Sunday, May 21, 2006
Oh my God Almighty! Someone has sent me a bowel movement!
The term "cult film" has always seemed vague to me, because it's difficult to draw a line between cult and popular appeal. Can The Rocky Horror Picture Show still be considered a cult item after grossing hundreds of millions of dollars from screenings, video, and related merchandise? Would Napoleon Dynamite, with its massive advertising push on MTV and Nickelodeon, have found its audience if it were released with less fanfare? However, if there is any such thing as a true cult film, that film is Pink Flamingos. Made on 16mm in the Baltimore area in 1971, John Waters' film was propelled to widespread appreciation with only a shoestring budget and a cheerful willingness to defy even the most basic standards of taste.
Divine plays Divine, also known as Babs Johnson, who lives in a trailer with her chicken-loving son Crackers (Danny Mills), their girlfriend Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), and Divine's egg-devouring mother Edie (Edith Massey). Their quiet life of shoplifting, bestiality, and eggs is interrupted by Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stone and David Lochary), who aim to challenge Divine's clan for the title of "the filthiest people alive." The Marbles, incidentally, make a living kidnapping and impregnating young women with the help of their assistant, Channing (Channing Wilroy). This admittedly flimsy plot is an excuse for ninety minutes of scatology, weird sexual fetishes, incest, gore, and genital gymnastics. And I never stopped laughing.
It would have been extremely easy for Pink Flamingos to come off as smug and repugnant, but Waters and the cast invest the film with a charming guilelessness; it's the cinematic equivalent of the look in a golden retreiver's eyes as he humps your leg. The camera is unflinching when presenting us with, for instance, a man with a sausage tied to his penis, and yet the setup in the film is so cheerfully goofy that one can't help but laugh. Pink Flamingos is using filth to challenge mainstream standards about gender and deviance, yet it does so with a wink and a smile. Comedy, particularly gross-out, has rarely been used so effectively as a weapon of subversion.
The filmmaking is admittedly rough. Most scenes are shot from one angle without cuts, flubbed lines remain in the final cut, and the cinematographic technique is mostly "zoom in, zoom out." Yet this doesn't really hurt Pink Flamingos; if anything, the home movie look of the film adds to its charm. And while none of the actors were trained by Stanislavski (or even James Lipton), they manage to create winning, compelling characters. Massey's extended monologues professing her love for eggs and "the egg man" rival Bunuel. Lochary rants about "the fucking jerk-off hippies" with his lisping drawl and exposes himself to young girls with gusto. But the real unheralded star of Pink Flamingos, to me, is Mink Stole; with fireball red hair and cat glasses, the petite, unassuming actress hornily sucks her on-screen husband's toes while proclaiming that she loves him "more than the sound of bones breaking." She's simultaneously the scariest and most intriguing aspect of Pink Flamingos.
And then there's Divine, who completely earns her name. The plus-size transvestite is at once superstar, tramp, and circus geek, and cheerfully embraces every role. Divine is at home acting out Sirk-style melodrama as he is fellating his onscreen son. He approaches every transgressive or degrading act with total commitment and gusto. He manages to eat dog shit with a big grin and walk away with his dignity intact. Divine is a role model.
About the shit-eating: the scene endures because it's unparalleled in its gross-out power, but also because it's a perfect, iconic moment. Tristan Tzara frequently claimed that the greatest compliment to his plays would be for the audience to riot; Waters comes close, working us into a fit of simultaneous repulsion and maniacal laughter. Divine stares directly at us, excrement smeared on his teeth, grinning as he chokes bag his own gag reflex. It's a moment that anticipates the synthesis of exploitation, porn and pop culture that would occur over the next thirty years. It's one of the great moments in cinema.