The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The nineteenth entry into this disreputable canon is John Waters’ sensational midnight movie tribute to the “filthiest people alive”, Pink Flamingos…
“I’ve always tried to please and satisfy an audience that thinks they’ve seen everything. I try to force them to laugh at their own ability to still be shocked by something. This reaction has always been the reason I make movies. I hate message movies and pride myself on the fact that my work has no socially redeeming value. I like to think I make American comedies.” – John Waters, “Shock Value”
While it’s certainly funny to read these words in John Waters’ raunchy memoir/manifesto, one also can’t help but know that his tongue (as always) is firmly planted in his cheek (while his thumb is securely up America’s ass). Sure, Waters’ landmark midnight movie, Pink Flamingos, is fabulously trashy and an affront to any semblance of the bourgeoisie standard of “good taste”. But it’s also wildly transgressive, thrashing American value systems while simultaneously celebrating a universal human need to establish one’s identity in the face of mass conformity.
Pink Flamingos is a proto-punk freak out that finds hilarity in forced impregnation, elementary school heroin rings, the mentally challenged, and (in the film’s most infamous scene) a 300-pound drag queen who has no trouble squatting down, scooping up a handful of dog shit and scarfing like a kid in a chocolate store. From the moment Pink Flamingos premiered in Waters’ beloved Baltimore, Maryland in March of ’72, it sent shockwaves rippling through the stratosphere of pop culture that can still be felt today, influencing Jim Jarmusch to Jackass. It’s one of a kind.
To try and synopsize Waters’ relentless, shrieking funhouse of trailer park depravity seems fool hearted, so it’s best to just let the man himself introduce the scene:
Pink Flamingos, the most widely known of my films to date, is a very American film. It is billed as “an exercise in poor taste” and I like the understatement. It deals with very American subjects – competitiveness and war – and concerns two groups of outcasts vying for the title “The Filthiest People Alive.” On one side we have Divine, the queen of sleaze, and her troubled family: Crackers (Danny Mills), her demented hillbilly-hippie son; Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), her bleached-blond, glamorous, and voyeuristic traveling companion; and Mama Edie (Edith Massey), a 250-pound senior citizen who sits in a playpen dressed in a girdle and bra and worships eggs.
The challengers to the title are Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Sole and David Lochary), a jealous, publicity-hungry couple with prepunk red and blue hair who sell heroin to inner city elementary school students and kidnap hitchhiking girls, impregnate them with their servant’s (Channing Wilroy) semen, and sell the babies to lesbian couples.
That’s really it – an escalating series of sickening pranks perpetrated by two groups of heathens looking to out-ick each other, set off by a screaming tabloid headline that hails Divine as the “filthiest person alive”. However, Waters’ early opus (following a series of silly shorts like Dorothy, the Kansas City Pothead and features Eat Your Makeup, Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs) is incredibly affecting on an almost elemental emotional level. Once you get past the outrageous layer of slime he layers on each of the players, they’re really no different from anyone sitting in the audience in terms of basic human needs. He makes debauchery relatable on a level that’s really marvelous.
As bizarre as they are, Divine’s family (primarily overseen by “Babs Johnson”) love and care for one another in their own way. They ensure Edie gets to see the Egg Man regularly, and that Crackers receives all the love he can handle (including incestuous blowjobs). Cotton is the little sister, always peeping and being looked after by her wilder “kin”. Divine and her brood are certainly proud of the title they’ve earned; yet they’re not out to flaunt it. It’s merely who they are. Don’t judge them. Embrace it, just like you would your own eccentricities.
The Marbles, on the other hand, are primo shitpile assholes. Outside of their nefarious heroin and rape-baby peddling activities, they’re a covetous duo, wanting the status simply for what it represents: a title that would elevate them into the public spotlight. Where Divine acknowledges that “filth” is ingrained in her DNA, it’s a pissing contest for Connie and Raymond, never wanting to be outdone as they sneer and hiss at their potential child-purchasing customers. Their greedy nature leads to all out combat, as they mail Divine a turd and then burn the family’s quaint trailer to the ground. Unfortunately for the Marbles, Hell hath no fury like a shim* scorned.
This raging battle for a rather bullshit moniker is possibly one of the more “American” conflicts ever concocted, and resonates rather strongly in the online era. Fame and recognition are the only things that matter for the Marbles, to the point that they engage in numerous acts of “assholism” to try and prove that they’re more “filthy” than Divine. Were Waters’ sleaze masterwork made in 2015, it wouldn’t be hard to envision this becoming some kind of petulant Twitter/Vine feud, as the Marbles troll the hell out of the “Johnsons” just for the sake of everyone seeing their flagrant acts of peacocking. Forty years ago, Waters was tapping into a basic American drive that still dominates many narcissists who log on everyday. Acknowledgement is a fuel for some, whereas others are content simply knowing what strengths they possess, and will only exert force against challengers when truly threatened.
You could view Pink Flamingos as being Waters’ purposeful attack on conservative values, but that would be way too easy, and the “Pope of Trash” would never be so obvious or boring. Inspired by a trailer park he passed during a road trip, Waters began to imagine life for the folks who called this place home; a simple daydream materializing into a humane piece of outsider art, in which the shock schlock purveyor shows genuine love for his “warriors”. Waters has long maintained that “white trash” is one of the last racial slurs you can get away with uttering in public, and Pink Flamingos seems to be his evidence supporting that statement. These are folks just trying to live their lives unencumbered by the expectations of those who don’t “get” their ways. That’s an American value unto itself, singing sphincters be damned.
In the end, the “assholes” are tried and convicted for their crimes, as Waters escalates Pink Flamingos to heights of filmic lunacy rarely matched. Yet the Baltimore filmmaker’s button pushing becomes something more than just simple shock tactics. By its finale, Pink Flamingos is a bona fide celebration of fringe culture and the unique individuals it breeds. To deny their individuality, as off-putting as it may be to “mainstream” sensibilities, would render one prejudiced against legitimate expressions of self. So while it’s easy to laugh for ninety minutes at the brazen perversity on display, it’s also quite enjoyable to connect with Pink Flamingos on a base sociological level. Perhaps against his own intentions, Waters has found something unifying in this absurdly grotesque sideshow. We are all gutter rats, hopelessly pining to wallow in the sewers we call home.
Tonight on Weird Wednesday: Desperate Living
Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left
*Now before you fill the comments section with complaints about “problematic” labels, this is how Divine self-identified (according to Waters).