Still Waters: John Waters talks about the re-release of Pink Flamingos and what America was like in ’72
Published in The Boston Phoenix, March 27, 1997
AFTER 25 YEARS, Pink Flamingos, the film that earned director John Waters the title “the Prince of Puke,” is being loving re-released by its original distributor, New Line Cinema. Once billed by Waters himself as “an exercise in poor taste,” it is clearly not in the same category as other re-releases this year, such as The Godfather or The Graduate. Even a quarter of a century after its premiere, the movie remains one of the most shocking and putrid cinema atrocities around. The story of two families competing for the title of “the filthiest people alive,” it includes scenes of sex with chickens, a man who makes his anus appear to sing, fellation performed by a mother on her son, a pre-op transsexual flasher, and of course the infamous final scene of 300-pound drag queen Diving performing an act of coprophagy (that’s shit-eating to you and me — and yes, it’s real).
One might expect the director of such a film to live in a brightly painted kitsch-o-rama, but, in fact, Waters’s Baltimore house is a fairly normal sort of place. That is, if you don’t count the electric chair in the ground-floor hallway, Patty Hearst’s eyeglasses hanging in a frame in one bathroom, or the portrait of child murderer Gertrude Baniszewski and reams of books about serial killers, sexual deviance, and mental illness in the guest room.
Seated on a red-velvet couch in the living room, Waters looks dapper in a plaid jacket, a light-blue shirt buttoned all the way to the top, and dark slacks. His trademark pencil-line mustache sits about his upper lip like a thin rime of graphite shavings.
We settle in to discuss the movie Variety called “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.”
Q: I saw Pink Flamingos for the first time the other day, and it literally made me sick to my stomach.
A: The ending you mean? I’m really used to that. I can watch that unflinching and see only surrealism. But I understand that even the people in the lab when we did it this time were like, “Oh, God!” But they all laughed. It’s not the kind of nauseating that you would get from Faces of Death or movies that show real violence. To me, that’s much more vomit-inducing — not fake violence but real violence, when you see things on the news that to me are much more troubling than somebody eating shit, something that was done as a joyous joke. I know it would be hard to explain this to a marketing person, but at the time that was my version of an upbeat ending. And I think it is. People leave the theater laughing.
Q: What were some of the cinematic influences on this film?
A: There were three things that heavily influenced especially my earlier films. The New York/LA underground movie scene, which only lasted about three years — Kenneth Anger, the Kuchar brothers, Andy Warhol, Jack Smith. At the same time, I was influenced by Russ Meyer and all exploitation movies — they tested them here. I’d hook school and see three movies a day for 45 cents. And then the artiest movies — Ingmar Bergman and all the art movies that I miss, that we don’t have anymore. All three of them put together — nobody every put them together, really. Those were my influences.
Pink Flamingos was an exploitation film for art theaters, which maybe hadn’t quite happened.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of chicken fucking?
A: I’m basically frightened of chickens. Do you like them? They’re stupid. They come at you and peck you. You can’t pet a chicken or take it for a walk. It won’t get your newspaper for you. All you can do is eat it — or fuck it [laughs], I guess, in that world.
Q: What was Divine’s character about?
A: Divine was in some kind of way supposed to be radical — certainly a joke on radical politics. She had a new look. I think that new look still can be felt today. I’m blowing my own trumpet, which I don’t ever like to do, but I’m also trying to blow Divine’s trumpet for him. He was a drag queen who in some ways changed the way drag was thought of. He wasn’t square.
You know, drag queens, if you look back on the history of drag queens, were very middle class in what they wanted to be. Their values were just like their mothers’. They wanted to be the cliché of a beauty queen. And Divine challenged them and made fun of them and was almost a terrorist of drag queens, as if saying, “This is ridiculous. Let’s think up a new kind of thing.”
Q: Why do you think this was your breakthrough movie?
A: It obviously hit some kind of nerve. It was at a time that was the end of the hippie era but pre-punk. And I think, to be honest, many, many people saw Pink Flamingos stoned. Plain and simple. That is part of the appeal. It was a pothead movie. And it had to do with the times. There was a cultural war then that there certainly is not now. There were two sides to everything. There was so much political trouble. There were riots all the time. Part of my social life was going to riots, you know? Like parties. You’d say, “Which city should we go to this week?,” which would make my parents so insane.
Q: Can you describe the period when you made the movie?
A: Certainly it was made in a very volatile time. Nineteen seventy-two was really crazy. It was still the ‘60s. The Weathermen, all that kind of stuff, was very much in the news. Terrorism was very much in the news. But not right-wing terrorism like today — left-wing. It’s certainly come full circle in the 25 years. To be honest, I think the Weathermen had a lot more style than Timothy McVeigh. I mean, right-wing terrorists do not interest me that much. They all dress the same. They’ve never come up with a new fashion look. They still just look like out-of-work Marines.
Q: You dedicated the film to the Manson women. Can you explain why?
A: I went to the Manson trial, and it was a very big influence on me because we wanted to scare the world, too, but in a very different way, obviously. I came home and wrote Pink Flamingos. I dedicated the movie not to the Manson family but to Sadie, Katie, and Les — the women. Not Manson. The people that interested me were the people that came from a background similar to mine. Manson was in jail his whole life. The girls were from suburban homes. It was a flippant, punk gesture before there was punk.
I have become friends with Leslie Van Houten [one of Manson’s followers]. I have visited her in prison for 15 years. I seriously believe she is rehabilitated. The prison does, most everybody does. I believe she should be let out. And I worked seriously to get her out. I don’t say that for shock value. I am serious about it. One day I hope she’s here at my Christmas party. I think she will be.
Q: You were always fascinated by serial killers, crime, tabloid journalism, even car crashes. Is America catching up with you?
A: I think that our humor veered toward each other a long time ago. I got a little less angry, and the two did meet in a fairly good way.
Q: Many people say your influence has been to show budding filmmakers that you can just pick up a camera and do it. What made you think you could just do it?
A: My mother says this is terrible to say, but LSD made me think that. Well … I had confidence anyway. I was ambitious. I always was lucky enough to know what I wanted to do very, very early. I was a puppeteer at children’s birthday parties when I was 12 years old. And my parents, even though they were horrified by these films, they encouraged it. It was very loving. I didn’t realize it at the time.
Q: How does it feel for your movie to be re-released with all these “classics,” such as Star Wars and The Godfather?
A: I think that is funny. It’s luck that it came out, so it’s almost like it’s satirizing that. I feel sorry for the movies that are going to be re-released after Pink Flamingos.
I would have never ever predicted I would be talking about this movie 25 years later. And I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know how it’s going to be received.