John Waters' Pink Flamingos Is A Masterpiece: The Cracked Guide To Cult Movies
This week Cracked is exploring the legacy and impact of cult movies – you can check Part 1 on Rocky Horror here.
Welcome, intrepid readers, to the Fun Zone. For legal reasons I’m obligated to tell you that today in the “Fun Zone” we’re going to be talking about some really dirty stuff, so if you’re a baby that has somehow learned to use the internet I must ask you go instead to a website more suited to baby brains, such as Roblox or Bloomberg.com/opinion.
Because today we’re going to be discussing what some have called the most disgusting film ever made, and what others (me) have called “I love this movie so much I have seriously considered getting a tattoo of the main character:” Pink Flamingos (1972).
What’s This Movie About?
If you’re coming to Pink Flamingos for the plot you’re on the wrong train, buddy. It’s about a woman named Babs Johnson, which in the film is a pseudonym used by Divine, which confusingly is also the actor’s real-life stage name (itself a pseudonym of Harris Glen Milstead). Babs is on the run due to her life of crime, and she’s currently hiding out in a trailer in the forests outside of Baltimore. She lives with her son Crackers, who looks like the median of every dude who works at Midwestern gas stations, her mother, who lives in a giant child pen and is deeply obsessed with eggs, and her friend Cotton, who honestly is pretty normal relatively speaking.
The plot, such as it is, kicks off when Babs is named Filthiest Person Alive by a magazine. This infuriates local sleazeballs Raymond and Connie Marble, who believe they deserve the title of Filthiest Person Alive due to their lucrative baby farm. So the Marbles have their friend Cookie **** Babs’ son Crackers while he ***** and ***** an actual, live chicken and Cotton watches; the chicken is ******* between them until it **** as it ******* Cookie (NOTICE: PRECEDING SENTENCE HAS BEEN CENSORED TO AVOID CONSTITUTING CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY.)
Having gathered information on Babs, the Marbles call the police on Babs’ birthday party, a scene which also includes the most haunting use of Surfin’ Bird ever in a film – sorry, Full Metal Jacket, but your version didn’t include a dude lip syncing the song with his butthole. The police show up, but Babs and her friends promptly kill and eat them, because Babs is friends with the absolute dregs of society – murderers, perverts, and movie theater talkers.
Eventually Babs and company kidnap the Marbles, tie them to a tree, and hold an impromptu trial in which Babs declares them guilty on multiple counts of “assholism,” which appears to be a capital crime because Babs immediately shoots and kills both of them. And look – I’m not saying anything that happens in Pink Flamingos should be emulated, but if assholism was a punishable offense life would be a lot easier for retail workers nationwide. Having secured her title as Filthiest Person Alive, in the film’s most infamous scene Babs decides to celebrate by eating actual dog turds live on camera. The end, roll credits, go home and take a long shower and think about your life.
What Makes it a Cult Movie?
For one, it’s perhaps the ur-example of the filthcore scene of the 70s. That’s probably a very small reason for the film’s longevity, though, as it’s only of interest to film nerds like me. It’s a genuinely funny movie, especially after you’ve seen it for the first time and you get to show your friends. As soon as you hear the opening drumline to Surfin’ Bird, you look over and see your friends staring slack-jawed into the Eye of Sauron. It’s great. It might ruin your friendship and possibly result in a restraining order, but it’s great.
The sheer outrageousness of Pink Flamingos is another big factor in its cult success. A whole lot of movies have been made since 1972, but very few of them are as bald-faced filthy as Pink Flamingos. And of those that are, they’re usually mournful European art films like Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom or The Secret of the Sculptor of Luxury Horse Coffins; they don’t revel in the filth in the way Pink Flamingos does. It takes a gleeful, exuberant approach to pushing the envelope in a way I want to compare to Jackass. Pink Flamingos is transgressive and contemptuous of norms, but there’s an argument to be made that art should be transgressive and contemptuous of norms.
But perhaps the most important factor in the sticking power of Pink Flamingos is that it’s become an iconic part of gay culture. Divine lives exactly the way he pleases, and anyone who tries to disrupt his life gets shot or killed with an extra-large comedy-size novelty cleaver. This movie came out just three years after the Stonewall Riots – showing gay and trans characters cannibalizing cops was making a powerful statement. While Divine is violent and villainous, he’s also confident and powerful – he’s not anybody’s victim, and considering the state of trans portrayal in film prior to this, that’s a hard hitting sentiment.
(You might notice I use masculine pronouns for Divine while also referring to him as “trans,” and the reason for that is “it’s complicated.” Divine himself didn’t identify as trans and used masculine pronouns in daily life, but many later scholarly readings have interpreted Babs/Divine, the character in Pink Flamingos, as trans. Please don’t try to cancel me for this. If I deserve to be canceled for anything, it’s my belief that anyone who has ever modified a vehicle to be louder than it is normally deserves a life sentence in Moon Jail.)
What’s the Cult Culture?
If you go to a showing of Pink Flamingos at a theater, you’re likely to see a few folks there dressed in Divine’s iconic red mermaid gown. Pink Flamingos doesn’t have quite as codified a culture as The Rocky Horror Picture Show does, but it has an undeniable reach. It’s left a huge mark on the drag scene, and if you’ve ever watched RuPaul’s Drag Race you’ve almost certainly seen Divine or Pink Flamingos directly mentioned. You’ve also almost certainly seen RuPaul mining the contestants for personal trauma so she can get them to cry, as tears of the young are what keeps her looking so youthful.
I’ve been to many showings of Pink Flamingos, and at a few of them they had everyone who’d never seen the movie before sit in the front half of the theater so that the already-initiated could more fully enjoy their screams of disgust. I’ve also personally known several people who, after seeing the film, decided to try and live the filthy lifestyle depicted therein. Which, as far as movies to model your personality after, it beats Fight Club and The Man Who Takes a Ballpeen Hammer to the Park to Kill Birds.
Here is where I’d like to tell you about my dear departed friend Fester, for whom Pink Flamingos was practically a religious text. Fester had not one but several different Divine cosplays that he would bust out at a moment’s notice, and he also organized and competed in a yearly event called the Naked Wars where other contestants living the Filth Lifestyle would compete to win the Naked Wars belt. I don’t think I’m allowed to tell you about the events in the Naked Wars I’ve seen through the years, but I will say this: it was a long time before I could bear to eat hotdogs again.
Once, to fully recreate the final scene of Pink Flamingos, my dear, sweet friend Fester, a man who once heard I was sad and drove over an hour to come to my place and took us to an all-night diner and bought me waffles so I’d feel better, ate several cat turds in the name of verisimilitude. If convincing someone to do that isn’t the mark of a cult film I don’t know what is.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on twitter.
Top image: New Line Cinema