Watching the criterion collection: Pink Flamingos

“An exercise in bad taste”

Pink Flamingos and the legacy of filth

Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!

Pink Flamingos

In 2021, the Library of Congress added Pink Flamingos to the National Film Registry, maybe the strangest turn yet in the long life of John Waters’ 1972 film. The Registry selects films for preservation based on their historical, cultural, and aesthetic merits, so the board’s endorsement of the film shocked even its unflappable director, Waters. With its recent restoration and release by the Criterion Collection, timed for the 50th anniversary of its original release, I’m taking the opportunity to look at the legacy of one of the most notorious films in history.

Similar to the National Film Registry, the Criterion Collection holds its own level of prestige. This home video label specializes in releasing “important classic and contemporary titles,” and has developed a large cult following. Pink Flamingos‘ addition to the Criterion Collection’s library has long been a foregone conclusion since the inclusion of Waters’ Multiple Maniacs in 2017, followed by Female Trouble and Polyester. While each of these films belong on their own merits, Pink Flamingos is the nasty jewel in Waters’ filmography, his very own Citizen Kane if you will.

Waters is the grandmaster of transgressive cinema. In his early career he utilized minuscule budgets and a company of actors (including his muse, the drag queen Divine) to create films that, while often heavily influenced by his favorite genres like melodrama and schlocky horror, pushed the boundaries of good taste and the idea of what is fit to show an audience. No film pushed that boundary further than Pink Flamingos, his widely banned and widely-lauded masterpiece. The infamous film tells the tale of Babs Johnson (Divine in her most iconic role), enjoying her title as the “filthiest person alive.” A pair of sociopaths decide to challenge her on that illustrious distinction, and Babs Johnson is not one to go down without a fight, initiating one of the wildest 90-minutes in film history.

Watch as Divine proves that not only is she the filthiest person in the world, she’s also the filthiest actress in the world! What you are about to see is THE REAL THING!

Pink Flamingos

You’ll often hear people say things like “that couldn’t be made today”, and that notion is particularly apt for Pink Flamingos. The film features, in no particular order: graphic nudity, exhibitionism, bestiality, voyeurism, masturbation, vomiting, rape, incest, murder, cannibalism, castration, and an infamous scene of scatology as a cherry on top. To be clear, the film does not hint at these elements, they are prominently and explicitly featured throughout its runtime. The most shocking part? If you can stomach it, the film is kind of delightful.

At the heart of the film is the story of familial love, accepting and caring for each other despite eccentricities, perversities, and legitimate criminal behavior. The most transgressive thing about the film may actually be the undercurrent of sweetness that can be felt throughout. You aren’t left with the lingering ickiness that certain “extreme” films leave you with. The film is not a bad faith exercise in extremity, the film never misleads its audience as to what its intentions are. As a viewer, part of the fun of watching the film is this feeling that this was just a group of friends, with a video camera, making their art.

No one sends you a turd and expects to live!

Pink Flamingos

Art should challenge us, and films like Pink Flamingos are necessary for the evolution of the form. By spitting in the face of respectability, Waters opened the door for more diverse and queer stories to be told, inspiring and empowering numerous artists to push boundaries for the past 50 years. The impact and legacy of Pink Flamingos cannot be overstated, being released just years following the elimination of the Hays Code, which neutered and censored the art form for nearly 40 years before its elimination in 1968. Films like this change an audience’s ideas of what is acceptable and normal to show onscreen. Without Pink Flamingos, we may never have gotten a film like 2022’s Turning Red, an acclaimed animated film released by Disney that overtly explores a 13-year-old girl’s experience with her first period. Fifty years ago (hell, even ten years ago), the idea of portraying that onscreen wouldn’t, or even couldn’t, be done.

This is why we need transgressive art, to create seismic shifts that allow for stories once considered taboo, like menstruation, to be told.

The Criterion Collection’s edition of Pink Flamingos is available now.

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