On the rerelease of Pink Flamingos,' John Waters is still seeing things the way you don't
By By Stephen Hunter and The Baltimore Sun
Apr 06, 1997 | 4:14 PM
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.
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."
"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 "
Trust me on this, folks, you don't need to hear any more. As he remembers that long-ago triumph, his delicate features squinch up with a shudder of revulsion, but his eyes broadcast that black light of witty nihilism.
"The funny thing is, nobody stopped. People just kept on walking. Nobody even really noticed. We were shaking, we were trying so hard not to laugh. That's a wrap. That's the martini shot. It was a glorious day in our teen-aged lives."
It's still a movie, he says, "that the parents aren't allowed to see. I mean, I don't care how liberal you are, you shouldn't be allowed to see your child eat dog [poop]." His own father, who financed the film with a loan of $12,000, has never been permitted to see it. And won't be permitted this time through, either.
It made Divine a star, too, of a sort.
"I think we were an outlet for each other's anger," he recalls of the high-school friend and collaborator who died unexpectedly in 1988. "He was a nerd who didn't go out until he was 17. And then he went out like he was shot from a cannon! Somehow between [the previous Waters film] 'Multiple Maniacs' and 'Pink Flamingos' he became a star, and he never went back. The drag queens hated him because they were thin and glamorous and he was overweight. They wanted to beat him up. Now they love him, because he was so angry."
A lasting image
Purely as a static image, the vision of Divine from "Pink Flamingos" in an hourglass cocktail dress -- all right, a wide hourglass, maybe so wide it would have to be a two-hourglass dress -- mercilessly pointing a pistol, his head half hair-don't and half hairdo, his makeup some tribal statement of fury undistilled and unrepentant, may last longer than the memory of the man or the director. It's certainly an image of what many hate about a new world of permissiveness and sexual permutation; for others it's a vision of liberation, proud ensign in the symbolistic liberation army.
"We delighted in frightening people," Waters recalls.
Of course, more than Waters, Divine was haunted by his moment of infamy.
"He grew tired of talking about it," said Waters. "And somehow that made it worse. He tried to explain it. He just wouldn't leave it alone."
Still, the big man with the odd wardrobe and the advanced makeup skills had a pretty spectacular career, given the somewhat specialized nature of his appeal. He starred in both "Polyester" and "Hairspray" for Waters, and also in Paul Bartel's "Lust in the Dust" as well as appearing in "Trouble in Mind" for Alan Rudolph. He also had a recording and touring career.
The film that spawned all this -- for better or for worse -- is being rereleased "with a new kind of respect," Waters says with a kind of mock horror, as if such a thing shouldn't be permitted. "It amazes me that some of the critics say my current work doesn't have 'the raw energy' of my old work, of 'Pink Flamingos.' And they hated that 'Pink Flamingos'!"
Anyway, the movie tells an ancient American story: how to keep up with the Johnsons. The Marbles (Mink Stole and the late David Lochary) live in a big white house on a tree-shaded street, support themselves by kidnapping girls, getting them pregnant, then selling the offspring to lesbian couples. They want to be known as the filthiest people in America, and, darn it, you can see their point!
But standing between them and that coveted title are the Johnsons, headed by Babs (Divine) and consisting of her companion Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), her son Crackers (Danny Mills) and her Mama the Egg Lady (the late Edith Massey), who sits in a playpen in her massive brassiere eating "eggy-weggys" all day long. They are sort of the natural aristocrats of filth, who needn't be filthy because, in some deep philosophical sense, they are filthy. To paraphrase the great Archibald MacLeish in "Ars Poetica," filthy does not mean but be. So you can see they have a point, too!
Well, the plot gets busy-busy-busy, involving good-hearted stabs kidnapping, cannibal dance orgies (at chez Johnson, a slatternly trailer on a chunk of scrub waste in Phoenix, no less), murder, exhibitionism, executions and many, many variations on the native dialects of our own Bawlmermurlin. The fact that it's filmed in scratchy, overexposed 16-mm newsreel stock by Waters himself adds to the sense of delicious cheesiness that would turn it into an icon. Ultimately the "good guys" (provisionally speaking, of course) win, and the "bad guys" lose. It's got a happy ending, just like "Babes in Toyland," the movie it least resembles.
The movie exists, Waters recalls, "simply to make myself laugh. It was an anti-hippy movie for hippies. The biggest influence, believe it or not, was the Weatherman and crazy left-wing guerrilla spirit of the time. Abbie Hoffman. In some sense, 1972 was still the '60s, and 'peace and love' were in bad shape. We drove a nail through its heart. So I mixed that kind of feeling with gay culture, Towson culture and Maryland redneck culture. They didn't mix then, and they don't mix now!"
It's also, he recalls, a kind of tribute to the lost form of exploitation movies, which explains its pretend-documentary framework.
"I was inspired," Waters recalls with the devil's own grin, "not by Hitchcock or Ford but by 'Pornography in Denmark.' "
The movie was mostly conceived and plotted in Leadbetter's, a Fells Point joint (then as now), which Waters and his "motley crew," as he called them, had taken to using as a kind of clubhouse.
"It was completely scripted," he says. "There's not a single improvisation in the whole movie."
Forget the plot
But he confesses now that it never made much sense. A plot strand, involving Pat Moran as "Patty Hitler," a Fells Point junk woman who supplies the crucial clue that leads the Johnsons to the Marbles for their revenge, was cut from the film.
"Nobody ever noticed the hole in the plot," Waters says with more mock-shock. "Somehow, the plot was never the point."
His goal, he recalls, "was to give the feeling of going to a good riot in New Haven. I knew it would work. It took a long time and it played in porno theaters for a while, but eventually it caught on, although it was never the kind of movie anybody made any money from."
If Orwell were still alive, or Lionel Trilling, one or the other would write a great essay on "Pink Flamingos," pointing out that the movie, with its rawness, its seething Dionysian fury, its near-psychotic willingness to do anything for a laugh, was in some way the beginning of the transition from the liberal pieties of the '60s to what we have now, whatever that is. Would Quentin Tarentino be possible without "Pink Flamingos"? Would tell-all memoirs about sex with Dad? Would Oliver Stone? Would Martin Lawrence?
Somehow the movie represented the inevitable opening of a Pandora's box, the moment in American history when we stopped being Greece and started being Rome. And the thing still has that rage to it. And it still makes you laugh your guts out.
But back then: Who knew? "Pink Flamingos," after wowing them in New York and Boston and L.A., finally opened in Baltimore -- at the Charles, where it will re-open next Friday -- necessarily sliced up by Maryland's censor board, under the iron discipline of Mary Avara.
"I never understood this. She cut the [sexual perversion] and the [sex with the] chicken. But she left in the [poop] eating."
Recently, Waters made a pilgrimage to the parcel of Phoenix on which Divine's glorious trailer was trashed, burned and ultimately rotted. There's a neat little subdivision there and a neat little house. (Is there a symbol here of America catching up to John Waters, or is this just another brute coincidence of the planet Earth?) Exactly -- call the irony police! -- representative of the kind of life the young Lutherville radical spent his career trying to escape, when he moved from the 'burbs into the bowels of the lost, legendary city of Baltimore in the '60s.
"But I like to think," he says with the trademarked Waters grin of deviltry, idolatry, blasphemy and alchemy, "of the spirit of Divine rising through the floorboards of that house into some lonely teen-ager's bedroom -- and taking him over!"