Pink Flamingos

Certificate: 18
Running time: 93 mins
Director: John Waters
Starring: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pierce, Mink Stole
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Exploitation
Format: DVD
Country: USA

“One of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made”[1] these are but three qualities of John Waters’ 1972 independent film shot on the streets of Baltimore and starring his band of friends and deviants.

The notorious Baltimore criminal Divine sets out to destroy Connie and Raymond Marble who have taken up of the challenge of ousting Lady Divine from her tabloid adorned title of the “filthiest person alive”.  In this war of standards there is no line that can’t or won’t be crossed in a big for victory.

Anyone familiar with the works of John Waters, and by that it’s meant to read ‘pre Hairspray remake starring the awkwardly odd John Travolta’, will be aware of the faces in Pink Flamingos as it’s the same gang of deviant artists that portray the outlandish characters in most of Waters’ early work (Multiple Maniacs, Desperate Living and Female Trouble for example).  They will also be aware of the cinematic style and the unconscious desire to push the boundaries of cinematic taste if for no other reason than they can.  To the newcomer this is probably a good place to start before you dive into the sexual assault of Divine by a six foot lobster named Lobstora (Multiple Maniacs) as it’s relatively unsurreal in a way that other offerings are. 

The cinematography of the film is shaky and the editing rough but this is due to the technology available at the time, Waters is an accomplished and masterful film maker and even in the early days had an amazing eye for what he wanted and how he was going to piece it all together.  These slight blemishes (if you would call them that, may of us wouldn’t) simply add to the quality and character of the film.  In France these imperfections would be called Nouvelle Vague, in Italy labeled Neo-realism and would ultimately be seen as Dogma cinema from the likes of Von Trier so why shouldn’t they be revered in an American director making films outside of the Hollywood structure for the sake of making films?  The soundtrack is excellent, rude, confrontational and schizophrenic.  Waters’ understanding of how to manipulate the incompatibility of audio and visual is masterful and an early example of what directors like Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) instinctively knew would push the audience to interact with the film rather than simply allow their emotions to be played with by the marriage of sight and sound.

The script has one set up, some character development but mainly punctuated with hilarious and possibly drug dialogue and set pieces.  There’s too many to go through them all but a couple worth highlighting is the man servant of Connie and Raymond Marble dressing up in his mistresses clothes and re-enacting a conversation he has overheard and Divine & son Crackers breaking into the Marble’s house before licking all the furniture and have sexual relations driving the furniture to reject the Marbles from sitting on it when they return.  Likewise there is some insanely brilliant dialogue delivered with such bravado from the performers that it’s difficult to decipher what is scripted and what has been improvised on the day.  Either way is instantly memorable and verging on genius.

Divine is John Wayne to John Waters’ John Ford as Divine plays Divine in almost all of the helmer’s films, with the exception of Polyester.  That’s not a criticism, Divine is excellent in Pink Flamingos and has such a natural presence in front of the camera that the film plays out like a semi autobiographical performance mixed with slashes of theatricality all so tightly woven together that it’s a real challenge to separate.  Divine is never better than during the impromptu media fuelled trial in Arizona.  Long shorts are something of a problem for film performers, their acting style and abilities are often geared towards short takes that are pieced together in post production however Waters’ use of the long take is one that allows for performers to feel their way into a scene and deliver their performances naturally and it is that quality that is clear in Divine.  The ability to hold court and have the attention of the audience in the palm of your hand is something that’s often overlooked when you think of Divine but is a wonderful quality in a performer.  Similarly Edith Massey (as Edie) is excellent as the egg obsessed mother with the mind of a child.  Edith’s work with Waters’ always had her in the most bizarre and wonderful roles and she was never better than as the evil Queen in Desperate Living yet in Pink Flamingos she too holds the audiences attention extremely well during the long takes and has wonderful chemistry with Divine and Paul Swift (The Egg Man).  If some of her dialogue seems improvised it’s because it probably was.  Edith’s life of wild times, drugs and bohemian lifestyle is documented wonderfully in A Love Letter to Edie and it’s the knowledge of her personal difficulties that makes this performance even more believable and sad.  David Lochary and Mink Stole (Raymond & Connie Marble) are both brilliant, Lochary has the wonderful ability to appear arrogant and yet idiotic on screen at the same time without ever tipping his hat towards one style more or appearing showy on camera.  He has a natural quality than makes him lovable, even in the nastiest of roles.  Stole has less to do than in some of her other outings with Waters but is brilliant as the obsessed housewife and serial sex abuser.  With Lochary’s charm slipping through Stole’s stony faced performances gives her an, almost Lady MacBeth, quality and works so well the latter half of the film.  Other Waters affiliates like Cookie Mueller, Mary Vivian Pierce and Danny Mills all have supporting roles and all are truly wonderful.  It’s rare to see a cast that all carry their share of the weight when it comes to quality of performance and it’s even rarer when the film itself is independent and made of hellraisers.
Pink Flamingos is more certainly not for the faint hearted, those turned by the sight of feces or chickens but if you’re of an adventurous nature you will not find a film that’s more entertaining, challenging or big in the heart department.  It stands the test of time as a bona-fide classic and a guardian of all that’s great about independent cinema.  “Burn everything, legalize cannibalism, eat shit!”[2]

[1] Daily Variety review
[2] Divine in Pink Flamingos 1972


Anonymous said...

A friend made me watch this in High School. I remember thinking, wtf am I watching, then I liked it, then people were gonna eat some poo. I'm still mixed on John Waters.

John Baxter said...

I love how fearless he is, granted most of the time in the 70's he was off his face along with all the gang but his films demand discussion. It can only be a good thing. Sorry if it scared you lol.

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