Divine Filth Review: John Waters' perverse, raunchy 'Pink Flamingos' still oozes hysterical fury after 25 years.

April 11, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Some say the world will end in fire, and some say ice. I say they're both wrong. It ended in "Pink Flamingos" 25 years ago.

We just haven't noticed that we're dead yet, that's all.

But here it is all over again, with that message underscored. A raunchy, all-out attack on everything that's holy except the church, it's the pie in your face from hell.

The story behind the story has been retold many times: how he borrowed $12,000 from dad, how cold it was during the cannibal orgy scene, how the dog didn't cooperate. We won't retell it now. And the story in front of the story -- the plot, that is -- isn't that interesting, but that's OK, because it doesn't make any sense either. What's interesting is the attitude of infantile rage behind it all.

It was a crazy time, '72. We were "Vietnamizing," which everybody knew meant "getting ready to lose." That in turn meant all those poor kids, all 56,000 of them, had died for exactly nothing, and of the few left over there, one knew he would be the last man killed and the others only thought it. Ho, Ho, Ho-Chi-Minh, NLF is gonna win. NVA flags fluttered everywhere. Meanwhile, the demonstrations had turned ugly, the bombers were loose, and everybody in national politics seemed to be the biology teacher who believed Darwin was god.

Along comes John Waters, with a movie that says, essentially (I think he was inspired by Kierkegaard, or possibly selected earlier Schopenhauer, but certainly Nietzsche) the following: WAHHHHHHHHHHHHH! It was one of those perfect moments in American history, where medium and message and culture were aligned in fearful syzygy.

Plot: Somebody is "the filthiest person alive." Somebody else wants that title. A struggle ensues. The terms of the struggle are all the forms of filthiness.

Setting: Baltimore in pre-Harborplace days, that scuzzy old junkyard dog of a town, downtrodden and shabby and unable to see the mountains of hope -- that is, Baltimore before somebody hired an image consultant. Also, a parcel of nowhere called Phoenix, Md.

Cast: The usual suspects, most of them deviated, mutated, tie-dyed or in some form or other twisted beyond recognition.

Talent: Irrelevant.

"Pink Flamingos" is a triumph not of craft or art or politics but of sheer fury. It's a steel fist in a steel glove. It's a black screed, its crudity, its filth, its perversity not incidental to the message but the message itself. You may have laughed about it or even felt it as a liberation, but it was deeply unsettling, and certain of its images bored through the tissues of the outer whorls of brain straight to the ancient snake thing way deep inside, where they lodged eternally. Most of you, when you die, will think of Divine eating the dog's business. Isn't that a greater gift to civilization than either the pyramids or the Renaissance?

The central icon, of course, was the great Divine him/herself, that huge fleshbag of perverse sexuality and burlesque makeup, half-bald and half big-haired, crammed so tightly into a Fifties sex-bomb outfit that the tension in the silk seemed dangerous. Is there a monster in mythology so terrifying? I'd rather date Medusa than Divine; better hair, and I don't mind snakes all that much. Plus, I wouldn't have nightmares later. OK, so I'd be stone.

Divine's is a great -- well, I was going to say "performance," but it's more than a performance: To borrow a term from Thomas Harris' musings on sociopathology, it was, somehow, a "becoming." As Babs Johnson, current holder of and defender of the title filthiest person alive, Divine is John Wayne's Ethan Edwards on estrogen, a difficult man turned into a difficult woman. You sit there watching her tick away, knowing that when she blows, she'll take us all with her.

And tick she does, with her crew of "family." (It's the ultimate "family values" movie, by the way.) The poor nasty Marbles (Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary), the other pretenders to the crown, think they belong in the game with her! Hah! Lord, what fools these mortals be. Divine is capable of even turning their couches against them.

The great abiding pleasure of this film -- other than the sweat of dread it generates as the scabrous old images pound you (the dancing guy with his underpants down and his butt up sent me scurrying to the lobby for a glimpse of sunlight) -- is Waters' presence at the end as a sort of shocked narrator of the footage that he's found. Naturally, the footage makes no sense at all, but neither did the original. Even Waters admits he couldn't figure out why he shot it.

Has the anger cooled? Oh, if you let it. But best not to. Best let it send you back there to a moment in history where it was absolutely necessary. And that is why the movie has become irreplaceable.

'Pink Flamingos' (1972)

Starring Divine and Mink Stole

Directed by John Waters

Released by Fine Line

L Rated NC-17 (extreme sleaze and grossness; also, very dirty)

Sun score: ********

Pub Date: 4/11/97

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