Pink Flamingos is vile, disgusting, and outrageous – in other words, just as John Waters wanted it. The film, about two monstrous women competing for the title of “Filthiest Person Alive,” is a carnival of weirdoes, outcasts, and deviants that’s custom-designed to offend. The amazing thing, however, is that even in our current age of repulsive Fear Factor-style gags and seemingly non-stop sexual imagery, the film still succeeds as an all-out assault on good taste. Waters is a provocateur with an eye toward the grotesque and a soft spot for cultural outsiders, and he stages his freak show with a scattershot abandon and general lack of interest in narrative conventions. Divine (playing a variation of herself) is given the dubious title of “filthiest person alive” by a local tabloid, which sends Connie Marble (Waters regular Mink Stole) and her husband Raymond (David Lochary) into a tizzy. Connie and Raymond are dyed-hair-in-the-wool lunatics who believe their kinky sexual escapades and illegal adoption ring (they impregnate kidnapped women and hide them in the basement until childbirth) make them more lewd than Divine. What ensues is a seriously disgusting competition between two monstrous creatures infatuated with self-debasement.
Waters’ grainy hand-held cinematography and penchant for setting scenes entirely to musical montages of ‘50s and ‘60s standards recall the director’s seminal films Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and Eat Your Makeup. This rough-around-the-edges aesthetic suits Pink Flamingos just fine, since it accentuates the grime infesting every nook and cranny of Waters’ frame. A sex scene between a man, a woman, and a dying chicken; a shot of semen being inserted into a woman via a syringe; incestuous fellatio; a barbeque talent show featuring a very flexible naked man – Waters’ sordid set pieces reflect his infatuation with the nature of celebrity, sexual identity, pornography, violence, lower-class American life, and scandalous tabloid tackiness. At the heart of this depraved collage is trash diva Divine, who (love her or hate her) dwarfs everyone else in the film. In Pink Flamingos’ signature flourish, Waters stages a chance encounter on a Baltimore sidewalk between a hungry Divine and a defecating dog. The scene, like much of what’s preceded it, is both pointless and shocking, but it’s also an unparalleled gross-out achievement – the cinema’s only literal shit-eating grin.