Pink Flamingos B+
Raised in a comfortable Catholic family, John Waters schooled himself in marginal cinema at the local XXX houses and made some 8mm exploitation shorts (Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Eat Your Makeup). He circumvented film school to write and direct Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, crude movies, shot in 16mm and in black and white, which introduced the “offensive” satire mode that would become his specialty.
Waters burst to prominence in 1972 with Pink Flamingos, a bad-taste classic, which contained what would become the most (in)famous scene of his movies: Divine stooping to eat dog excrement. In the same movie, viewers were exposed to the spectacle of an “Egg Lady” begging for poultry from her crib, and to the rape and murder of a chicken.
Pink Flamingos featured Divine, a flamboyant 300-pound transvestite, a former highschool friend named Harris Glenn Milstead, whom Waters cultivated as his favorite star. Divine began his career as a joke on drag queens, mocking their desire to be pretty. There was always anger in Divine, but not hostility. “Divine was hassled a lot,” Waters said, “I'm proud that I gave him an outlet for his anger and revenge. The people that used to beat him up later stood in line and asked for autographs.”
Giving middle-class audiences a good shake-up, Pink Flamingos also had an effect on punk culture with its royal-blue hairdos and half-shaved heads. As a $10,000 effort about “the filthiest person alive,” Pink Flamingos gained national distribution and a following on the arthouse circuit. Cherished by midnight moviegoers, it ran for years in N.Y. and L.A.
In a dismissive review, Variety described the film as “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.” Instead of being offended, Waters took the review as a compliment, adding that Pink Flamingos was vile, as Variety said, but “joyously vile.” Negative reviews didn't faze Waters, because “there was a cultural war going on, it was them versus us.” He knew that critics who panned his work simply didn't get him. It's always been that way: “You just get it or you don't, there's not much in the middle.”
Waters' reputation for excess enthralled the cognoscenti, but not studio executives–”Pink Flamingos is still the movie that gets me in the door, and then thrown out the door,” Waters said. He lost years of work in failed attempts to make a sequel to Pink Flamingos.
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