Watching a John Waters Film is a unique experience. I suppose it’s comparable to a modern art exhibit: confusing,shocking, and capable of prompting strong emotions of anger laughter or disgust. Yet, we cannot help ourselves from watching, as it appeals to the dark side of our psyche.
His most notorious film, Pink Flamingos (1972) is the ultimate cult film, second only to perhaps the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film’s cult status is sealed in its vile and scandalous content, meaning that it took many years for it to be released properly, and was instead screened in private cinema clubs, and at midnight shows for many years.
At its heart, Waters’ film is punk. It is wholly transgressive; it’s an all-out assault on our notions of good taste and humanity. The ridiculous plot is based around a rivalry between two groups, who fight over the tabloid-received title of ‘filthiest person alive.’ On one side, there is notorious criminal and underground figure Divine (the iconic drag performer), under the alias of Babs Johnson who has moved to a trailer outside Baltimore, Maryland. She lives with her child-like and egg-obsessed mother Edie, her delinquent son Crackers, and her companion Cotton. Threatening Divine’s ‘filth notoriety, are ‘two jealous perverts’, Raymond and Connie Marble who make a living kidnapping hippies, make their butler impregnate them, and the sell the babies to lesbian couples.
Pink Flamingos is one of the most stupid films ever made. Yet it is perfectly aware of this. Waters was still a young filmmaker in the early 70’s and did not cast professionals in this film, but rather the cast is made up of his friends. Thus, the acting is dreadful, yet so too are the script, production values (the film was made on a minuscule budget of £10,000) and cinematography. Waters did not want something refined, or polished; he revels in trash, tackiness and filth. Divine’s performance is sensational; she is perhaps the only capable actor in the film. Her speech during finale’s execution scene is shocking and iconic. ‘Kill everyone now! Advocate cannibalism! Eat Shit!’
Pink Flamingos is possibly the most repulsive film ever made, and features and endless parade of depraved acts, each one more horrific than the last. These include incest, cannibalism, public indecency, bestiality and homicide. Worse still, these acts (minus the murder and cannibalism) were not fabricated in the film, but were real. However, as much as we can critique Waters for these cheap shock tactics, there is much more to Pink Flamingos than Warholian repulsion. The film is a complex study of celebrity culture, most notable, the desire of doing literally anything for the reward of fame and notoriety. Ingeniously, this places responsibility for these horrific acts on society, and thus, the audience. Society’s disturbing obsession with fame and scandal has forced these characters, ‘the filthiest people alive’ to elevate their sick lives to maintain such a status. This, along with the themes of crime, gender and sexuality are recurring themes in the films of John Waters.
Pink Flamingos is a true cult classic. It’s tacky and nauseating, yet such a shameful delight to watch. I urge everyone to experience the insanity of a John Waters film, whether it is Pink Flamingos, or any of his others which are also cult classics: Female Trouble, Polyester, Cry Baby and (the original) Hairspray.