“The best worst movie ever made” is Steven Jay Schneider’s verdict of Pink Flamingos. Roger Ebert refused to even give the film a star rating, writing how they don’t apply as “it should be considered not as a film but as a fact, or perhaps as an object”.
The midnight-screening culture, and the underground cinema scene, has all but finished (Does Lord of the Rings at the IMAX or back-to-back Schwarzenegger at Prince Charles Cinema count?) as we can now access so much through the internet. Pink Flamingos was of that ilk, akin to the obscure art-house and grimy grindhouse flicks of the seventies era. It’s difficult to imagine the crowd who’d seek out these hidden treats, but a retrospective of John Waters at the BFI Southbank manages to recreate the period.
Pink Flamingos, set in Water’s hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, revolves around the family of transvestite Divine. Living in a trailer out in the sticks, her hippie son Crackers (Danny Mills), egg-eating Mama (Edith Massey) and (unsure of who she is in relation) Cotton (Vivian Pearce) are all desperate to prove that Divine is “The Filthiest Person Alive”. But, lurking in suburbia, in an enormous house resides Raymond and Connie Marbles. After kidnapping hippies, they chain them up, rape them and (after dying in childbirth) sell the babies to lesbian couples. The Marbles also run porno shops and supply heroin to drug-rings in inner-city schools. It’s definitely a tough call as to who will be crowned the filthiest, but we are nevertheless privy to the extreme acts of both parties. Whether it is Raymond’s flasher-interest, Crackers chicken-sex or a party involving a butt-hole singing a song, we are all disgusted and laugh in uncomfortable appreciation. The re-release of the film in 1997 (and the version projected at the BFI) also includes a 15-minute John-Waters-introduced deleted scene selection. Waters is the highlight here, with witty remarks on the film and the scenes chosen.
But Ebert was on to something when he struggled to rate the film. Released in the 1970’s, the concept of degrading and humiliating acts in order to garner fame seems ahead of its time. When we see the great monolith of fame in the modern world, as ‘celebrities’ eat insects on I’m a Celebrity… and revolting shock-stunts are the selling point of Jackass, the central pull to Pink Flamingos is surely ground zero. Despite this, Pink Flamingos still seems to out-gross both television shows and is funnier too. In a packed cinema, the audience was hooting and hollering to such an extent that I couldn’t help but be swept along. Divine’s forced laughter after snubbing a hitchhiker as she drives down the road is so strange, that it’s infectious. My hand raised to my face in horror as, what is initially a bony-back, becomes the open-and-close of a rectum. I’m disgusted and I’m dumbstruck: can an ass do that? Even the egg-munching of Mama, in her stained bra and pants makes you gag: you imagine the whiff of those smelly, cold eggs. It’s deeply uncomfortable and unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Not for the faint hearted, this is the reason Pink Flamingos is lifted on a pedestal. Extravagant and rotten, the shoddy camera work and ramshackle production, only add to the dirty authenticity. The infamous, unforgettable ‘dog poop’ final scene, eliciting an enormous this-is-disgusting moan from the audience, proves the ‘filthiness’ of Divine. In 2015, type ‘eating dog poop’ onto YouTube. Too many filthy videos turn up. And Divine was there first.
This was originally written for Flickering Myth in September 2015