Pink Flamingos: Part Two

Part Two

Waters’ grotesque film goes far into the bizarre and the extreme, but it also maintains strange 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.” While refraining from making overt 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.”

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” 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.

Quite remarkably, “Pink Flamingos” gained national distribution and a following 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 a student at Columbia University in the 1970s). Later on, “Pink Flamingos” was screened as a midnight movie at the Elgin Theater on Eight Avenue in Manhattan’s Chelsea (it’s now the Joyce Theater). Ben Barenholtz, the owner of the Elgin Theater, had been promoting midnight movies, such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo,” of 1970. Barenholtz felt that “Pink Flamingo” would fit in well with this crowd, and screened it on Friday and Saturday nights. The movie soon gained a cult following of viewers, some of whom attended just in order to be present in the company of Downtown gay people, the hipper set. But after a while, the spectatorship broadened and the picture became popular with rowdy working-class kids from New Jersey. Many of these fans learned the film’s famous lines, which they recited at screenings, a phenomenon that would become associated with the most popular midnight movie ever made, “The Rocky Horror Show.”

Most mainstream critics did not know what to make of the film. In a short and 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, as “Variety” claimed, but “It was joyously vile.” Vive la petite difference, as the French would say. Negative reviews didn’t deter Waters, because “there was a cultural war going on—“It was Them versus Us.” 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. He soon realized that, “You just get it, or you don’t. There’s not much in the middle.”

“Pink Flmingos,” like other films, had some unanticipated effects. In the past, the wading birds were a straight attempt at beautifying working-class neighborhoods. “The people who owned them had them for real, without irony,” Waters said. “My movie wrecked that.” Over the years, the sculpture has become a fixture of high-end sensibility, shorthand for tongue-in-cheek tackiness. 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.”

In 1997, for its 25th anniversary, “Pink Flamingos” was re-released, now rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The new version featured an improved stereo soundtrack, commentary by Waters, and several scenes deleted from the original cut.

Waters’ reputation for excess enthralled the cognoscenti, but not the executives of Hollywood’s 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 this “success de scandal,” Waters lost several years in various failed attempts to make a sequel to “Pink Flamingos.” But the number of fans of “Pink Flamingos” continued to grow with each successive showing, to the point where it became much more than just a popular midnight movie. Significantly, of the directors in the book, Waters and to a lesser extent Almodovar, are the only midnight cult figures, due to the repeated showings of their early works. Of all of Waters’ films, “Pink Flamingos” is the first and only feture to wear the label proudly and consistently.

Please Read Part One