John Waters made bad taste perversely transcendent with the forever shocking counterculture sensation Pink Flamingos, his most infamous and daring cinematic transgression. Outré diva Divine is iconic as the wanted criminal hiding out with her family of degenerates in a trailer outside Baltimore while reveling in her tabloid notoriety as the “Filthiest Person Alive.” When a pair of sociopaths (Mink Stole and David Lochary) with a habit of kidnapping women in order to impregnate them attempt to challenge her title, Divine resolves to show them and the world the true meaning of the word filthy. Incest, cannibalism, shrimping, and film history’s most legendary gross-out ending—Waters and his merry band of Dreamlanders leave no taboo unsmashed in this gleefully subversive ode to outsiderhood, in which camp spectacle and pitch-black satire are wielded in an all-out assault on respectability.
John Waters’ exercise in poor taste, Pink Flamingos, re-enters The Criterion Collection through their new Blu-ray edition, 25-years after Criterion released their 25th anniversary LaserDisc edition. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in Waters’ preferred aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The master is sourced from a new 4K restoration, which was scanned from the 16mm Ektachrome positive that has been stored in Waters’ attic for the last five decades. The notes around the restoration also point out that the elements were what Waters’ directly edited and hot-spliced together while creating the film.
Considering the super low budget, the nature of the film, and the low expectations set up by the source elements available for the restoration, this new presentation has turned out unexpectedly terrific. Right off the image is shockingly clean and stable (outside of rough edits, zooms, and such), damage being primarily limited to minor marks and scratches. It’s absolutely remarkable just how clean the picture is in the end, and it’s clear that an unbelievable amount of work has gone into this.
The digital presentation itself is also exceptional. Unsurprisingly, the film is very grainy, but it’s rendered well here, looking clean and natural a lot of the time. The film is, rather surprisingly, in focus for most of the its running time, and though the elements and 16mm photography can still limit things, there still manages to be an impressive level of detail present in places, from the various costumes to that dirt floor basement cell. Colours, unsurprisingly, look a bit muted, skin tones even coming off a bit pasty, but Mink Stole’s and David Lochary’s red and blue hair, respectively, look especially bold, as does Divine’s red dress during the finale. Range is also shockingly wide, helping the black levels and shadow details.
I was a little surprised Criterion didn’t announce a simultaneous 4K edition considering the film’s popularity and cult following, but after seeing the presentation it would more than likely have been a wasted effort; outside of maybe the improved grain rendering I can’t say the film would benefited much more from the increased resolution. In the end, I guess I was expecting this to look better than it ever has, but my expectations were still surpassed by a wide margin.
The film’s monaural soundtrack is delivered in lossless single-channel PCM. The audio is a bit limited due to shooting conditions, leading to dialogue that can be hard to hear or have some minor reverb, but the track is otherwise clean, free of heavy damage and distortion. The music does, much to my shock, show a notable level of range between the highs and lows at times.
Criterion puts together an incredibly fun special edition for the film, starting things off with not one but two audio commentaries featuring director John Waters: one recorded in 1997 for Criterion’s LaserDisc edition, the other recorded in 2004 for Warner’s own special edition DVD. It shouldn’t be a big surprise to say there is some crossover between the two tracks, and even some contradictions, like Waters saying in the ’97 track that Mink Stole’s expensive glasses were donated by a local optician, but then saying in the ’04 track that he may have bought them. Still, even when he does cover the same topics, whether it be about his friendship with Divine or about the film’s distribution, he’ll go in different directions and reveal different little details.
He covers the film's many infamous moments across both tracks but if I were to pick one over the other, I’d probably give the edge to the original Criterion track. Of the two it feels the more energetic and spontaneous, and I found some of the topics he covers here a bit more engaging. For example, in this track he talks about dealing with the MPAA and finally getting a rating for the film for the 25th anniversary release and why he now wanted a rating for the film, even though he knew it would be NC-17. A small part of it appears to be borne out a perverse joy in knowing the MPAA have to watch it. He also talks a bit more about funding his films after this, with a focus on what would have been his then more recent Serial Mom.
The second track does have its own unique aspects that still make it more than worthwhile. In this one, Waters can come off a bit more critical of his choices, particularly around editing, and he does talk about the cast members a little more. But I also enjoyed his discussion around the creation of Divine and the inspirations behind her, how Herschell Gordon Lewis plays a big part in his work, and even more around the legal problems he has faced through the years because of this film. There's still a whole trove of material in here. Still, no matter the track I don't think anyone can go wrong with either: they’re both informative, fun, and incredibly funny.
Criterion has also created some new content for this edition with the help of Waters, including a great 30-minute discussion between Waters and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. It's a fun reflection on the film, Waters talking about its conception and production, Divine, and even his collection of records, all based on comments from Jarmusch. Jarmusch also talks about what Pink Flamingos and Waters’ other work means to him, Jarmusch crediting Waters with giving him the confidence to go the direction he would go with his work. The two then take their time to talk about how they each got into the underground film scene, and then share their own little anecdotes, Jarmusch amusingly mentioning he’s been confused for David Lynch. It’s also here where Waters, after saying throughout the commentaries that his parents avoided seeing his work, states that his parents did end up enjoying Hairspray.
It’s a delightful and enjoyable discussion between two filmmakers who clearly admire each other’s work and enjoy talking about their influences. It’s also fun to learn that Waters did a kid friendly reworking of Pink Flamingos, a reading of which, by kids, we get glimpses from here.
Waters also participates in a 22-minute feature that has the filmmaker revisit a couple of locations used for the film. First, he visits the location that housed Divine’s/Bab’s trailer, an actual house now in its place. Amusingly he finds very game owners living there, both of whom appear to be incredibly proud that the film was shot there, even if it took them three attempts to finish the actual film and not care for it. This part’s fun, especially when they use a metal detector in the hope of finding the wreckage of the trailer rumoured to have been buried below, but I ended up enjoying his visit to the Marble house a little more. The house, which hasn’t changed all that much, was also where Waters lived at the time (he even stole the address sign, which shows up in the background of another feature on this disc) and he has a bit of a ball recalling his time there and talking about editing the film up in the attic, where, as Waters reveals, a porno was also shot, because of course it was. I find these types of revisits to be a mixed bag most of the time but this one is incredibly amusing, thanks primarily to how much fun Waters appears to be having.
This new material is great but the highlight of the disc, and a rather large get on Criterion’s part, is the 1998, 97-minute documentary Divine Trash, directed by Steve Yeager (spelled “Yaeger” in Criterion’s notes, which I assume is a mistake). The documentary is an in-depth look at Waters and his work, getting interviews with those that have worked with him, from members of his crew (some through archival interviews) all the way down to the guy that developed his film, Pete Garey. There are also interviews with those who were probably the first to discover his work, along with comments from the filmmakers that were somehow influenced or at least inspired in some small way by it (Steven Buscemi, Hal Hartley and David O. Russell are only a few of the ones to show up). Waters himself appears for some extensive interviews, along with his parents. Through all of this material the film provides a rich deep dive into his influences and interests, the director recalling how he first got into film and how he, a kid in suburban Baltimore, was able to become familiar with the underground film scene. This then of course leads into discussion about his early work, from Mondo Trasho to Multiple Maniacs and then Pink Flamingos, the latter getting most of the coverage (his later films only get mentioned). Its most amusing parts, though, may be around the Maryland censor board and his films, former member Mary Avara recalling the horror of first seeing the church sex scene in Multiple Maniacs. Ironically, though not surprisingly, the notoriety probably only helped his work gain attention.
It’s a dense and comprehensive documentary, at least around Waters’ earlier work, that also features some behind-the-scenes footage, which confirms that Waters and crew lucked out in not burning down the area they were working in. It also has a loving section around Divine, aka Harris Glen Milstead, which features footage of Yeager interviewing him on the set of Pink Flamingos. I think anyone, whether a fan of Waters or new to his work, will find this documentary invaluable, and it’s a terrific inclusion.
Closing things off is material around outtakes. First is 25-minutes’ worth of what appears to be partially restored outtakes. This includes material featuring Divine reciting her memoirs, an extended portion around the Marbles tracking down the trailer, Eggman asking permission to marry Edie, and material around a character named Patty Hitler, who otherwise appears during the birthday scene. There are a few other scenes, though nothing I would call substantial outside of Mink Stole calling on the magic mirror to ask if she’s the filthiest one of all.
The disc also includes a feature called 25th Anniversary Footage, which I believe was created for the 25th anniversary release of the film in 1997 and appeared on Criterion’s LaserDisc and subsequent Warner disc. Running 13-minutes, it includes excerpts from some of the same outtakes found in the previous feature, but they’re intercut with quick interviews with Waters talking about the footage, the director even explaining why he feels the chicken in one of the film’s many infamous scenes led a more fulfilling life thanks to this film.
The inclusion of two features around the outtakes does feel a bit repetitive, but I suspect Criterion is including the older one because of Waters’ comments. That feature also includes the film’s unique trailer, which only featured reactions to the film, but Criterion also includes it as a separate feature.
Criterion also has fun with the packaging for this release. The disc is in one of Criterion’s Scanavo cases featuring artwork recreating the film’s disgusting final shot. It is then placed in an O-card that looks like brown mailing wrap, recreating the package sent to Babs/Divine in the film. In an especially nice touch, the release also includes a barf bag.
The “booklet” is a fold-out insert that recreates the newspaper in the film, the one declaring Divine's filthiness. It features an essay on the film by Howard Hampton. Criterion also includes an excerpt from Cookie Mueller’s posthumously published book Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, the actor and friend of Waters recalling her experience on making Pink Flamingos. A perfect way to close the supplements.
With a sharp presentation and an engrossing set of supplements, Criterion's edition for this "exercise in poor taste" is perfect for anyone already a fan of Waters' work, or the poor soul who figured Pink Flamingos was the perfect place to start.