Feces, vomit and disturbed sex: ‘Pink Flamingos’ and the art of repulsion in cinema

Vomit Prince. Baron of bad taste. Garbage Dad. King of sleaze. Repulsion player. godfather of rude. They are some of the nicknames awarded to the filmmaker John Waters throughout his career and above all thanks to his third feature film, whose world premiere marks half a century this coming Thursday.

Banned for years in many countries, still pending release in most of the world, ‘Pink Flamingos’ was once defined by critics as “one of the most vile and repulsive films ever filmed” or simply as “pure pathology”, and those are precisely the kind of reactions that its director was looking for when making it. “To me, bad taste is the essence of entertainment,” says Waters in his memoir “Shock Value.” “If someone throws up while watching one of my movies, it’s like getting a standing ovation.”

He shot it in the company of friends and cronies, with only $10,000 and the intention of committing a jovial attack against the prevailing morality; and for this he turned a brief plot premise – the rivalries that an ex-convict considered “the most disgusting person in the world” maintains with her neighbors, who long to take away her title – as a container for subplots and narrative ingredients of the most depraved: baby trafficking, murder, cannibalism, pornography, exhibitionists with sausages tied to their genitalia, potty training, gift-wrapped pigs’ heads, oral sex between a mother and her child, severed penises, rape, and, to top it off, One of the most disgusting scenes in movie history.

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

John Waters

Shot without cheating or cardboard, it accompanies the transvestite actor Divine as he enthusiastically approaches a dog that defecates in the street and, after putting the feces in his mouth, lets them show between his teeth and his smiling lips. Divine, whose name was Harris Glenn Milstead, became a countercultural celebrity and the personification of Waters’s artistic creed..

Her attitude and her figure – 140 kilos of humanity adorned with thick layers of makeup, enormous push-up bras and evening dresses ready to burst at any seam – were one of the reasons for the cult following that the film generated thanks to its success on the circuit. of midnight screenings, and of the influence that since then has been attributed to it on movements such as punk, filmmakers such as Pedro Almodóvar and Harmony Korine, and audiovisual phenomena such as ‘Jackass’.

The resource of provocation

In any case, the ‘Pink Flamingos’ method had been invented for decades. Waters never hid the influence exerted on him by both Luis Buñuel’s early films‘An Andalusian Dog’ (1929) and ‘The Golden Age’ (1930), as well as the entire filmography of ‘gore’ pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis and especially his magnum opus, ‘Blood Feast’ (1963).

And the cinema, in fact, has spent its entire existence resorting to provocation through bad taste –’Electrocuting an Elephant’ (1903), a short film directed by Thomas Alva Edison that shows the sacrifice of the titular mammal, is considered the first ‘snuff’ film in history–, frequently functioning as a showcase of the ugly, the unnatural, the the bizarre, the sick, the unbelievably strange, the monstrous, the abject, the repulsive and the toxic, sometimes for comedic or carnivalesque purposes – as in ‘Braindead. Your mother ate my dog’ (1992) – and often to cause nausea.

The cinema has spent its entire existence resorting to provocation through bad taste

The latter, in fact, is the raison d’être of titles like ‘The Human Centipede 2’ (2011), about a man who creates a human centipede by sewing 12 people together, or ‘A Serbian Film’ (2010 ), about a retired porn star who is accidentally involved in scenes of pedophilia and necrophilia.

If a considerable part of the audience is not willing to experience things like that in front of a screen, another part prefers them as realistic as possible.. The notoriety acquired over time by ‘Nekromantik’ (1988), a German film about a couple who decides to practice a ‘ménage a tròis’ with a dead man, and about which in its day was rumored which had been shot with a real corpse.

And through it is also explained the ‘mondo’, a subgenre disguised as non-fiction that emerged in Italy in the early 1960s, based on the juxtaposition of themes such as sex and death with archive images of exotic cultures, and essential precedent of what is undoubtedly one of the most unpleasant films in history: ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980), a story about a film crew killed by Amazonian tribes whose credibility even led to court its director, Ruggero Deodato, accused of having killed his leading actors.

Not just for the most disturbed

Despite what these examples may imply, extreme cinema does not serve – at least not only – to nurture the barbaric proclivities of the most disturbed spectators. in its best manifestations represents a challenge to cultural norms and fears, taboos, ideological biases and stereotypes, and a reconfiguration of the lines that separate the normal from the abnormal, the beautiful from the deformed and the desirable from the despicable.

This is demonstrated by ‘Antichrist’ (2009), the most controversial film by one of the most controversial directors, Lars Von Trier; demented questioning of the prejudices and fears that surround female sexuality, its undoubted power of fascination largely comes from the contrast that its dazzling collection of images poses with respect to the collection of medieval tortures, genital mutilations and other acts of physical and psychological brutality that your footage stages.

Extreme cinema is a challenge to cultural norms and fears, taboos, ideological biases and stereotypes

The grotesque and the depraved, finally, can function as a political weapon against the ‘establishment’ and the institutions that support it.. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last film, ‘Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ (1975), used the portrait of four fascists in Mussolini’s Italy who dedicate themselves to degrading, mutilating and murdering minors to suggest that values of Western civilization are based on the blood of innocents.

‘Audition’ (1999) is the story of a young woman who mutilates a man, amputates some sensitive parts and even forces him to consume his own vomit from a dog’s bowl, but above all, it is a fierce attack on patriarchy. And the most famous scene of ‘Pepi, Luci, Bom…. and other girls of the bunch’ (1980) shows not only the singer Alaska urinating on the actress Mercedes Guillamón, but also a society determined to get rid of the remains of Franco’s moral repression with drops of (golden) rain. In other words, hedirt as synonymous with freedom. “Shit is my policy! Crap is my life!” Divine proclaimed on ‘Pink Flamingos’. Well that.

What room is left in 2022 for that kind of subversion? This is a timely question for several reasons.. First, because any violation of the hegemonic discourse is attacked by an increasingly reactionary right and a left often obsessed with political correctness, so the supposed freedom provided by new technologies is nuanced by algorithms and Terms of Use.

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The grotesque and the depraved can function as a political weapon against the ‘establishment’ and the institutions that support it.

Second, at the same time, contemporary culture is increasingly tolerant of the representational mechanisms of violence, sexuality, and other bodily functions. And, third, at this point the underground – the natural environment of anti-system artistic discourses – has been engulfed by the System, and its expressive codes have been sweetened and trivialized in view of massive and passive consumption. To counter these arguments, in any case, all you have to do is watch ‘Pink Flamingos’ again and see that, five decades later, it’s still impossible to see it without covering your eyes with your hands.

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