The trash masterpiece Pink Flamingos is both sick and sickening. The former adjective refers to something repulsive, while the latter is drag slang for greatness. John Waters’ best-known film remains gloriously offensive and brimming with nauseating scenes featuring bestiality, incest, murder and (most notably) canine coprophagia.

This assault on the viewer’s moral/gag reflex hasn’t lessened since its debut. If anything, the film comes off as more shocking (read: inappropriate) today than it did in 1972. And yet, Pink Flamingos endures as a foundational text of contemporary queer vernacular and ethos, one of the most influential works of counterculture to emerge from the last five decades. Just look at how the low-budget charm of RuPaul’s Drag Race has sanded down these rough edges, on the margin, to become a mass-market sensation while still seeming a little bit outré.

When compared to Waters’ subsequent films – such as Polyester, Hairspray and Serial MomPink Flamingos’ technical execution is downright amateurish. The camera wobbles and zooms in and out during extended shots. Edith Massey, who plays the egg-obsessed Edie, doesn’t appear to understand her lines. Continuity is loose, sometimes non-existent. John Waters himself provides frequent exposition, in a thick Baltimore accent, to help us make sense of the film’s ridiculous plot.

Speaking of which: That plot, if you can even call it one, is proudly simplistic. Babs Johnson (played by the legendary Divine) exults in her status as “The Filthiest Person Alive.” And she defends her title against a couple of degenerates, Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary, respectively), who run a black-market baby ring for prospective lesbian parents. The arms race between both factions escalates more and more, with one instance of filth topping the next (a chicken is killed during a sex act, a human turd is sent via parcel post, a mother gives her son a blow job, a rickety trailer is burned to the ground, a kangaroo court leads to a public execution, and so on). The film ends with Divine, notoriously, serving us a literal shit-eating grin.

“You couldn’t hear most of the dialogue when this was first shown in theaters,” wrote Gus Van Sant about Pink Flamingos in a 1997 issue of The Advocate, “because the audiences couldn’t control their rowdy off-the-map laughter, Tourette’s syndrome-like barking and over the top screaming.” This, I can assure you, is not an exaggeration. I’ve had the privilege of experiencing Pink Flamingos in a theater with other filmgoers about two decades ago. Turns out, home-video grotesquerie transforms into a laugh riot when shown in a darkened room filled with like-minded strangers. Your moral compass suddenly recalibrates. Wrong doesn’t exactly switch to right; it instead points to something subversive, absurd and, yes, really funny. You somehow crave the worst – demand it – knowing full well that it’s very, very bad. John Waters would go on to make better films, one of which would inspire a hit Broadway musical. But none would match the perverted glee of this, his pop-cultural touchstone.

  • Revisit: Polyester

    Polyester stands firmly as a gateway between the gross-out films of Waters' past and the s…
  • Revisit: Female Trouble

    Simply writing down the plot to Female Trouble makes the film sound completely batshit. …
  • Role Models: by John Waters

    [xrr rating=4.0/5]I was in eighth grade when I first discovered John Waters’ Pink Flamingo…
  • Oeuvre: Miyazaki: Ponyo

    Our goldfish-turned-human obtains her agency by adding to the human world the vibrancy of …
  • Criminally Underrated: Maleficent

    Maleficent is the quintessential strong female lead who doesn't need to adopt traditionall…
  • Revisit: The Elephant Man

    The Elephant Man acknowledges the basic desires that lie underneath the most seemingly hid…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

The Answer Is…: by Alex Trebek

Page after page, despite a penchant for swearing and practical joking, the guy seems like …