25 years later, still in the pink Director: On the rerelease of his early oeuvre 'Pink Flamingos,' suburban guerrilla John Waters is still seeing things the way you don't.

April 06, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Still, Waters runs deep.

Unchanged, unrepentant, unabashed, the bad boy of Baltimore underground -- and eventually aboveground -- movie making, now looks back exactly as he looks forward. While he works on developing his new film, "Pecker," he's also celebrating the release a quarter-century ago -- a quarter-century ago!! -- of the movie that put him on the new map of American culture, "Pink Flamingos."

That work, hated, adored, banned, censored, mutilated, worshiped, but completely impossible to ignore, will be rereleased next Friday in an anniversary edition, with new footage. He won't go away. They'll probably still be writing about him in 2019. So one must ask: Who has aged better than John Waters?

Well, possibly Zsa Zsa. But still, Waters has done it about as well as it can be done, without mascara or plastic surgery.

At 50, he's transmogrified from scruffy guerrilla of the taste wars, terrorist of the bourgeois sensibility, commando of the id, celebrator of filth, and all around throat-slitter of all that's good and holy in this world. Now he's egad, a lord of the manor. A man of anniversaries. Owner of tweed sports coats. Someone who serves coffee.

But he hasn't quite surrendered in all areas. He still has that subversive little glint of a mustache, a kind of razor edge of whisker that traces his upper lip, giving him the look, in certain lights, of a professional knife-fighter from the '30s. It's not a big thing, see: It's just subtly there. It flashes into view now and then, fraught with the meaning: This is John Waters, not Walter Pidgeon.

And so it was, in both new tweeds and an old mustache, Waters discussed himself last week in the elegant study of his somewhere-in-Baltimore manse. He sat, he sipped, he chatted, he smoked, his eyebrows ever so gently uplifted with irony, as if he himself has been somewhat astounded to confront what he had once been.

Think 'Pink'

The nominal subject of discourse was his own flamboyant past, "one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive movies ever made" (Variety). This would be your basic "Pink Flamingos," aged at 25 like a bottle of fine Thunderbird. "The Godfather" or "Star Wars" it most definitely isn't.

Nevertheless, the new anniversary edition of "Pink Flamingos" shares with other historic rereleases the inclusion of new footage, an early trailer, and a ciggy butt-in-cheek no-smoking public service announcement from somewhere in Waters' storied past. ("You can't smoke," he says, "because you're in a theater. I, on the other hand, can enjoy this fine, tasty cigarette.")

He sold the idea of the rerelease entirely to Robert Shay, who is president of New Line Cinema; the original film was one of the then-scrambling little company's first hits. With New Line's financial backing, he dug through old files from the "Wonderland Studio" days, and discovered the old footage; then he shot new, introductory scenes featuring himself as narrator and confessor.

Digging through the discarded footage from the long-ago, when he was not some kind of wacko institution but just another scrambler with a dream and a lot of unrepressed friends, was not without its confusion.

"When I saw some of the old footage," he says, "I didn't even remember shooting it. You're used to seeing it as a real movie. I couldn't make sense out of a lot of it. The only way I could put it in is to be the humorous frontman."

That explains his presence as the film's slightly shocked master-of-ceremonies, deadpanning surprise that the film gets into some extremely weird areas of human behavior. He's very funny, maybe the most polished thing that appears on screen. With his natty little bebop buttoned black suit and black tie, he looks like a member of a British teddy boy rock group, about 1964, eyes radiating slightly tremulous beams of horror.

And the horror may not be unjustified. The film, either infamous or famous depending on your point of view, has entered film lore on the strength of a single sequence: a huge, cross-dressed man made up to resemble Ming the Merciless puts a squirt of doggy poop in his mouth, and chews with gusto. In some ways, neither the star -- Harris Glenn Milstead, more famously known in his alter ego as "Divine" -- nor Waters ever lived that moment down.

"Three decades later, it can still startle a 20-year old," Waters says in a voice burnished with quiet pride. "That's hard to do." In exactly the same tone, he could have said, "We moved some hollyhock into the delphinium bed, and it's worked out quite nicely, I think."

'Pot humor'

"It was pot humor, plain and simple," he recalls. "There was never much discussion. Glenn just said he'd do it, and that would be that. It didn't seem like an issue. It was late and we were losing light. And it was [assistant director] Pat Moran's dog, not a poodle as everybody said, but a puli, a breed of Hungarian sheep dog. It was our last shot on our last day. We just pulled over by the side of the road in Baltimore "

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