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John Waters Collection 3: Pink Flamingos / Female Trouble
Few films can be boiled down to a single image, one that remains ingrained in viewers' minds for the rest of their lives. Often these iconic moments occur at the end of the film (Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and The Taking of Pelham 123 spring to mind as examples). No film's ending sticks in your craw, so to speak, the way the final moments of John Waters' Pink Flamingos does. To say that the film leaves a bad taste in your mouth would be, well, gross understatement. If you don't already know how the film ends, I'm not going to tell you. If you've read about it but have never seen it, beware: It is one of the few film moments that you cannot prepare for. It is inevitably more disgusting than you can imagine, even as you run the scene through your mind in preparation.
It's only fitting that such a mysteriously disgusting finale would be tacked onto the end of a movie about the filthiest people alive. Actually, Pink Flamingos is about the struggle between two clans of Baltimore low lifes for the title (although who's providing the title is a bit of a mystery in itself). The Babs Johnson gang, led by Divine (Waters' usual star, a 300-pound drag queen with severe make-up and supremely complicated outfits) serve as the "good" guys. The rest of the hero gang consists of Cotton (Mary Vivian Pierce), a glamorous bleach blonde murderess who doesn't want to break a nail using a knife in case she needs it "fer scratchin'!", Crackers (Danny Mills), a chicken-loving hillbilly hippie with a lot of love for both his sister and his mama, and Miss Edie (Edith Massey), a crib-bound egg worshipper who up and leaves the film entirely (in a wheelbarrow!) after her wedding to the handsome egg delivery man. In the opposing corner are David Lochary and Mink Stole as the Marbles, a truly hideous pair who imprison women in a dungeon, order their man-servant to rape them, wait nine months, and sell the infants to lesbian couples. Tired yet?
Pink Flamingos has sat on a throne as one of the most insane films ever made for the past three decades. Certain scenes stand out (the ending and a little something known as the singing asshole come to mind) but there is a sense of pure madness throughout. Most of the dialog is screamed at top volume, songs start without warning and end just as abruptly, plot twists make no sense, and the characters are only motivated by the desire to be the most disgusting. It's to the cast's credit (and Waters') that the good guys are at all discernible from the bad guys.
While the film is joyfully awful it does need to be pointed out that a live chicken does meet an untimely demise in a scene where Crackers uses the poultry as a sexual aid. While the death occurs off camera, it is regrettable and does actually achieve something that is hard to believe; it pushes the film out of being disgusting in a good way into disgusting in a bad way.
The black mark aside (and it's clearly something that has troubled Waters in the years since, as is evidenced by his discussion of the scene on the commentary track) Pink Flamingos is the ultimate John Waters film. Divine's character may not be as well developed as in later pairings like Female Trouble and Polyester but there is a rawness to Pink Flamingos that never goes away.
During the long period of time that it took Pink Flamingos to go from the editing room to theaters, Waters got to work on his next film, Female Trouble. This time he gave the characters more of an arc, while still retaining the unpredictable madness of the earlier film. Divine plays Dawn Davenport, a rebellious teen cussin' and clawin' her way out of her Baltimore school and home. After getting raped (sort of) by a man looking suspiciously like a male version of Divine (hmmm...) Dawn finds herself a mother and a criminal. Looking to add a little style to her life, she joins the exclusive clientele of the Lipstick Salon, run by the Dashers (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pierce), a self-styled pair of high-class fashion terrorists who equate beauty with violence. Sensing something in her bravura nature, the Dashers invite Dawn to become their model in a series of photos showing crimes committed in the name of beauty. Through a series of events too ridiculous to list in a plot summary Dawn ends up heading to the electric chair, mohawk in place, the ultimate fashion victim.
The radical politics in Female Trouble (as well as Pink Flamingos and Waters' other early films) speaks very much to the times in which they were made. Between Vietnam, the Manson killings (which Waters was obsessed with), and the constant political assassinations and riots, the turbulent times spawned an anger that set the stage for films like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What set Waters' films apart from those is that there is a joy in the violence and mayhem that makes them nearly impossible to categorize. A cannibal with a chainsaw is obviously a bad guy, but how do you deal with Divine in a leopard print one piece chopping off Edith Massey's hand while the older woman sits locked in a bird cage wearing a ruffley white gown? There is no way to contextualize these images and so they end up creating their own genre.
Both of these films were shot on 16mm film stock and were processed and handled with a lot less care than your average low-budget feature. Therefore they both look pretty crappy, from a technical stand-point. Scratches abound, as do focus and lighting problems. These are not flaws of the source prints or the transfers but rather the original creation of the films. The transfers themselves actually are very good. The colors are eye-catchingly vibrant and the pictures are as crisp and clear as can be expected.
The transfers are anamorphic widescreen. Note: The original releases were 1.33:1 (full-screen) but the versions presented here are 1.85:1 (wide-screen) meaning the top and bottom are cropped. Now, I'm usually one who crows about original aspect ratio, but this is one instance where the altered version is acceptable. For one thing, John Waters himself approved them. He actually stated that Pink Flamingos didn't really even deserve to look this good. So, while some Waters purists may worry about the films having their aspect ratios changed, the benefits of this set greatly outweigh that compromise.
The audio tracks are similarly primitive. Both films feature Dolby Digital stereo and the original mono tracks, although there doesn't seem to be too much of a difference. The recording techniques utilized are like the first day of freshman year at film school. Sometimes voices are a bit tough to decipher and, given the unusual and astonishing dialog it's lucky that English subtitles are included.
Both discs are light on extras but they are worthwhile. Waters' commentary tracks are consistently among the best and, even though he often repeats stories (years on the college lecture circuit have helped cement his speaking style) he never fails to provide dozens of laugh-out-loud moments. His descriptions of his accomplices in his little "filmed crimes" (which is how he describes these early movies) are hysterical. He often talks at length about Divine as well as Cookie Mueller and others (I always come away wanting to hear more about the brilliant Mink Stole and the late David Lochary, however) He even manages to touch on some more serious concepts when discussing the huge numbers of his collaborators who are no longer living or the political movements that helped inspire his anarchic visions. He acknowledges that his fascination with the Manson trial, which he flew to California to attend as if it were a musical, inspired some material meant more to shock than inspire thought, but he still maintains that reflecting a rebellious, anti-authoritarian culture is important. He also addresses the infamous chicken scene and, while he stops short of apologizing, the tone of his voice and his studied words show signs of regret at using the death of a live animal in creating entertainment.
Trailers for each film are also included. In the case of Pink Flamingos the extras are included in a somewhat unusual way: The film itself is the 25th anniversary version which, when released theatrically consisted of the film as it always was with deleted scenes and the original trailer, each introduced by newly shot footage of Waters, appended to the ending. So when the feature on the DVD ends it goes straight into this supplemental material, which is also accessible from the special features menu. The funny thing is that Waters' commentary from the feature continues straight through this material, so that when his new intro to the deleted scenes appears, his commentary track voice says "Are we doing this? This is a new idea," meaning commenting on his commentary. The deleted scenes are pretty funny but the context given by his intros makes them even funnier.
Even though these movies are crude and outrageous, and certainly plenty of viewers will have a tough time dealing with all the screaming and hollering, they are classics. Pink Flamingos in particular is a part of American counter-cultural heritage. The treatment on these DVDs is pretty damn good and anyone, from the curious to the indoctrinated, should take a look. Whether or not you can keep your eyes open during that last scene, however, is up to you.
Other films by John Waters:
Polyester / Desperate Living