This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip for French Toast Sunday. It was also suggested for me to watch by Lindsay Street of French Toast Sunday, and is amongst the supposed “Bad” movies suggested by Chip and Steve.
In northern Baltimore, Divine (Divine) is living under the alias of Babs Johnson after being heralded with the title of the Filthiest Person Alive, which evidently in this work is front page news. She lives in a trailer with her son Crackers (Danny Mills), her mother Edie (Edith Massey) and their travelling companion Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce). More on them later. Upon learning of Divine’s notoriety a couple, Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary), who believe they are the rightful recipients of the award, set out to prove they are far more filthy than Divine, and aim to bring her down in the process.
Jeez I picked a heck of a way to end this road trip, finishing in the home ground of French Toast Sunday. However, if the real place is much like the depiction in this movie, I’ll be staying far away thanks all the same. John Waters has a reputation for making relatively off kilter films, the only other one I’ve seen being Hairspray, but I don’t recall it all that well, and judging by Pink Flamingos I’d say his reputation is thoroughly deserved. This may be the most depraved work of cinema I’ve seen sinceSalo, and the two share more than a little in common. Some of the acts of indecency on display here are downright nauseating – quite literally in several instances – and it was a challenge to keep my dinner down through much of the proceedings.
We’re not told specifically how Divine has achieved her filthy status but, by following her around, it seems to fit given how she tries to run people off the road cackling manically as she does so. She buys a steak from a delicatessen and places it between her ample thighs, without wearing any underwear, then proceeds to walk around with it there for the rest of the day, until she cooks it for her family that evening, proudly telling them exactly where she’d been storing it. This film features what felt like a solid five minutes of her and Crackers – who, let’s not forget, is her son – licking everything in the Marbles’ house – that’s right, I said licking – until the licking becomes so invigorating that she makes the motions to perform fellatio on her own offspring, leading to the unforgettable line of “Do my balls, Mama!” Fortunately they are interrupted. Speaking of Crackers, he goes on a date with a girl (Cookie Mueller) who turns out to be a spy sent by the Marbles. Crackers takes Cookie to his shack next to his mother’s trailer to have sex, but Crackers is into some weirdness when it comes to coitus, and this time around it involves a live chicken that quite clearly does not wish to be involved. All this is for the sexual arousal of Cotton, the travelling companion, who can be seen pleasuring herself at the window. Meanwhile Edie, Divine’s mother, is essentially a giant baby, living in a crib, wearing underwear and obsessing over eggs, which are brought to her by the Egg Mann (Paul Swift) whom she eventually marries. The Marbles on the other hand are a couple of perverted kidnappers who pick up female hitch-hikers, have them raped and impregnated by their chauffeur Channing (Channing Wilroy). They then take and sell the babies to lesbian couples, and use the money to fund heroin dealers who target schools. Charming people all round, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Even disregarding the depravity this is a terrible film. The acting is amongst the worst I’ve seen in any film, and given how many of these people are John Waters’ regulars I’ll most certainly never be watching any of his other work any time soon. The story seems forced and stilted – Divine learns of the Marbles’ plan and whereabouts off-screen, via the town gossip, whom we also never meet – and seems to be more an act of sensationalism than a constructed narrative. That may well be the point, given the film’s tagline of “An exercise in poor taste.” The whole thing feels very much like a challenge from John Waters to see how much awfulness he can display on-screen that people will actually watch. As with Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, this film regularly looks to the viewer to ask “Why are you watching this? What will it take for you to stop?” but this wasn’t a film I watched because I wanted to. Very little of the film made me want to continue viewing, and I spent much of the run-time averting my eyes and willing for the timer to move forward faster.
The one single moment I can describe positively comes near the end, after the Marbles’ house has been licked, which Divine claimed would make the house turn against the couple who live there. Connie and Raymond return home and sit on their sofa, only for the seat cushions to jump up and throw them off. There was something about these suddenly animated cushions throwing off their owners that tickled me. However, all this was lost in the film’s denouement when, after having dealt with the Marbles in her own way, the narrator (also John Waters) claims that Divine is about to prove “That not only is she the filthiest person in the world, she’s also the filthiest actress in the world! What you are about to see is the real thing!” The fourth wall is once again broken, and it’s unclear if we’re now watching Divine the actress, Divine the character played by Divine the actress, or if there’s been no difference this whole time, as in one unbroken shot we see a dog squat, defecate on the street, Divine pick up the defecation and pop it into her mouth. She chews, gags, spits a little out, then turns to the camera and gives a big grin, canine faeces prominently displayed in her teeth. This, and an early scene in which the camera takes a prolonged view directly into a man’s anus as he tries to lip-sync to a song using his own bowel muscles, was when I oh so nearly threw up. Heaven knows how I didn’t.
Nowadays Pink Flamingos could be seen as an indictment of celebrity culture, and those who thrive on their own shortcomings being the fuel that gains them fame and fortune. We live in an age where some of the most prominent figures in society and the media have achieved this status via sex tapes and political scandals, which taken to their furthest extremes could reach the levels of depravity on display here. Back in 1972 I cannot say if that was the case as much as this might just be John Waters making a film he wanted to make, regardless of how sickening it might be, and I really wish he hadn’t.
Choose Life 2/10