Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!
-Divine, aka “Babs Johnson”
In the course of a movie buff’s filmic education they experience a number of films that could be considered as “life-changing,” narratives that move the viewer in ways they never anticipated and would bear great influence over aspects of their personalities and way of thinking for the rest of their lives. For me such films would include 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA when I was five, KING KONG AT eight, STAR WARS as I was about to turn twelve, ENTER THE DRAGON at age fourteen, and SHOGUN ASSASSIN at nineteen, each of which completely blew my mind and rearranged my perceptions. But one film in particular carries significant weight when it comes to influencing my developing psyche, a film widely hailed as the most vile and disgusting movie ever made. That film is John Waters’ epochal PINK FLAMINGOS, the film that truly ignited my love of sheer, irredeemable tastelessness and “shock” material that offends decent folk everywhere.
I first heard of PINK FLAMINGOS on the PBS Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert movie review show SNEAK PREVIEWS sometime around 1980 when it was included in a special program focusing on cult movies, and I was instantly intrigued thanks to the clear outrage expressed by the two critics when they described the film’s excesses. I’d long been a devotee of “sick” humor and bad taste thanks to being allowed access to National lampoon magazine since the age of ten, so I was jonesing for a new source of scurrilous infusion and PINK FLAMINGOS sounded like it was right up my alley. So, armed with that knowledge, I waited until it inevitably turned up at Norwalk, Connecticut’s Sono Cinema, a movie-lover’s dream of a theater that ran old classics, obscure art movies, flicks too gory for the mainstream theater circuit, and cult classics on the weekends at midnight. When it finally made its way onto the schedule I grabbed the usual bunch of suspects from my crew of like-minded high school cronies and hightailed it to the Sono, ready to see just what it was that could have so scandalized two men who were paid to see movies for a living, meaning they’d seen just about everything that one could possibly experience from a big screen feature. By the time the film was over I fully understood how the “normal” member of society would be outraged, but at the same time I was filled with joy at the knowledge of such a piece of balls-out cinematic trash existing at all.
Definitely a toxic answer to the feel-good, hippy-dippy sentiments of the previous several years’ worth of Viet Nam era cinema (and American culture in general), PINK FLAMINGOS is a masterpiece of antisocial behavior writ large on a non-budget of approximately $10,000, made by a bunch of misfits and stoners who set out to craft a “fuck you” aimed directly at their contemporaries in the so-called peace and love generation, inadvertently creating the "punk" sensibility a few years before its commonly perceived genesis. The film chronicles the adventures of Divine (played by drag goddess Divine, nee Glen Milstead), a horrifying, loudmouthed trash diva who has every right to call herself “the filthiest person alive, so much so that she is now attempting to stay below the notice of the authorities by hiding out under the alias of “Babs Johnson” in a dilapidated trailer in the middle of a remote patch of dead grass somewhere in Phoenix, Maryland. Also along for this self-imposed exile are Divine’s mentally ill mother Miss Edie (Edith Massey) — a fat, aging, toothless hag wearing an ill-fitting slip and residing in a toddler’s playpen — , Crackers (Danny Mills in a towering turn as perhaps the ultimate piece of white trash ever committed to celluloid), and Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), Crackers’ bleached blonde voyeuristic lover, a pack that really drives home just how wholesome the Addams Family are in comparison.
But that’s not to say that Divine’s crew are an unpleasant lot; they’re fiercely loyal to one another, display a strong sense of justice and fairness, and would probably be a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with if one could get past some of their more egregious quirks, but more on that later.
Every band of “heroes” needs an appropriate challenge, and Divine and her family find their arch enemies in the form of Raymond and Connie Marble (uber-queer David Lochary and the incredible Mink Stole), “a pair of jealous perverts” who believe (wrongly) that it is they, not Divine, who deserve the filth crown and all the notoriety that goes with it. The dastardly pair think they’re the shit just because they front heroin to inner city elementary schools and kidnap hitchhiking girls for impregnation by their manservant, Channing (Channing Wilroy), then sell the resulting babies to lesbian couples, so they declare war on Divine by sending her one of Raymond’s turds in the mail. From the moment Divine receives this foul gift it’s only a matter of time before the Marbles are made painfully aware of just who rules the world of filth, and the film makes no bones about proving just how filthy Divine and family (and friends) are, showcasing wanton acts of petty larceny, drug abuse, attempted vehicular homicide, bestiality, cannibalism, and God knows what else, all to great “so effed up it’s hilarious” comedic effect.
If you haven’t seen PINK FLAMINGOS I won’t spoil the surprises, but I promise you that you’ll never again be able to hear either “Surfin’ Bird” or “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?” without having flashbacks to the scenes in which they are heard on the soundtrack.
This film was a life-changer for me because it was the first time I got to see a film replete with disgusting stuff that wasn’t a porno film, as well as reassuring me that I wasn’t alone in having an utterly puerile, scatological and twisted sense of humor. PINK FLAMINGOS completely rewrote the parameters of what my brain could conceive and express, so if that’s what some would call the corruption of a minor, then I’m absolutely thankful to have been thoroughly corrupted for life in one shot, especially with the corrupting influence coming from director/writer John Waters, a man whom I consider a true hero for many reasons, as well as being the guy I consider my favorite living director. His recurring theme of the underdogs/misfits winning in the face of adversity touched this misfit and served as an inspiration during a time when I really needed a positive influence, and that’s exactly what I got from a film that famously climaxes with a closeup of a three-hundred pound drag queen eating a freshly-laid dog turd.
Hey, man, inspiration is where you find it and PINK FLAMINGOS saved my sanity in no uncertain terms. I urge you to see it for yourself, but be prepared for its incredibly squalid and cheap look, as well as the cornucopia of acts that just may doom your immortal soul to eternal damnation for having witnessed them. Shrill, obnoxious, stupid, and foul as a slow-baked used Tampax, PINK FLAMINGOS is hysterical in every meaning of the term and even manages to shock in these jaded times, some thirty-six years after it exploded across the screen like a bundle of dynamite tossed into a vomitorium. If that ain’t the mark of true art, then I don’t know what is.