I didn’t get to see Pink Flamingos until I was eighteen. Prior to that it was a dirty myth; all I had were a few stills of Divine and Edith Massey (in her “Egg Lady” playpen) to look at over and over, wishing I could actually see what the fuss was about. I did see it in Providence, at a midnight show, having been thrown out of a Greek pizza place an hour prior for quoting “My name is Stavros Milos and I am in love with a sheep!” from Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex… one too many times. As my friends and I walked to the cinema, we passed a small crowd singing “show me the butthole!” in rabid anticipation of that infamous scene. The film did not disappoint. I left it nauseated, in possession of knowledge I didn’t need, but which I knew would appall everyone I disliked. It was like taking a seminar in the power of art to shake assumptions, and on how humor is the best weapon in the war against inertia.
The self-described “Prince of Puke,” director John Waters has partially been responsible for making the depraved commonplace. His films–from the early Eat Your Makeup and Mondo Trasho, to the classic Pink Flamingos and more recently, Pecker and A Dirty Shame–have shown us the seedy, and revealed it as a mirror on ourselves.
John Waters: This Filthy World, a lecture/standup routine in which Waters reviews his career film by film, name-drops some of his heroes, and comments on some of his obsessions, is not shocking in the way it would have been 25 years ago. His rather long and hilarious list of the latest underground fetishes he has learned about include “Ultimate Nudity,” where gay men have the skin of their testicles removed and replaced with sheer plastic, the better to see the semen in the process of launch; “Blossoming”: the distended anal fissures created from too much fisting, the photos of which are swapped by the afflicted online; anal bleaching; gay “Bear” culture; etc. What is most shocking here, however, is the response and look of the audience. At one point Waters tells with relish the true story of a Midwest family, big fans of Hairspray, who rented Pink Flamingos and were so appalled that they had to call the police just to help them process the shock. The rather preppy and clueless audience had much in common with this intellectually stunted Joad family.
It was not so much their unfamiliarity with his work–even mentions of his most famous films received only sparse applause–but the fact that their tepid and nervous laughter gave me the impression they were horrified by Waters, or afraid of him. Why were they there?
Even more frightening, they not only seemed to miss most of his commentary on his own and his influences’ work, but were as lukewarm in their response to his ideas on the necessity of film to shake up complacency and shock the viewer into an awareness of the everyday beyond its usual assumptions.
The crowd seemed to have rather been there to hear the director of The Fast and Furious. If a college audience reacts to thoughts on rebellion like Baltimore housewives, we may be in trouble as a culture.
Directed by Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Jeff Garlin, and featuring a stage set consisting of a confessional with several garbage cans and bouquets of flowers on opposite sides of it, the film survives the subtle fear of the audience by Waters’ sheer joy of life, mock-horror at the world, and real horror at some of it. It is an honest, brutal, yet loving performance, by a man Generation Xbox needs to listen to a little more intently on his next college tour.