Despite the film’s incredibly offensive, borderline pornographic content, the biggest obstacles Pink Flamingos faced in terms of video distribution involved the unauthorized use of popular songs like “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen on the soundtrack.
No one in their right minds would ever let you stream this movie. Pink Flamingos is only available on DVD. Click to purchase!
“To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.”
– John Waters
Spoiler Alert! Many people have vomited while watching this movie.
Chicken fucking. A dancing sphincter. Rape dungeon baby adoption. Cop killing cannibalism. Incest with unsimulated fellatio. Any one of these would rank among the most radical scenes in experimental film from contemporary cinema’s avant garde directors. Yet these are just a handful of the more memorable moments in John Waters’s arthouse-meets-trash masterpiece, a movie that infamously ends with the protagonist eating dog shit. (Yes, it’s real). So how is it that, almost 50 years after its release, Pink Flamingos is still the fiercest and most fearless movie ever filmed?
Made on a budget of $10,000, Waters’s seminal work is underground cinema in its truest form. (The ejaculation pun there is fully intended to honor the spirit of Pink Flamingos). The director raised money from his parents who never actually saw the final product, cast his friends in main roles, used the house he lived in with the film’s co-star Mink Stole as a primary location, borrowed his landlord’s car, rented cheap costumes from a local shop (though of course Divine provided his own wardrobe), stole props and set pieces when the production lacked funds, borrowed another car from a pimp he cast in a minor role, turned another primary location into a de facto production commune, and called in favors with friends, relatives, casual acquaintances or Baltimore’s random characters to fill out the rest. As Waters himself points out, he and the film’s cast and crew committed multiple crimes in making this movie… apart from the off-camera crimes they also committed on a fairly regular basis.
Director John Waters and his muse Divine, star of the film. The most unintended consequence of Pink Flamingos? Much of what Waters and his band of marginalized, criminal, creative collaborators were trying to shock the audience with is now considered more or less acceptable.
This guerilla style had its advantages. Even if the budget was fairly large by their own standards at the time – in today’s money, it would be enough to buy a luxury sedan, though the dollars wouldn’t stretch as far in a time of expensive gear and film stocks – the low production costs allowed Waters and his Dreamland troupe to work as true independents. Still, freedom doesn’t always translate to artistic vision. Having no money meant having no fucks to give, so Waters essentially turned this into the film’s mission statement. After the opening credits end with a dedication to members of the Manson family, the first cut is to an image of Edie, Divine’s on-screen mother, in a baby crib. In every scene, Waters signals to us early on, this film will not only subvert expectations but also the entire moral order of society. A lovely gift-wrapped box conceals a foul turd. A man flashes a beautiful woman who in turn exposes her breast before lifting up her skirt to show her own penis. (Yes, it’s real). Waters and his friends/collaborators were already on the fringes of society due to their lifestyle and career choices, so why not embrace it? Pink Flamingos is a film by weirdos and outsiders about weirdos and outsiders for weirdos and outsiders.
Waters dedicates the film to Sadie, Katie, and Les, the Manson family members Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten. In a later scene, Divine walks by a graffiti message that reads "Free Tex Watson", another convicted member of the Manson cult.
Perhaps the oddest part of all this is the film’s eventual mainstream acceptance. A smash hit on the midnight movie circuit, the success allowed Waters to make bigger movies on bigger budgets. By the end of the next decade, he was not only a mainstream Hollywood director, but a media personality in his own right. Waters has joked that his mother was only proud of him when he was an answer on Jeopardy, which happened with some frequency. Perhaps some of this late stage acceptance has softened the initial reaction to the film. Or perhaps the culture has just caught up with it. Waters wryly notes that lesbian couples adopting babies, an idea that was supposed to shock middle class moralists in 1972, is now a model of bourgeois sensibility. Even Divine eating dog poop doesn’t seem that crazy in an age of Fear Factor-type stunt shows and YouTube dares. Indeed, Waters seemed to wink at the fact that nothing seems to shock us anymore. His last film released in 2015 was Kiddie Flamingos, in which the director revisited the film’s over-the-top obscenity at a table read… performed by a group of child actors.
Mugshots of Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Tex Watson. Public Domain.