing–on the art-house circuit. Cherished by midnight moviegoers, it ran for years in New York and Los Angeles (I saw the film Downtown as an undergraduate student at Columbia). Later on, “Pink Flamingos” was screened as a midnight movie at the Elgin Theater on Eight Avenue in Chelsea (now the Joyce Theater).[ix] Ben Barenholtz, the Elgin’s owner, had been promoting midnight movies, like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo,” made in 1970. Barenholtz felt that “Pink Flamingos” would fit in well with this crowd, and showed it on Friday and Saturday nights. The movie soon built a cult of viewers, some of whom attended just in order to be present in the company of the hip sets—gay men. After a while, the spectatorship broadened and the picture became popular with rowdy working-class kids from New Jersey. Many fans learned by heart the film’s famous lines, which they recited at screenings, a phenomenon that would become closely associated with “The Rocky Horror Show,” the most popular midnight movie ever made.

ujt2ippyp6hAs expected, the movie divided critics: It was called an abomination by some and an instant classic by others. Waters, just like Babs, was not about to take the back seat to anyone in the battle of filth and bad taste.   Most mainstream critics did not know what to make of the film. In a short dismissive review, “Variety” described “Pink Flamingos” as “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.” However, instead of being offended, Waters took the “Variety” review as a compliment, adding that “Pink Flamingos” was vile, all right, as “Variety” claimed, but “It was joyously vile.”[xi] Negative reviews didn’t deter Waters, because “there was a cultural war going on—“It was Them versus Us.”[xii] He knew that critics who panned his work simply didn’t get him and what he stood for. It’s always been that way with Waters’ work: “You just get it, or you don’t. There’s not much in the middle.”

Early public recognition reaffirmed Waters’ commitment to his brand of cinema. In 1975, “Pink Flamingos” was accepted into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, which has one of the world’s largest film departments. Waters’ reputation for excess enthralled the cognoscenti, but not the executives of Hollywood’s big studios. He later recalled that, “’Pink Flamingos’ is still the movie that gets me in the door, and then quickly thrown out the door.”

After his “success de scandal,” Waters lost several years in failed attempts to make a sequel to “Pink Flamingos” titled “Flamingos Forever.” Meanwhile, the number of fans of “Pink Flamingos” continued to grow with each successive showing, to the point where it became more than just a midnight movie. Significantly, of the directors in the book, Waters and to a lesser extent Almodovar, are the only cult figures, due to repeated showings of their early works. Of Waters’ films, “Pink Flamingos” is the first and only picture to wear the label proudly.

Waters’ oeuvre has been associated with gay camp and gay humor, concepts that call for a more precise definition. For Susan Sontag, the first scholar to define camp in her well-known 1964 essay, camp is a phenomenon of pure aestheticism, based on artifice and stylization. Sontag observed that “Things are campy not when they become old, but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of being frustrated by the failure of the attempt.”[xv] She held that camp derives from the unpredictable effect of time on the interpretation of cultural products, the view that something could be perceived as aesthetically good precisely because it is awful. For Sontag, camp is disengaged and depoliticized, since the obsession with style overrides concerns with the text’s more serious contents.

However, as the scholar David Van Leer pointed out, in de-depoliticizing camp, Sontag also de-homosexualized it.  She did not deal with the conditions that create and foster camp, such as the ostracizing of minorities and the oppression of subcultures, their “invisibility” from the perspective of hegemonic culture. Minorities, be they racial (black or Latin) or sexual (gay and lesbian), often speak between the lines, reshaping ironically and radically the dialogues that their oppressors had invented in order to keep them in their place. Individuals (and groups) of minority status find new modes of speaking to which the oppressors, whoever they are, have limited or no access at all. Sontag also did not distinguish between camp that’s innocent and camp that’s deliberate and intentional. For her, pure camp is always naïve and innocuous due to its outdated retro nature. Sontag and her followers have claimed that self-knowing camp is usually less satisfying, because self-conscious and imitative camp is just regressive in its self-assertiveness. But this may not be the case, as Waters’ work has shown. For Waters, camp is a form of historicism viewed histrionically. In his movies, the camp strategy resurrects products of the past, focusing not so much on their origins, but on their artifice, which is done through a heightened theatrical sensibility. Waters has transformed famous and infamous movies and TV shows into something removed from their initial design and original meaning.

The brand of camp that prevails in Waters’ output is what the scholar Barbara Klinger has called mass camp. Media products qualify for camp enjoyment because they exhibit exaggerated exotica in their historical out-datedness. Mass camp depends on the thorough knowledge of pop culture, the familiarity of conventions of established genres (Mae West comedies, Busby Berkeley musicals). Mass camp sensibility does not necessarily result in coherent rereading of a film—it’s more of a hit-and-miss sensibility. The viewers’ interaction with a particular text always bears some effects, but the effects may be temporary, that is, only in the short run. Thematic and visual pleasures come in sporadic manner, in dipping in and out of a particular text, in selecting specific moments out of a given text: witty dialogue, quotable lines, lavish musical numbers, physical appearances and costumes.

Gay camp usually relies on (or imitates) the hyperbole of movies and pop culture through overstated décors, fashion, cross-dressing. In verbal terms, it’s reflected in quotation, mimicry, lip-synching, gender inversion, put-downs, and witty puns. Gay camp is of real value to its practitioners, because it enables them to demonstrate their insider status, their cultural existence and superiority over straight outsiders, who don’t dig what they dig when they experience the same movie or TV show. From the start, Waters has politicized camp, using it as a deliberate assault on mainstream culture. Gay camp was employed by him as a counter-cultural means, an oppositional standpoint and active force. For Waters, camp attacks acceptable values, normal physical appearances, and conventional modes of behavior. Camp could be either a mild or radical rejection of essential tenets of traditional aesthetics. Waters’ brand of camp thrives on exaggeration, theatricality, and travesty, evident in the glorification of the characters in his texts and the particular actors who play them. The elements of his aesthetics are deemed cheap, sleazy, vulgar, and crude, because the plots of his features transgress the bourgeois sense of decency and morality. Instead, they loudly extol bizarre and grotesque sexuality that’s considered appalling by standards of middle-class taste.

Gay camp is manifest in most of Waters’ films, intentionally and unintentionally. The components of gay camp include admiration for performers like Divine, casting of movie stars who parody their own screen image, such as the gay actor Tab Hunter in “Polyester,” or the very straight Troy Donahue in “Cry-Baby,” or the eroticized Joe Dallesandro, a cult figure in works by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. Waters’ camp comedies are ambivalent about their subject and style, raising questions of what is being satirized, and for what kinds of spectators. They are blatantly vulgar and deliberately crass, drawing upon deviant sexuality as a source of humor while defying normative definitions.

What exactly has made “Pink Flamingos” a cult movie? The scholar Umberto Eco has shown that to qualify as a cult item, a movie doesn’t have to be a work of art judged by high aesthetic standards.[xviii] Eco cites “Casablanca” and “Gone with the Wind,” which have assumed mythic cult status, though most critics would agree that they represent modest, but not necessarily superlative aesthetic achievement—even by Hollywood yardsticks.   For Eco, a cult movie is a “hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly,” with characters that are psychologically incredible, and actors who act in a mannered way. The particular work must be loved, but it must also provide a completely furnished world, so that its fans “can quote characters and episodes as if they were part of the beliefs of a sect, a private world of their own, a world about which one can play puzzle games and trivia contests, and whose adepts recognize each other through a common competence.”[xix]

The characters and subplots of a cult work have archetypal appeal. A cult movie displays organic imperfections, which is why “Rio Bravo” is a cult movie, whereas “Stagecoach” is not, though both are accomplished generic works (Westerns), directed by the legendary Howard Hawks and John Ford, respectively, and displaying commanding performances by John Wayne. In order to transform a work into a cult object, viewers must be able to unhinge it, to break it up, so that they remember only parts of it regardless of their original relationship to the whole. Disjointed moments survive as a disconnected series of images. Cult movies display not one central idea but many ideas, and do not exhibit coherent philosophy or even structure. Hence, “Pink Flamingos” lives on—and is continuously revived–because of its incoherence and disjointedness. Similar observations can be made about the musical-horror feature, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” made at the height of Waters’ popularity, which was an artistic and commercial flop when first exhibited.

Cult movies like “Pink Flamingos” exist and speak to one another independently of their authors’ intentions. They provide proof that a particular film comes from other films, and that once a film is made, it assumes an independent life of its own. Waters could not have anticipated that “Pink Flamingos” would become a cult movie.   Nor did Ridley Scott, in 1982, when he made “Blade Runner, a noir apocalyptic tale that was not well received upon initial release and went on to become a cult movie despite negative critical response. It’s worth noting that critical reaction to both “Pink Flamingos” and “Blade Runner” has also changed over the years into a more appreciative one, showing the shifting nature of criticism itself.

The notorious “doggie” finale of “Pink Flamingos,” and other scenes and lines, can be enjoyed for that what they are, regardless of the particular place they occupy within the larger narrative. They work in the same way that two or three scenes from “Mommie Dearest,” starring Faye Dunaway as the emasculating Joan Crawford, do: the wire hangers, the ax, the physical fight between mother and daughter. These scenes can be easily removed from their original textual meanings, which explains why they have been playing over and over again in video bars frequented by gay men and savvy urbanites enamored of camp culture. The cult status of “Pink Flamingos” was confirmed in 1997, when for its 25th anniversary, it received a limited theatrical rerelease and a new DVD version, now rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The new edition features improved soundtrack, commentary by Waters, and several scenes deleted from the original cut.

Waters’ identity has thrived on excess and exaggeration, on his wish, as he said semi-jokingly, for his own life to be “torn from the headlines.” The National Enquirer, which he considers to be the ultimate barometer of fame in America, has informed his sensibility.[xx] Waters’ protagonists have shared their director’s penchant for gaudy and lurid events. His fascination with crime and court trials is based on his belief that, “When you do something horrible, you can’t change it.” “I think it’s a matter of things being forbidden,” Waters has said, “That’s part of the glory of being raised a Catholic. It makes you more theatrical, and the sex is always better ’cause it’s dirty and forbidden.”[xxi] Moreover, Waters’ moonlighting as a prison lecturer is a direct outgrowth of his attraction to the forbidden along with his undeniable service orientation.