FILM : ‘Pink Flamingos’: Cult of Bad Taste

<i> Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Cult movies come with their own superlatives. This is the sexiest, that’s the weirdest. This one’s the funniest, that one’s the smartest.

As for “Pink Flamingos,” it happily wears the crown of the grossest. You can see it Friday night as UC Irvine begins its “Early Films: Famous Director” series, but be warned: This camp-trash epic is not for the faint of stomach.

Back in the early ‘70s, when underground movie director John Waters apparently knew little about filmmaking but had an outrageous vision, he gathered a motley cadre of regulars to create a grinning assault on middle-class thinking and suburban nostalgia.


What he ended up with was an X-rated novelty gag, the film equivalent of a teen-ager mooning his parents while shouting swear words toward heaven. It only cost $10,000 but became the watershed of bad taste, a legend among fans who looked to Waters for anything that would turn the square world on its ear.

Some critics--including many who blasted the picture when it first came out--have called “Pink Flamingos” seminal, a taboo-buster that expanded the horizons of American cinema. Well, that’s pretty silly. It may have had a quirky relevance when released in 1972, a time when the counterculture eagerly searched for subversive images, but even then Warhol and his people had already done much of what Waters later set out to do.

What you can’t underestimate is its fame. Just about anybody who knows anything about movies has heard of “Pink Flamingos,” and cultists continue to put it on a pedestal in their pantheon of scandal. My local video store keeps two copies, an honor reserved for only the most popular releases. “Citizen Kane” doesn’t have two copies, neither does “It’s a Wonderful Life,” even around Christmastime.

It’s difficult to describe the imagery, especially for a general-interest newspaper. Let this mention of the most celebrated “Pink Flamingos” scene suffice: star Divine, a huge, marauding transvestite, follows a dog and smilingly eats his droppings. To this day, Waters swears the moment was real--it’s the movie’s most eye-popping, stomach-rolling scene, but there are several others that come close.

Waters, who went on to direct the odd but fairly mainstream “Hairspray” and “Crybaby,” is as crude as flatulence in his novice stage. “Pink Flamingos” is really just a home movie made by a guy with a camera fetish, plenty of nasty thoughts and a lot of nerve. Technically, it’s laughable, with terrible acting and unimaginative scene blocking.

Waters barely knows where to put the camera half the time. He frames everybody from the same 5- to 10-foot range, and his coaching apparently amounts to asking all actors to throw out the same comic urgency when their lines come up.


The flow is largely improvisational (supporting actors gaze off--as if they’re thinking about what to have later for dinner--while stars do their thing) and wrapped loosely around a bizarre plot involving Divine as “the world’s filthiest person.” She has competition though, the nasty suburbanites, Raymond and Connie Marble (David Lochary and Mink Stole), who kidnap girls, impregnate them and then sell their babies for fun and profit.

One thing you can say for “Pink Flamingos,” it has a frat party chumminess, even at its most repulsive. In the late ‘60s and through the ‘70s, Waters used the same gang of pals for his ensemble, and that created a kind of “let’s get down and dirty together” camaraderie.

The ringleader, at least on film, is always Divine, and she’s something to behold. In real life, Divine was Glenn Milstead, a longtime buddy of Waters. But once in makeup, push-up bra and a dress ready to pop at every button, the 300-pound Milstead became the symbol for all that Waters held dear.

In “Pink Flamingos,” Divine looks like a crazed World Wrestling Federation castoff and carries on like someone with a mission--to bash our conservative sensibilities with all the rawness she can muster. It was a star turn of tremendous girth and repercussions. In the midnight movie world of sleazy euphoria, Divine became a celebrity of heroic proportions able to carry Waters on her beefy shoulders.

What: John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos.”

When: Friday, April 3, at 7 and 9 p.m.

Where: UC Irvine’s Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Camus Drive and take Bridge Road into the campus.

Wherewithal: $4.

Where to Call: (714) 856-6379.