Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Pink Flamingos (Baltimore, 1972)

A classic of underground cinema that lives up to and possibly even transcends its reputation, Pink Flamingos remains, even now 46 years after its release, a movie that separates the men from the boys, the human beings from the Republicans.
The movie was, in its day, prime transgressive cinema before the term and movement was even officially regurgitated and quickly drowned in its own intellectual pretentions. And unlike in most cinematic endeavors from that movement, for all the boundaries this and the movies of John Waters crossed, the filmmaker always broke them with his tongue firmly in his cheek: his are movies that [usually] make you laugh even as they freak you out or disgust you. (One laughs a lot during Pink Flamingos.)
True, the movie is not as shocking now as it was when it first came out — it is, as fiction, by nature less shocking than the reality of the US's current innately corrupt political system and collapsing society — but even the jaded might still feel an occasional pang of shock when watching this movie. (The singing butthole usually gets most people, not to mention the movie's infamous closing scene, done in an uncut take, of Divine chowing down on doggy doo.) Laughs, in any event, are guaranteed... if only nervous ones.
Rest assured, however, when you screen this healthy and hearty and enjoyable cinematic abortion, you do end up watching a truly terribly made movie. The soundtrack might be top notch,* but when it comes to the cinematic and/or technical qualities normally expected of a feature film — editing, acting, cinematography, continuity, whatever — Pink Flamingos displays more exuberance than any semblance of skill.
* Indeed, it is perhaps one of the earliest example of the continual use of well-known and/or obscure pop songs to underscore, often incongruently, diverse scenes the narrative, a filmic technique that has become almost de jure since, dunno, Reservoir Dogs (1992 / trailer).
But this very exuberance, combined with the whole film's in-your-face attitude and dedicated transgression of good taste, works magic. Waters may have, in the meantime and after 12 different feature films in total, directed better-made movies displaying consummate filmic professionalism, but none of his later works carry the punch or have been as influential as Pink Flamingos. It is, in its own extremely idiosyncratic manner, a masterpiece of sorts. And imperative viewing for anyone interested in underground film, exploitation movies, low culture, black comedy, alternative culture(s), artistic expression, freedom of speech, or chicken fucking.
Pink Flamingo is the third no-budget, feature-length movie Waters directed, preceded as it was by the director's lesser known Mondo Trasho (1969 / scene) and Multiple Maniacs (1970 / trailer). It is the first of what has since become known as John Waters' "Trash Trilogy", which also includes his subsequent two vintage Baltimore projects, Female Trouble (1974 / trailer) and Desperate Living (1977 / trailer) — both of which are noteworthy cinematic experiences on their own.
Shot on a reported budget of $10,000, Pink Flamingos looks every bit a product of its budget, which is also very much part of the movie's anarchistic and questionable charm. The influence of the low budget and/or guerilla filmmaking tactics and style of the Now York underground filmmakers of the 1960s, above all the brothers Mike & George Kuchar,* is evident, particularly in the over-exaggerated acting style and extremely arch dialog. Character after character manages to spout inanely long dialog that verges on being baroque, but for that there are also fun scenes without any dialog (but set to music) — like of Divine (19 Oct 1975 – 7 Mar 1988), as Divine / Babs Johnson, strolling down streets (the reactions are real and priceless), or Raymond Marble (David Lochary [21 Aug 1944 – 29 July 1977]) displaying his family jewals. One gets the feeling that aside from limited sound recording facilities, Waters also had only limited access to editing possibilities, for much of the film is shot in long takes, with pans, zooms and/or an unmoving camera — basically: poverty-level Jess Franco.
* George Kuchar may be resting in peace, but the surviving brother, Mike, is still making short films and is also a productive graphic artist of truly great gay smut art, an extremely innocent example of which is directly below.
The basic plot is simple: Divine and her criminal family — comprising Edie the Egg Lady (Edith Massey [28 May 1918 – 24 Oct 1984]), Crackers (Danny Mills [Died 21 Jan 2017]) and companion Connie (Mary Vivian Pearce) — are laying low in a trailer out in the country, but back in beautiful Baltimore Connie (Mink Stole) and Raymond Marble have grown jealous of her reputation as "The Filthiest Person Alive". They decide to destroy Divine and usurp her title... but only live long enough to rue the day. Framed within that narrative are characters deeply imbued in sleaze and fun pastimes like fucking, masturbation, incest, rape, illegal baby selling, lesbianism, murder, cannibalism, egg eating, cop killing, shopping, foot fetishism, butt singing and more. And a great wardrobe: at least in the case of Divine, Crackers, Connie and the Marbles, all would fit in perfectly in the nightlife of today's Berlin. (Though, in the case of Raymond, the blue pubes that properly match the hair color on his head definitely clash with his almost bear-like excess of body hair.)
Seen today, it is surprising how easily Pink Flamingos suddenly becomes a kind of allegorical mirror of the contemporary politics: If you see Babs as the Democrats, and the Marbles as the Republicans, in the end they are all criminals and what they "do" is different only in degrees. But Babs is a bit more social (as seen by her extended family and B-day party popularity), while the Marbles are bit more egoistic, consumer- and position-driven, and convinced of their own entitlement.
Also comparable to the US Republicans, aside from all their questionable business activities and the less-than-pious cravings for social status, in the end the Marbles are extremely and illogically judgmental and conservative: they are continually shocked by the actions of others, though no one does anything all that much worse than what they themselves do. (One might argue they don't even have the balls to do their own evil: yes, they sell the babies of kidnapped girls they chain up and impregnate in the basement, but they have to hire someone to do the actual rapes instead of having Raymond doing it himself.) And Raymond, for all his own sexual peccadilloes & perversions, even runs away in pure horror after, having just exposed himself in public, he confronted by a highly attractive chick with a dick (Elizabeth Coffey, who, in real life, had it taken off a week later). Yep, the Marbles are very much conservatives of the contemporary rightwing religious Trump Republican model: something — pussy-grabbing, underage sex, white collar crime, affairs, cocksucking — is only disgusting or wrong if other people do it.
Whatever. Pink Flamingos, "An Exercise in Poor Taste", lives up to its infamy in a multiple of ways. A historical artifact of immense cultural importance, this gleefully tasteless and oddly life-affirming cult film is required viewing for culture vultures of all persuasions and political parties. Watch it, now. And if you don't like it, well, go do what Divine does in the final scene.
P.S.: Trailer to John Waters' own "remake", Kiddie Flamingos (2014 / trailer). 
P.P.S.: John Waters "has stated that Armando Bo's 1969 Argentine film Fuego influenced not only Pink Flamingos, but his other films. His words: 'If you watch some of my films, you can see what a huge influence Fuego was. I forgot how much I stole. ... Look at Isabel's makeup and hairdo in Fuego. Dawn Davenport, Divine's character in Female Trouble, could be her exact twin, only heavier. Isabel, you inspired us all to a life of cheap exhibitionism, exaggerated sexual desires and a love for all that is trash-ridden in cinema.'" So, for your viewing pleasure... 
The Full Movie —
Armando Bo's Fuego (1969):

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