The filthiest person alive probably isn’t who you think it is

Cover detail from John Waters' new book, "Mr. Know-It-All"
Cover detail from John Waters' new book, "Mr. Know-It-All" Photo: provided

It’s one thing to release a film and get negative critiques, but what happened when John Waters released Pink Flamingos in 1972 was a very different story. The reviews weren’t just poor – they were scathing. Variety called Pink Flamingos “One of the most vile, stupid, and repulsive films ever made.” The Detroit Free Press wasn’t much kinder, saying the film was “like a septic tank explosion.”

These are the kinds of brutal takedowns that would damage a film, but for something as jubilantly against the grain as Pink Flamingos, it had quite the opposite effect; those quotes were used in the marketing materials to sell the film. The septic tank one feels particularly apropos, as a literal septic tank explosion would fit right into this sick, twisted masterwork.

For the uninitiated, Pink Flamingos follows drag queen Divine (played by the one and only Divine) and her family, who live in a trailer on the outskirts of Baltimore. There’s her Mama Edie (Edith Massey), who spends all day in a playpen eating eggs – and when she’s not eating eggs, she’s calling out for them. There’s also Divine’s son Crackers (Danny Mills), and her traveling companion Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce). They’re outcasts, and they love it that way.

This is a strange, twisted family unit, and there’s no doubt about that, but Pink Flamingos looks at this family as if it’s perfectly ordinary. Divine is, however, known as the Filthiest Person Alive. We see Divine travel into the city, stealing steaks by hiding them between her legs, strutting around the city to Little Richard’s song The Girl Can’t Help It, sporting her trademark outrageous eyebrows, and it feels like Divine is the most glamorous woman in the world. Everyone stares (in horror, perhaps), and she absolutely loves it.

The Marble family, who live on the other side of Baltimore, doesn’t love it. Connie (Mink Stole) and Raymond (David Lochary). Behind their picturesque home and heteronormative lifestyle lies something infinitely more disgusting. Raymond goes around town flashing young women to get his kicks while Connie searches for a spy to get dirt on Divine. She’s disgusted that Divine is considered the Filthiest Person Alive when it should be her! Connie hires Cookie (Cookie Mueller) to discover secrets by going on a date with Crackers, and the pair engage in bestiality with recently beheaded chickens. To top it all off, the Marbles kidnap young women and keep them in a dingy, derelict pit. They force their servant Channing (Channing Wilroy) to impregnate the women and sell their children to lesbian couples.

This battle to decide who is the filthiest person in the world is as filthy as you could imagine, and it’s almost impossible to make it through Pink Flamingos without looking away at least once. But while it’s constantly shocking and endlessly vile, it’s also incredibly funny. It’s absolutely ridiculous, and it knows it. Divine has a party at her trailer with strippers and a man who makes his butthole dance, all to the crowd’s roaring cheers. It culminates in the Marbles calling the cops on the party, which ends in – what else? – the cops being murdered and Divine and company eating their flesh. It’s horrifying, but it’s so off-beat, so keenly rooted in anarchy, that it’s hard not to laugh til you cry.

Pink Flamingos isn’t what you’d immediately think of in the current landscape of Queer cinema. There’s no same-sex love story, no celebration of gender expression – one character who dresses in women’s clothing is mercilessly mocked for doing so. It does, however, have a freaking drag queen playing not only the main character but a loving mother (turns out way too loving, but still).

But the whole raison d’être of Waters’ film is to mock absolutely everything with the giddiness of a teenager but the genius of an iconoclast. This film is extremely anarchic and purposefully designed to shock and disgust audiences. A short list of some of the more vulgar things in Pink Flamingos includes incest, artificial insemination, rape, murder, bestiality, vomit, feces…and everything else you could imagine in a war to be the world’s filthiest people. Everything feels underground because it is underground – the film is an extremely low budget, put together on a wing and a prayer, filmed in an amateur style and performed by Waters’ friends, actors who were willing to do anything to make Pink Flamingos the vulgar masterpiece that it is.

What makes this such a valuable work of Queer cinema is its unbridled assault on normality and heteronormativity. Sure, Divine and her family are filthy and disgusting, but in Pink Flamingos, Divine is treated as a saint; if there were a patron saint of filth, it would be her. This utterly bizarre, perverse – and it must be reiterated, very disgusting – family is shown in a remarkably loving light that makes you question what family is.

That light is nowhere to be found when it comes to the Marbles. Connie and Raymond are grotesque caricatures, down to their ridiculous red and blue hair. Waters cleverly places them in a suburban setting: they have the dream house, the kind of property coveted by all traditional standards. They are husband and wife, as heteronormative society dictates as the purest, most sanctimonious thing. In reality, what should be a picture-perfect portrait of heterosexual life is turned on its head. Or, to use a turn of phrase more akin to Pink Flamingos, it’s like someone took a giant dump all over it.

It must be said that the Marble’s quest to be the world’s filthiest people has more merit, and they do things far more despicable and unforgivable than Divine’s clan is capable of. The message is clear – normative society is every bit as disgusting and depraved as everything else, if not more so.

The whole film is a gigantic middle finger to society. Towards the end, Divine is asked by reporters for her stance on politics. She giddily responds: “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth are my politics, filth is my life.”

It’s nonsensical, yet perfectly believable: this film has a truly legendary ending, featuring Divine eating (real) dog feces, ending the movie with a literal shit-eating grin.

As actress Cookie Mueller explained in her posthumous novel in 1990, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black: “Making low-budget films is work, but it’s fun…If you’re an actor, there is nothing more rewarding, despite the meager pay. On small films you get to know the whole cast and crew in a day, and all of these people are much more inventive because of the limited budget…Necessity is the mother of invention; this is true. John is a master at this, his imagination runneth over.”

It’s a great observation that speaks to what makes Pink Flamingos so special. The sense of commitment is monumental, and this is a cast that will give everything and everything to art. Divine is larger than life and absolutely sensational. The deranged, over-the-top performances from Mink Stole and David Lochary would be considered awful in any other film, but they are perfect here. It’s balanced out by a genuine sweetness and innocence in Edith Massey’s performance that somehow makes you feel for humanity while she’s screaming for eggs.

Pink Flamingos is a relentless assault on normative society, celebrating the outcast, the pariah, those who society so frequently shames. It’s as relevant and wonderful now as it was 50 years ago.

So who won the contest?

“Well, I won,” Waters told LGBTQ Nation. “I am the filthiest person alive and I thank my fans for that great honor.”

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