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Divine madness

In Ellen Ousmano's book Movies for a Desert Isle, in which film notables discuss the one movie they'd take along if stranded on...well, you get the picture...John Waters says, "I think I'd take a movie with me I'd never seen because that way it'd be a surprise." Waters almost seems, in a roundabout way, to be referring to the kind of response his seminal work, Pink Flamingos, received when it was first set free on a mostly unsuspecting public in 1972. The film is now getting a wonderfully understated 25th anniversary rerelease--no massive hype to muscle it back into theaters, though one wonders if Ted Turner isn't so busy burning David Cronenberg in effigy that Flamingos slipped right by him (Fine Line, part of the Turner/Warner conglomoration, is distributing it). It's safe to say that next to Divine, Jabba the Hutt is just a pallid second-rater.

Can it be 25 years ago that Waters became a culture hero? The initial release of Pink Flamingos--or, as the trailer puts it, John Waters' Pink Flamingos--made it one of the few true underground phenomena to wade into the mainstream. It emerged as one of the first big midnight movie hits; truth to tell, Pink Flamingos, which cost $10,000, looks like it was made at midnight. There's no point in getting into the flowering of Waters' filmmaking technique, because there ain't none. But Pink Flamingos is genuinely quaint; the straightforward camera setups--meaning the camera is set up and people walk into the shot--give it an enormous amount of charm. And it has inevitably become a movie about giving the middle class a good, healthy shaking-up.

The story is also simple: It's about the filthiest family in America and what it does to maintain its status. What Pink Flamingos is really about, though, is Divine, whose querulous magnetism is still undeniable. The movie signaled the emergence of a star--if what we mean by a star is someone you can't take your eyes off, even when you're not sure you want to be paying attention. That is pure Divine, though now, in those skintight ball gowns she must've stolen from the Marvelettes' closet, she could probably pass for Polly Jean Harvey's grandmother. Divine's look has passed into the certifiable canon of classic; The Drew Carey Show's Mimi, with her fender-wide mascara application and shock-till-you-drop outfits, is clearly inspired by Divine's aggressive rapturousness.

That much bulk can't help but make someone aggressive, and Divine crashes through Pink Flamingos like a tractor-trailer wearing way too much foundation. But there's an underlying sweetness here, especially now that time has considerably lessened the movie's extremes; not even infants are stunned by Divine's snacking on dog shit any more.

Waters loves his characters, who are the kind of ad hoc family members who have to depend on themselves because, frankly, no one else will have them. It's the thread that runs through all of his movies and offers a supportive conventionality. And all his characters, who don't really function as archetypes despite the number of structuralists who contend otherwise, possess the deepest confidence you've ever seen in film characters; they exist wholly without doubt. (No wonder the French love them so.) There's a boatload of anger in Divine--he seizes his time on-screen as if it were his last chance for redemption--but Waters gets the difference between anger and surliness. The bourgeoisie are spoiled and mean.

By the end, when all of the pouting baddies get theirs, Pink Flamingos reveals itself as a B-picture morality tale; Waters was shrewd enough to understand that even underground audiences want to have something resembling a narrative. In this first of his movies to receive national distribution, a point is even made--bad karma does you in--along with the infestation of color schemes that undid expectations in the subtlest of ways. Pink Flamingos, with its royal-blue hairdos and half-shaved heads, created a sphere of influence that opened the way for a punk culture that has grown to include the New York Dolls, the Offspring, and Prodigy.

There's also a real treat in this celebratory rerelease: Waters appears on-screen introducing a series of scenes that were excised from the picture because he wisely realized length that was an issue and that he wasn't making Berlin Alexanderplatz (which happens to be one of those favorites he mentions in Movies for a Desert Isle). Waters, whose appearance has evolved over the years from a parody of no-brow chic (how much work does it take to keep that cilia-thin mustache up?) to a brand of self-contained suavity, announces the never-before-seen segments seated at a stately desk in a dark den right out of stately Wayne Manor--and in a way that recalls another long-forgotten genre, in which "doctors" in exploitation movies talked about the tragic sickness of, say, nymphomania before cutting to soft-core porn.

Waters' bemused patter, the most cadaverous of deadpan, adds to the level of affectionate irony; the clips themselves, with their daffy disconnectedness, could almost form another movie. In 1972, Pink Flamingos was the state of the art of buzzing-fly aplomb. It's still a ton of fun to see, because it does what we ask of filmmakers: The film builds a world that speaks directly from a unique sensibility.

Pink Flamingos.
Divine, Edith Massey, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole. Written and directed by John Waters. Opens Friday.

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Elvis Mitchell

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