The Pink Flamingos of Baltimore
Ken Wilson on John Waters and Baltimore, once described as the ‘bad taste capital of America’
Baltimore, 56km north of Washington DC is one of America’s oldest cities. It’s a big contrast to the grand museums and mausoleums of America’s capital and from the razzamatazz of New York just five hours away.
Back in the day it was a big ugly port city, its docks dominated by the vast Dominos Sugar factory, crammed with long streets of brick-built row houses that looked like something out of Coronation Street.
The city has associations with Edgar Allan Poe, baseball hero Babe Ruth and humourist HL Mencken. Whacky neo-pop artist Jeff Koons whose near-pornographic self-portraits with his then wife shocked the arts scene in the 1990s spent three years at art school in Baltimore.
Rockers Frank Zappa, Cass Elliot and David Byrne were scions of Baltimore and Wallis Simpson was a Baltimore gal who almost scuppered the British monarchy during the 1936 Abdication Crisis.
The city’s State Hospital for the Criminally Insane was where Hannibal Lecter, the evil madman in Silence of the Lambs was incarcerated. The 1990s TV show Homicide: Life on the Streets and the HBO series The Wire were set in Baltimore and painted a less than salubrious picture of a city afflicted by drug pushers and bent cops. Welcome to Charm City.
It was one of the first American cities to have made a concerted effort to rise from a low period. The city expanded rapidly in the 19th century, partly due to being the terminus of the country’s first railroad. The city’s fortunes were made as a port. Wartime was boomtime for Baltimore.
But things began to fall apart. By the 1960s the city fathers aided by local government and bold city planners launched a major regeneration programme. Acres of slums and warehouses were cleared to make way for new apartment buildings, offices and shops.
The once no-go area of the docks was transformed with glassed-over shopping malls and an aquarium. For good or ill this gentrification model was copied in cities all over the world.
Baltimore is also the home of John Waters the schlock director whose cult films became a staple of the midnight movie circuit back in the pre-punk 1970s. His star Divine was another famous Baltimorean. Waters’ film Pink Flamingos (1972) is celebrating its 50th birthday. It’s Waters’ most notorious film (his first in colour) in which Divine claims to be “the most disgusting person alive.”
The 160-kilo hardcore monstrosity, Lady Divine (aka Glenn Milstead – more BLT than LGBT in her Joker make-up, enormous pert breasts and pop socks} was Waters’ star and muse. She was like a psycho Liz Taylor who pronounced proudly, “there’s hardly a law I haven’t violated.”
Waters called his hometown the Hairdo Capital of the World, where women in beehives and pointy glasses, like something out of a Larson Far Side cartoon, go around calling each other ‘hon’. He and a bunch of art school dropouts set out to skewer the city that was proud to declaim that: you are born here, grow up here, get married here, and die here.
With primitive movie cameras and zero budget, they set out to shock their suburban betters Waters’ gang openly declared themselves ‘not actors, not paid imposters, but real actual filth!’ When he first began making films he was still in his teens.
Using locations in and around his native Baltimore (the Redneck Riviera) his plots with their hilarious scatological twists were catnip to a generation of teenage misfits.
And for 1970s Catholic Baltimore (and the rest of the world – or the student film societies where the movies were usually shown) it really did seem that the cast had ‘committed acts against God and nature that would make any decent person recoil in disgust’. What today’s woke warriors make of early Waters can only be imagined.
Waters drew inspiration from Douglas Sirk’s glossy Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s as much as Russ Meyer’s grindhouse productions like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! There are echoes of Fassbinder and Genet, the Warhol Factory and trashy daytime TV soaps.
His self-avowedly crude productions might easily have been forgotten but for the advent of punk which shared his no-holds-barred aesthetic and for the fact that Waters found a star in Divine, an enormous drag queen with a potty mouth who was prepared to do anything on screen from being assaulted by a giant papier mache lobster to eating poodle poo on camera.
On one level Waters’ follow-up to Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble (1974) was a dry run for the director’s more mainstream Hairspray (1988}, but Waters was slowly losing the raw, pro-am quality that is the real strength of his early output.
Hairspray was made into a highly successful stage musical whose glossy 2007 film version starred John Travolta in drag. But the sleaziest show on earth where the audience can witness ‘the most flagrant violations of natural laws known to man’ (from lesbian clinches in the chapel pews, a lewd act with rosary beads, cannibalism and worse) was sleazy no more.
Waters’ mid-period and later work was more polished (he gave Johnny Depp his edge in 1990’s Cry Baby) but it’s his early movies for which he will forever be infamous. ■
Info: John Waters’ Pink Flamingos is released on Blu-ray from Criterion on 25 July
Baltimore’s most iconic building and John Waters strangling a, you’ve guessed it, flamingo