When I see a crass movie I often think of the scene in Idiocracy where a hapless time traveler named Joe discovers that the most popular movie in the future is called "Ass: The Movie" and that it consists of nothing but one continuous shot of a farting butt. I like to think about that scene because it sets up one of my favorite jokes of all time, where Joe fondly reminisces back to a time when Americans cared about "whose ass it was and why it was farting."
Now, there are a lot of different ways to judge Pink Flamingos. It wouldn't do well on a conventional rating system, because the acting is pretty amateurish and the script lacks any sense of structure. On the other hand, if you're less concerned about artistic merit and more interested in the extreme or the shocking then Pink Flamingos is a stone cold classic - it goes about as far as a movie can go. However, I want to look at it on what I think of as the "Idiocracy scale" where the question is: does this non-stop buffet of vulgarity know whose ass it is and why it's farting? Pink Flamingos gets a mixed score by that measurement because I'm pretty sure that writer / director John Waters knows whose ass it is but I'm not sure that he always knows why it's farting.
Before I discuss the characters, I should probably provide a bit of background on the movie in general. The plot of Pink Flamingos is pretty simple: after a woman named Divine is awarded the title "filthiest person alive" by an underground magazine Raymond and Connie Marbles, a depraved man and wife team, decide to try to steal her crown by any means necessary. Before the race to the bottom is over nearly every conceivable taboo will have been broken: there's rape, incest, bestiality and even literal shit-eating. (And it's definitely real shit - you watch as it come out of the dog.) It truly is a non stop orgy of offensiveness: at the end of the movie Divine and her children endorse the idea of cannibalism out of nowhere and then take the Lord's name in vain for shits and giggles. Regardless of whether or not you see the humor in these antics, you have to admit that Waters is thorough in his attempt to be as crass as possible.
What sets Pink Flamingos apart from other sleazy movies, however, is that Waters obviously has affection for the flock of perverts and weirdos he's assembled. He doesn't deny that these characters are insane, but he's definitely on their side in their war on good taste. Both Divine's family and the Marbles are strong units that seem to have real affection for each other - although the incest scenes suggest that they might take their affection a bit too far. The only outsiders in this movie are the squares that occasionally intrude from the real world, like a mailman that makes the mistake of delivering a package that's addressed to Divine to her mobile home. It's not always possible for Waters to depict these characters in flattering ways – after all, there probably isn't any way to shoot a scene where someone has sex with a chicken that makes that person look good– but he doesn't condescend to them, either.
The problem is Waters doesn't always seem clear on what all these gross out gags are supposed to add up to. There are times where he seems to be trying to push people's buttons as part of making a bigger political point, there are times when it seems like he's merely trying to tell a joke that he thinks is funny, and sometimes there doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason at all behind what's happening on screen. The film often flirts with satire – it was released three years after the Stonewall Riots and the year before Roe Vs. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, so some of the film's sexual content would have been politically timely as well as transgressive. Some of the gross out scenes are just dirty doggerel - there's a toe sucking scene which is knowingly ridiculous and not much more than that. But a lot of the scenes seem to be weird just to be weird: it's never explained why Divine's mother lives in a crib and is obsessed with eating eggs, but those are the only two things we know about her character. (If she could even be called “a character” - she's barely more than a half formed sketch.)
I suppose the ultimate way to judge how Pink Flamingos does on the Idiocracy scale is to look at the scene where an exposed butthole "lip syncs" Surfin Bird, because that scene is basically Ass: The Movie. There's a weird vortex of irony between those two scenes: in Pink Flamingos, the joke is on the people who don't get the joke, while in Idiocracy the joke is on the people who are laughing right along. Both of them are using the lingo of a crass comedy to comment on our culture at large, and to challenge us to think about whether the stuff that mainstream society finds funny really is funny. Or maybe they're both just jokes about butts. Sometimes it's hard to know with these things.
Ultimately, it's probably not fair to judge this movie on the Idiocracy scale, because the whole point of the "Ass: The Movie" joke is to mock how crass and dumb our culture is getting. Pink Flamingos is inarguably crass, but I don't think it's dumb. John Waters was clearly trying to use this collection of vulgar vignettes to say something, and even if that point is a bit vague at times, it's still clear that he's assaulting mainstream tastes with a purpose. In a way, Waters is not unlike Diogenes, the original cynic, who interrupted Plato's monologues by masturbating: he might not be expressing himself in the most articulate way, but he definitely got his point across. You know, a lot of people would be uncomfortable if they saw themselves getting compared to someone whose jerk off habits were so odd that they became historically important, but something tells me that John Waters would think he was in the middle of good company.
Winner: I don't even know, man