The Filthiest People Alive!: Teaching PINK FLAMINGOS


“If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.”

-John Waters

A few weeks ago I taught Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) as part of a lesson on the advent of extreme gore in American cinema. In addition to providing context for why the film was made — Lewis only turned to gore because his stock in trade “nudie cuties” were now becoming standard fare in mainstream Hollywood films — I also went over the conventions of the gore film and the slasher film (Blood Feast is both) and screened clips from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) and The Evil Dead (1981, Sam Raimi). Given my blood-soaked lecture I suppose that my students were primed for an evening of non-stop blood and terror when they attended the Blood Feast screening.

But as the first example of gore, Blood Feast is far more restrained than its generic descendents. Therefore, during our class discussion of the film one disappointed student raised his hand and complained, “You wrote a check that film couldn’t cash.” His classmates nodded in agreement. This reaction surprised me a bit: Blood Feast may be tame, but it still contains scenes in which a woman’s tongue is ripped out and a leg is severed. I left the classroom shaking my head and wondering about the state of today’s youth.

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The students found this scene to be only mildly disturbing

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Theatrical poster for Blood Feast

But as it turns out, it is possible to shock Generation Y. All it takes is a little poop eating.

For our week on camp and its relationship with trash cinema, we discussed some of the basic characteristics of the camp aesthetic described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay, “Notes on Camp” (1964), such as artifice, exaggerated sexuality and theatricality. We then related these characteristics to the work of John Waters, especially as they applied to his star and muse, the incomparable Divine. I also described Waters’ interest in the abject and bodily fluids (saliva, vomit, shit) and warned them that the film contained (unstaged) acts of felatio and coprophagia. But truly, is there any way to prepare students for a screening of Pink Flamingos?

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Waters once said of Divine "She was my Elizabeth Taylor."

Approximately 10 to 15 minutes into the film, not too long after Divine steals a piece of meat from a grocery store by shoving it under her tight lamé dress (all to the tune of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”), the same student who had complained about Blood Feast turned to me and said, “Okay, you didn’t oversell this one.” “Just you wait,” I replied, “There’s a lot more to come.”

There is a voyeur character in Pink Flamingos named Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce) who pleads with her beloved, Crackers (Danny Mills), to engage in ever kinkier sex for her viewing pleasure. “I’ve gotta see more than what I’ve already seen!” she whines. Crackers complies by incorporating two live chickens into his next “love making” session.

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Crackers forces Cookie (Cookie Mueller) into chicken sex.

The viewing audience for Pink Flamingos is a lot like Cotton in that we too expect Waters to present ever more shocking images as the film goes on — every scene ups the ante. This goal is achieved by having the film’s narrative center on a group of scheming middle class poseurs, Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary), attempting to wrest the title of “filthiest people alive” from Divine and her family. This leads to the breaking of all kinds of long-standing cultural taboos, including the big three: murder, cannibalism and incest. Of course, Divine does not engage in these acts to compete with the Marbles — she does these things because they are in her nature to do them. She is, indeed, the filthiest person alive.

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Divine prepares to perform felatio on her son.

The movie concludes with a kangaroo court trial of Connie and Raymond Marble, who are convicted of “assholism.” Divine tars and feathers the convicts, executes them in front of a crowd of gossip reporters, and then flees to Boise, Idaho with Crackers and Cotton.

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Divine holds a press conference before executing the Marbles

At this point in the film my students were pretty shell shocked. They had watched an extended scene of passionate toe-sucking. They witnessed a singing asshole (literally)  and a pre-operative transsexual flash her penis at the camera. But then came the film’s famous denoument. My students knew it was coming and yet, they were not prepared.

As the scene unfolded my students howled with disgust. But I was in the back of the room laughing so hard that tears were rolling down my face. “You’re enjoying this?” one incredulous student remarked, “What is wrong with you?” But this scene is funny. When Divine smiles at the camera with shit-covered teeth, the image is gag-inducing but it is also hilarious in its sheer defiance. It is the ultimate in juvenile high jinks. This image appeals to the 9-year-old in me.

The credits rolled and my students slowly filed out of the classroom, shaking their heads and muttering under their breath. Watching them go  I realized that it is still possible to shock today’s youth. My hat goes off to you, Mr. Waters.

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7 thoughts on “The Filthiest People Alive!: Teaching PINK FLAMINGOS

  1. Your students are a much tougher group than my average bunch of freshman and occasional sophomores. I’ve had students opt out of watching American Beauty and complain about A Clockwork Orange. Students have also listed my foul language as a weakness of the course. Damn prudes, I say to myself–they should grow the fuck up.

    On the other hand, maybe I should find some comfort in the occasional evidence of innocence, as you seem to find some reassurance in the post-Flamingo mutterings of your students. In this society, where anything goes and goes too far, the ability to be shocked and disturbed is something to be cherished.

    So as teachers of the innocent, we should dedicate ourselves to giving students opportunities to exercise shock-ability, for we don’t want it to die from non-use.

  2. Wow, they refused to watch AMERICAN BEAUTY? Because of the guy on guy kiss at the end?

    Keep in mind, Randall, that I would never screen PINK FLAMINGOS in Intro to Film or in any other class where the students didn’t know what they were getting into. On the first day of my Trash Cinema class I made it clear that we’d be watching films containing full frontal nudity, shit-eating, dismemberment, various forms of non-traditional sexuality, etc. And not a single one dropped. So they should be tough.

    But yes I do cherish their outrage–it was heart warming to see.

  3. I’ve never seen PINK FLAMINGOS, and now I’m thankful for it. Blech. That was worse than watching the curb-stomping at the beginning of AMERICAN HISTORY X, which is about the only other time I’ve felt physically nauseated during a film.

    I suppose your students’ reactions only support the claim that our younger generations are getting more and more desensitized to violence and gore, but not necessarily other disgusting things. I think that’s backwards from the way it *should* be, but what do I know?

  4. I am literally laughing at the computer screen thinking of a student turning around to you and demanding, “What is WRONG with you?”

    I’ve never seen PINK FLAMINGOS–don’t know if I could take it. But your class sounds like a hoot, and I bet the students love it overall. (Seriously, the eyeball-slicing in UN CHIEN ANDALOU takes me over the edge, so I’m not sure I could handle the FLAMINGOS.) =)

  5. Nick and Kelli: I highly recommend this movie to you both. The nausea only happens once, at the very end. The rest is simply delightful.

  6. I think a great deal shocks “students today” … in part because they think they’re unshockable … but you take a group of “I’ve seen it all” college students and show them that eyeball slicing in UN CHIEN ANDALOU and you’ll get at least one running to the trashcan to vomit .. so delightful … PINK FLAMINGOS the same, I’m imagining …

    It always seems like such a powerful conversation in first-year and other level courses I’ve taught: to put on the table what taboos or mores continue to elicit shock, awe, fear, nausea and WHY … what about our collective experience causes certain experiences to be truly gut-wrenching or utterly disturbing? (All this said knowing that I, too, can’t watch that scene in UN CHIEN …)

  7. I hadn’t seen FLAMINGOS in years, but attended a midnight screening last night at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in NYC. I forgot how FUNNY it was, and there were plenty of young people in the crowd who, while laughing along, were audibly repulsed by much of it. So, yeah, you can still shock today’s youth.

    In 3 weeks this theater is hosting a screening of a film called ALL ABOUT EVIL, featuring Mink Stole!

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