The purveyors of cinematic excellence once again release the definitive take on the John Waters classic
John Waters’s infamous exercise in “Bad Taste,” 1972’s Pink Flamingos, is a transgressive film fan’s rite of passage. It’s one of those films you have to eventually work your way up to, and once you’ve viewed it, you’re forever changed, for better or worse. Before the advent of the more readily available DVD, I remember having to drive 45 minutes to a Hollywood Video that carried Flamingos on VHS; most video stores didn’t due to its NC-17 rating. Criterion originally released a special edition LaserDisc before New Line offered up a DVD release paired with another film in the director’s “Trash Trilogy,” Female Trouble. Now, Criterion is back for the final word with a definitive Blu-ray release. Criterion thankfully has cornered the market on Waters’s filmography in the last few years, releasing deep cuts like Multiple Maniacs as well as his more commercially viable features like Polyester.
Pink Flamingos is the tale of the notorious criminal Divine (played by the drag queen Divine), who is hiding out in a trailer with her family in the woods outside of Baltimore under the pseudonym Babs Johnson. After being dubbed “the filthiest person alive” by a tabloid, the narrative engine is set into motion as jealous perverts Connie and Raymond Marble, a couple for known for forcibly impregnating kidnapped women and then selling their babies to lesbians, get wind of the news and set fourth to rob Babs of the title. Each party tries to outdo the other with various acts of both fake and real debauchery captured on film. That’s the thing about Pink Flamingos: it’s shot in this documentary style due to necessity. This ups the shock value, with larger than life characters out in the real world doing real acts, or getting pretty damn close—like in the film’s notorious ending.
Waters’s wicked, razor-sharp sense of humor is on full display in this masterpiece that has everything from incest to foot fetishism, cannibalism, and even beastiality. His players, all from Waters’s inner circle in Baltimore, are charged with manically reciting pages upon pages of monologues in a film that at times borders on performance art. For what some lack in acting ability, they make up for in sheer fearlessness on screen. These first forays into feature-length film for Waters were the cinematic equivalent to punk rock, with their devil-may-care attitude and their DIY aesthetic. Given their ratings and content, these films were often screened outside of multiplex settings at colleges, arthouses, and concert venues, including Philadelphia’s own TLA, which hosted one-off Pink Flamingos screenings—a fact Waters fondly recalls on the included LaserDisc commentary track.
Pink Flamingos was my first exposure to drag queens and the kind of positive queer representation you really didn’t see a whole lot in mainstream cinema at the time. This was outsider art made for outsiders, and that is why I think I gravitated toward it, aside from its well earned pre-internet infamy. I may not be part of the LGBTQ community, but being into art and film in my small shitkicker town — which, oddly enough, was a mere 45 minutes from Baltimore — put a target on my back anyone could see a mile away. It made my appreciation for this film even more personal, given that Waters was able to not only unite his tribe but produce these films that eventually turned into mainstream success, making him a household name without having to compromise the ideas and attitude that has carried out through the rest of his filmography.
When it comes to the transfer, Criterion has once again outdone themselves. For those about to complain that this is a standard Blu-ray and not a 4K UHD release, there are Criterion DVDs out there that I will argue look better than most Blu-rays. This is because when Criterion creates transfers, they scan for the next format, so while most folks were porting over their standard definition VHS transfers and reselling them on DVD, Criterion was scanning in HD for their DVDs. Keep in mind that Pink Flamingos was shot in 16mm, not 35mm, so a 4K scan on a Blu-ray is the best this film has looked and will look on home media. The transfer here accentuates the mid-century color palette with a surprisingly balanced contrast. If you want to see how previous editions of this film have looked, simply check out the clips of the film on the excellent Divine Trash documentary included on the disc for comparison.
Speaking of extras, this disc is as comprehensive as you’re going to get for a release, with the LaserDisc extras, the 25th anniversary extras, and new extras created for this release, along with the feature-length documentary mentioned above. The commentaries are by far my favorite of the vintage extras; Waters is always candid and outgoing in these discussions that are as entertaining as they are informative. For newly produced extras, a highlight has to be an intimate chat between Waters and Jim Jarmusch, who isn’t shy about the influences the director has had on his career. It’s the kind of engaging discussion that could only take place between two indie peers who have transcended into icons. Along with the digital extras, Criterion also went all in on the physical packaging, opting for a slipcover that mimics the package Divine gets in the film from Midnight Tabloid filled with essays about the film. You also get a replica barf bag like the ones that were given out at early screenings!
Check out the full rundown of features below:
DIRECTOR-APPROVED BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:
- New 4K digital restoration, supervised and approved by director John Waters, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Divine Trash, a feature-length 1998 documentary by Steve Yeager about Waters and the making of Pink Flamingos, featuring interviews with cast and crew
- Two audio commentaries featuring Waters from the 1997 Criterion LaserDisc and the 2001 DVD release
- New conversation between Waters and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch
- Tour of the film’s Baltimore locations, led by Waters
- Deleted scenes and alternate takes
- English subtitles
- An essay by critic Howard Hampton and a piece by actor and author Cookie Mueller about the making of the film from her 1990 book Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black
It’s hard for any cinephile to imagine a world without Pink Flamingos. Not only did it become notorious in the underground and indie film scene with its Kenneth Anger meets Andy Warhol aesthetic, but it seeped into the mainstream due to its sheer audacity. It’s surprisingly aged well: I was lucky enough to catch a repertoire screening of Pink Flamingos a few years back thanks to Exhumed Films, where we were surprised by a post-credit Q&A by not only Waters, but also Mink Stole. While it’s not quite as shocking as it was when the film first unfurled, it still manages to cast a spell that has the crowd rooting for Divine and her family as the stakes continually rise throughout the film. Having owned that LaserDisc, I am happy to finally replace it in my collection with a definitive release that not only collects the extras, but celebrates this film in every way a release can.