Thursday, May 2, 2013

Like Flamingos or be square

It's very rare that I give a movie a half-star rating on Letterboxd. Very rare.

How rare?

So rare that of the 2867 movies I have entered on the site -- a good 800+ shy of the actual total I've seen -- only 17 have a half-star rating.

It was 16 until last night.

Yes, the day finally came when I saw John Waters' Pink Flamingos. It has indeed been a long time coming. In fact, I felt like I reached a critical mass on my need to see it back in September of 2009, when I was out of town with friends and we were talking about it. I knew of course about the famous scene in which Divine eats dog poop, and I knew it was supposed to be repulsive in many other ways. However, that was something I embraced, since I'm always interested in seeing things in movies that I've never seen before. Like a horror movie that you know is supposed to be so disturbing that you have nightmares for weeks, I was geeked to see just how much Pink Flamingos would gross me out.

Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

In fact, the movie was so irredeemably gross and so utterly without point that I felt inclined to give the movie my lowest star rating possible.

How irredeemably gross and utterly without point?

Let's start with the utterly without point part. The entire plot of this movie is about how two "families" -- Divine's bizarre extended family and a husband and wife who are their rivals -- both want to be known as the filthiest people alive. This is, indeed, their only goal. Divine already has the title, and this other couple -- the Marbles -- want to wrest it from her.

And now the irredeemably gross part. If you want the grossness of Pink Flamingos to be withheld from you, or simply don't want to read this while you are eating lunch, please look away now until the numbered section ends.

Here are some of the things that happen in Pink Flamingos:

1) A man and a woman have sex while at least one live chicken is sandwiched between their writhing naked bodies. The chicken is killed during the intercourse and its blood spatters on their skin.

2) A man flashes women while a length of salami is attached to the end of his penis.

3) A shemale flashes this man back.

4) A man takes off his clothes and dilates his asshole by moving only his sphincter.

5) A man masturbates into his hand and injects his semen into an unconscious woman using a syringe.

6) Divine gives an actual blow job, seen on screen (but at least not to fruition), to the character who is supposed to play her son.

7) A man's penis is cut off.

8) Divine eats the dog shit, and you know it's real because you see the feces come out of the dog's rear and get scooped directly into Divine's mouth. It's something of a relief to realize that Divine is human enough to actually gag on the shit, though she does her best to hold the smile.

That's enough, don't you think?

So yeah, at the end of this movie, I felt utterly repulsed. I tried to analyze my sense of revulsion and decide if I was just too much of a prude, but no, I decided that it was genuine revulsion, and I didn't have to pretend I found it anything other than revolting just to appear open to what Waters was trying to do.

But then something kind of frustrating happened. John Waters himself came on in an segment that was recorded in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the film. He hosted a number of outtakes as well as the trailer that New Line showed when trying to advertise this consummately unmarketable movie.

For one, the droll cheekiness of Waters is just too much to resist. I just like the man and enjoy his outre perspective on the world. It was hard to stay mad at his movie when he was basically saying to us "You're right, this is disgusting, and it was out of a pure sense of anarchy that I even subjected you to it in the first place."

But what really got me was the theatrical trailer for Pink Flamingos. Waters starts by telling us that not a single moving image from the movie was shown, which is certainly understandable given the content of those moving images.

So what they do show is a bunch of Greenwich Village hipsters, hippies, artists and latter-day beatniks coming out of the movie with goofy grins on their faces and talking about how it was "magnificent." How it was "hilarious." How they had already seen it three times. The mere transgressiveness of it was something they obviously respected.

Am I a square for not feeling the same way about Pink Flamingos?

Obviously, those were different times. Forty years ago, no one had ever seen anything like this. Okay, even 40 years later, I hadn't seen anything like it either. But not ever having seen anything like it was an act of social disobedience, the purest expression of the counterculture that these Village twentysomethings so embraced, with Waters as the agent for that expression. It felt invigorating to them just to see something that would turn standard conventions upside down, that would essentially laugh in the face of The Man.

To me, today, in a world where we have 2 Girls 1 Cup, I guess I'm just not that impressed. So when it is just disgusting for disgusting's sake, I don't feel the boundaries of good taste being gleefully shattered. I just fixate on the low budget, the sloppy production values, the non-existent story and the hateful and malicious characters.

If that's what it is to be a square, I don't want to be hip.


Nick Prigge said...

When I wrote my review of Movie 43 for Anomalous Material and gave it a thrashing there was someone who left me a comment(s) in which he seemed to essentially be stating that, as you say here, the mere transgressiveness of it was something he respected.

It could have been that, anyway. I don't know. Part of me just thinks he was purposely being contrarian and I wonder if that's how the Greenwich Village hippies felt about Pink Flamingos? Maybe not. Maybe they really were in touch with its transgressiveness.

Either way, I didn't care for Movie 43 or Pink Flamingos. Sometimes, as the wise poet Huey Lewis once noted, it's hip to be square.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Nick. I'll also try to remember what Lester Bangs said about being cool.

I am going to subject myself to the agony of Movie 43 soon. Why? Because I'm a masochist, maybe.