The problem with cult movies is that the viewer is who not part of the cult following is often left confused at what the fuss is all about. I experienced this recently in watching John Waters’ 1972 “Pink Flamingos” for the very first time.
The “Pink Flamingos” cult is clearly anchored in a specific time and place – in this case, the midnight movie circuit of the 1970s and early 1980s, when cinemas reserved their 12:00am slots on Fridays and Saturdays for a number of weird flicks. The midnight movie favorites never quite made a positive impression during regular theater hours – “El Topo,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Eraserhead” achieved classic status in this after hours setting after being rejected by mainstream critics and audiences of the era.
But whereas “El Topo” and “Eraserhead” can still command attention with their bizarre visual style and “Rocky Horror” can set off a wave of smiles with its insouciant flair, “Pink Flamingos” comes into the 21st century looking like a badly dated misfit of a movie. The genuine gross-out sequences that set “Pink Flamingos” apart in 1972 – most infamously, the chicken f**king encounter and Divine’s consuming of dog feces – created a new bar for inappropriate comedy.
But most of the shock value that Waters served up seems fairly tame when compared to mainstream flicks and prime time television shows that casually incorporate references to homosexuality, masturbation, body fluids and flatulence into their humor. When one considers what Howard Stern is saying on the radio or what the Farrelly Brothers have put in their mainstream films or what turns up on cable TV, “Pink Flamingos” is somewhat benign.
This is not to say that the film is completely lacking. Waters’ gift for camp dialogue and the cartoonish excessiveness of his weirdo ensemble – particularly massive Edith Massey sitting in an oversized playpen – are still able to bring about smiles. And the hidden camera segment with Divine attracting bewildered stares as he/she strolls in full dress and make-up through a predominantly African American section of downtown Baltimore needs to be seen to be believed.
What is surprising today (at least for someone watching the film for the first time) is the amateurish nature of the production. Perhaps the expectations of filmgoers have evolved so greatly that it is impossible to imagine any contemporary audience paying to see such a crudely made feature as this glorified home movie. Even the bottom feeders among contemporary low budget filmmaking strive for visual pizazz with HD cinematography and digital sound.
In the 1970s, however, the demented cheapo aspects of the Waters’ film style helped give him a degree of outlaw cred among underground movie fans – his work felt like anti-movies, if you will, due to their intentional lack of technical finesse. (The film’s soundtrack of 1950s doo-wop music starts and stops so abruptly that you can actually imagine Waters’ dropping and lifting his phonograph needle from his worn-out record collections.)
Though, on second thought, maybe my problem with “Pink Flamingos” is that I came too late to the film. Outside of its period, it seems like a zany curio. In its time, it must have a blast to behold. Alas, perhaps I arrived too late for the fun?
1972, Directed by John Waters
Starring Divine, Mink Stole, Edith Massey