Good Bad Taste
Our anthem’s bicentennial has not imprinted Baltimore on the national consciousness. The Wire has. And so has John Waters, once underground purveyor of ridicule of most every national value and taboo but currently a “national treasure.” Acceptance -- indeed, embrace -- is evidenced by the Film Society of Lincoln Center “Fifty Years of John Waters.” Aptly subheaded “How Much Can You Take?” this golden anniversary first complete U.S. retrospective comprises twelve features (including “Celluloid Atrocity Night!” of his first two, in 16mm from his personal collection), a free showing of one short and two long shorts, with Q&As and intros and discussions with the man himself, backed by a sidebar of eight other directors’ “extreme” “Movies I’m Jealous I Didn’t Make.”
This “godfather of filth” makes fun of, yet glories in, his early “badly filmed home movies” and in his mainstreaming that began with 1988 Hairspray. “I want my movies to make money [and] be commercial.” But it is the final-day Pink Flamingos, his third and first in color, which best defines his signature trashy campy shock humor-slash-social lambasting.
The 35mm print appends minutes of the pencil-thin-mustached director-writer-producer-cameraman commenting on clips that did not make it past editing and, as its vindicated victorious threesome heads to Boise, Idaho -- yes, irony -- on one of cinema’s storied seldom seen eating scenes (which director and star insisted was real).
Retreating from celebrity glare as the “world’s filthiest person,” under a Babs Johnson alias Divine lives in autumnal Maryland woods in a ratty trailer with a hencoop. At three-hundred-plus pounds the outrageous queen had started life as Waters’ childhood neighbor and friend Harris Glenn Milstead and was one of his flauntingly amateur acting ensemble the Dreamlanders (with appearances here and there of well-known professionals). Aggressive excess and offensiveness characterizing everything, Divine violently threatens even the delivery man (Bob Skidmore) when he interrupts the isolation she shares with dim, even huger egg-guzzling mother Edie (Edith Massey), who lives in a playpen; and with dim son Crackers (Danny Mills), who gets off sexually with women and fowl and with pleasuring dim voyeur Miss Cotton (Mary Vivian Pierce) by letting her watch.
Tabloids celebrate Her Filthiness, but her dander is aroused when the Marbles dispute that title. Blue-haired sausage-flasher Raymond and redhead Connie (David Lochary, Mink Stole) have their own (satirized and not all that uncommon) sexual “perversions,” sell heroin to schoolkids, and run a baby-adoption agency catering to lesbian couples.
The late Saturday-night full house for the ninety-three-minute film was youngish, many getting their first taste of the provocateur, and though the vibes were of good nature and party, there were outré bits in PF -- title from the trailer’s tacky yard ornaments -- that still have power to stun even after forty-two years. And in light of events not long ago in Cleveland and elsewhere, though The Collector was probably far from anyone’s mind, there was definite discomfort at graphic revelation of the source of the Marbles’ black-market adoptees, even if servant Channing (Channing Wilroy) is fall guy and the only pitiable figure in sight.
Spying through ill-starred Cookie (“much better writer than actress” Cookie Mueller), the kinky jealous couple, and also the police, make the fatal mistake of crossing, and crossing swords with, the Divine clan. Against “the tyranny of good taste,” no-no’s are constantly paraded: cannibalism, castration, incest, exhibitionism, full-frontal and backside body parts and bodily functions, obscenity of language and gestures, fetishism, scatology, lesbianism, kidnapping, slavery, rape, animal (and human) abuse, cross-dressing, murder, guns and knives and axes, overeating and, as in end out-takes, Hitler worship.
The series subtitle may be self-fulfilling prophecy, as it will take patience and a strong stomach to sit through, to “take,” the whole. To Pink Flamingos, made for only $10,000 but managing national distribution, the late Roger Ebert assigned zero stars, explaining that rating systems do not apply to this non-film “fact” or “object.”
(A Fine Line Feature release rated "NC-17" by MPAA.)