Bright Lights Film Journal

Primal Gross-out: <em>Pink Flamingos</em> Restored

The seminal trash classic all dressed up with somewhere to go

Cinema, like any art form, has its milestones — the first “story film” in The Great Train Robbery (1903), the first international movie star in Denmark’s Asta Nielsen, the first sound film in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first film noir in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and so on. Bringing up the literal rear of this exalted company is John Waters’s Pink Flamingos, which, thanks to an eager star and an accommodating poodle, became the first commercial feature to end with the star eating dogshit. (Actually, it was a Hungarian sheepdog, not a poodle — distinctions, distinctions!) Of course, one could point to the chicken-fucking scene as another breakthrough, but even this dizzying mélange of feathers and come is eclipsed by Divine’s canine coprophagia as a primal gross-out.

The most shocking thing about Pink Flamingos is that it’s 25 years old. To mark the occasion, Waters had the film blown up from 16 to 35mm and “restored.” The grimy pastels of the original practically shimmer in the new version, and the soundtrack is now completely audible. As further evidence that this trash epic has come into its own and approaches respectability, Waters actually gives screen credit to the groups whose music he “sampled” in the original — we can now rest easy knowing that thrillingly twangy guitar belongs to Link Wray. A final enticement is the 13 minutes of additional footage Waters allegedly found in his attic that gives flashes of discarded subplots and amusingly weird characters like “Patti Hitler.”

For the few who haven’t memorized every nuance of this seminal camp work, Pink Flamingos follows the adventures of Babs Johnson (Divine), a fat, style-obsessed criminal who lives in a trailer with her mentally ill mother Edie (Edith Massey), her delinquent son Crackers (Danny Mills), and her traveling companion Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce). Their little dream life of shoplifting, egg-sucking, and chicken-fucking is threatened when an eccentric couple, Raymond and Connie Marble (David Lochary and Mink Stole), “two jealous perverts” according to the script, try to seize Dawn’s title of “filthiest person alive” by sending her a turd in the mail and burning down her trailer. The Marbles kidnap hitchhiking women, have them impregnated by their servant Channing (Channing Wilroy), and then sell the babies to lesbian couples. As Raymond explains, they use the dykes’ money to finance their porno shops and “a network of dealers selling heroin in the inner-city elementary schools.”

Many of the film’s set-pieces are still hilarious. One of the best is Connie’s interviewing applicants for the job of spying on Babs Johnson. As she explains to a hysterical reject, “I guess there are just two kinds of people in this world — my kind of people, and assholes.” Waters devotes much attention to Edith Massey’s egg obsession, which culminates in a screeching fit when Edie somehow imagines all the chickens in the world might disappear. Babs soothes her by saying, “Mama, that’s just egg paranoia.” Divine is at her most ruthless in this film, and her woodland speech to the “media” — representatives from tabloid rags like The Tattler and The Midnight — is wonderfully anarchic. Asked about her philosophy, she screams, “Kill everyone now! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit!”

The film abounds with such rude pleasures. One of Raymond’s quirks is exposing himself in public, which he makes even weirder by tying a long sausage to his dick and waving it at horrified citizens. He meets his match on a bridge, where a young woman laughingly raises her skirt at him to reveal she’s a transsexual with penis intact. Waters pulls out all the stops at Babs’s birthday party, which turns into an orgy of comical cannibalism when the Marbles tip off the police, who are attacked and eaten by what look like a mix of Waters’s seedy pals, various street people, and Baltimore hippies circa 1971.

Waters’s use of language is as always brilliantly vivid. When Babs and Crackers invade the Marble home, they examine what they revile as the Marbles’ “fuck chamber,” and Babs imagines Connie giving Raymond head with her “brittle chapped lips” and “scraping her ugly decayed teeth over his dick.” When Babs receives the Marbles’ evil birthday present, she screeches, “We must out-filth the asshole or assholes who sent this!”

Squeamish viewers won’t relish either Crackers and Cookie’s (Cookie Mueller) chicken-fucking scene or Babs’s shit-scarfing, which are even more vivid and disgusting in this polished print. Still, these are what put the film on the map, brought Waters all the publicity, negative and otherwise, that he craved, and gave Pink Flamingos a permanent place in the public mind.

As for the new footage, much as we welcome a look into Waters’s head, he was wise in leaving most of this stuff out. Edith Massey goes over the top — even for her — when she’s sitting in her playpen in bra and panties mindlessly introducing eggs to each other: “Freddy, this is JoAnn. JoAnn, this is Freddy.” Babs has an intriguing speech about realizing she had the capacity to be “perfect,” and we get a rare view of her big naked ass as she waddles through her trailer. The Marbles echo Waters’s well-known disgust with everything natural when they’re walking toward Babs’s trailer and hear a bird chirping. Raymond reacts in horror, and wonders “what people would think if they knew that animals were busy shitting and fucking” in the forest. Two of these hated animals — chickens and dogs — are thankfully not represented in the new scenes.