Flamingos Forever: John Waters’s Unmade Superhero Epic

It’s been nearly two decades since John Waters’s last feature film, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that there will ever be another. And that’s okay. The Pope of Filth appears to be totally content in semi-retirement, where he continues to entertain as an author and a travelling orator without having to beg movie studios for budgetary pittances. If Waters never makes another film again, at least he went out a return to form in A Dirty Shame, an underrated career retrospective that bridges the gap between his early-career gross-outs and his late-career “mainstream” comedies. Still, as he is the single greatest filmmaker of all time, it’s fun to daydream about all ~the John Waters projects that could have been~ had his Hollywood Studio cashflow not dried up so suddenly. A Christmas-themed comedy called Fruitcake (potentially starring Johnny Knoxville & Parker Posey) was the most recent unmade John Waters project drifting around the ether, but here are several others besides: a Wizard of Oz spoof called Dorothy the Kansas City Pothead, an ill-advised adaptation of Confederacy of Dunces, some unholy mutant titled Glamorpuss, etc. It’s difficult to speculate on any of these unmade projects with any clear detail beyond a basic elevator pitch, though, because they mostly pop up in media coverage as fun anecdotes in Waters’s bottomless repertoire of fun anecdotes. That is, with one major exception.

The closest one of John Waters’s unmade films ever came to production was in the mid-1980s, when the director was staging his unlikely transformation from arthouse reprobate to a household name. The 1988 paperback Trash Trio features collects three screenplays from John Waters’s “trash period”: Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and the unrealized sequel Flamingos Forever. In the intro to the book, Waters refers to Flamingos Forever as his “first abortion,” a “stillborn” project that failed to secure the proposed $600,000 budget it would’ve needed to reach the screen uncompromised. There were many roadblocks to Flamingos Forever‘s journey through the Hollywood System birth canal: clueless producers insisting on rewrites that included more Hot Babes, Divine’s dwindling enthusiasm for its various gross-out stunts, and, ultimately, the death of the irreplaceable Edith Massey. There was a brief window where Waters could have got the film off the ground under the infamously sleazy Troma Entertainment brand, but he held out for a better opportunity that never came. It’s probably for the best. I’m personally appreciative that Waters pressed on to new, subversive textures in works like Serial Mom and Cry-Baby rather than revisiting Pink Flamingos for a victory lap sequel. Still, reading the screenplay for Flamingos Forever in Trash Trio all these years later is a total treat, as his authorial voice (as well as the mind-searing vocal performances of actors like Massey & Divine) is idiosyncratic enough that you can mentally picture the movie more or less exactly as it would have been had it not been quietly aborted decades ago.

Fifteen years after the events of Pink Flamingos, Divine and her cavalcade of perversions return to Baltimore to reclaim their title as the Filthiest Family Alive. In a beat-for-beat rehash of the previous film, Divine brags to the press about her wicked deeds, drawing unwanted attention from jealous members of the Marble clan, now led by the deceased Connie’s equally vile, child-snatching sister. Gross-out pranks and violent crimes ensue as the two families once again clash over Filth supremacy, with Divine ultimately (obviously) coming out on top. Of course, narrative doesn’t matter nearly as much in a John Waters film as the gross-out stunts & character quirks. While Flamingos Forever retreads a lot of familiar ground, it’s packs plenty of gags that would’ve been a scream if they were realized: the Filth family moving on up to an absurdly artificial Pee-wee’s Playhouse type compound, Divine carrying around Edie in a baby holster, a deranged performance of “The Hokey Pokey” (one of several gags that found its way into the A Dirty Shame), etc. It’s also a wildly offensive vision in the way that you’d expect from a Pink Flamingos sequel, including jokes involving blackface, necrophilia, children in drag and on heroin, and male rape. Even with the slightly-ballooned budget, it’s a trash-era John Waters screenplay through & through. No wonder producers were squeamish to back it.

To Flamingos Forever‘s credit, it does its best to escalate the filthy antics of its central cast to match the escalation of the proposed budget, especially when it comes to Divine. Amusingly, the screenplay recontextualizes Divine as a kind of filth superhero, an avenger of Bad Taste. As her war with the Marble clan heats up, Divine reveals previously unexplored superpowers that confirm her divinity: levitation, X-ray eyes, the production of flying turds (many, many flying turds). She also contrasts the heroic quality of her own filthy antics vs. the child-snatching stunts of the Marble clan, explaining in detail the difference between Good Filth & Bad Filth (the way Waters will walk you through the difference between High Camp & Low Camp in his essay work). Divine’s saga as a notorious murderess who kills because she loves attention from the press is already sketched out in a crude precursor to MCU-style sequential filmmaking across multiple loosely connected films: Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, and Pink Flamingos. In Flamingos Forever, she would have solidified her stature as a filth superhero in that lineage, even providing a flashback superhero origin story for how she became so filthy (in stubborn opposition to her cleanliness-obsessed parents). Flamingos Forever would not have broken new narrative ground for Waters’s early Family of Weirdos character comedies, but it is amusing to consider how far it would have unintentionally pushed that familiar story into the modern territory of sequential superhero storytelling.

I’ve gradually come to peace with the realization that I’ll likely never see a new John Waters film again, a blow that’s been softened by several recent developments in his cinematic legacy: Waters’s newfound joy as an on-stage storyteller, The Criterion Collection’s wonderful restorations of his trash-era classics, the occasional opportunity to experience repertory screenings of his work with new audiences (which somehow always still inspires mid-film walk-outs all these decades later despite their notorious reputations). I’d also chalk up reading the unmade screenplay for Flamingos Forever in Trash Trio as a similar comfort. It was a delightful to watch an unmade John Waters film projected only in the run-down drive-in theater of my mind (an experience I wisely saved for a hurricane-related power outage), even if his work is always better with an audience – as all comedies are. The unlikely Superhero Sequel qualities of the screenplay only added to that novelty, as movies this unabashedly filthy rarely secure Superhero Movie budgets.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #38 of The Swampflix Podcast: NOMA’s John Waters Film Fest & Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980)

Welcome to Episode #38 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our thirty-eighth episode, we tackle the career of our favorite living artist/human being. Brandon and Britnee recap the New Orleans Museum of Art’s recent summertime John Waters Film Festival with fellow Krewe Divine co-founder Virginia Ruth. Also, Britnee makes Brandon watch the Golan-Globus horror comedy Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980) for the first time. Enjoy!

-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Pink Flamingos (1972)

Although it’s the title that’s immediately conjured whenever you mention the name of my favorite filmmaker, I had somehow allowed Pink Flamingos to slip in my estimation over the years. Hairspray may be John Waters’s most popular film (and thus, according to Waters himself, his most subversive), but it’s arguable that Pink Flamingos is his most iconic. If a casual cult movie fan hears John Waters’s name, Pink Flamingos will usually be their go-to reference point, typically followed by an offhand remark about Divine, the greatest drag queen who ever lived, eating dog shit in its infamous epilogue. When I started a Divine-inspired Mardi Gras krewe with fellow Swampflix contributors earlier this year, we relied heavily on the film’s icon status to establish our visual aesthetic; we paraded a flamingo-adorned flag pole and handed out fake piles of shit as our signature throws. Still, my tone when discussing Pink Flamingos has become increasingly dismissive & apologetic in recent years. I love Waters’s films so much (with Desperate Living & Serial Mom being personal favorites) that I feel an ingratiating need to downplay his most monstrously juvenile work’s significance in his ouevre so as not to scare people off from giving his other, less shock value-dependent works a proper chance. After seeing Pink Flamingos‘s trial run predecessor Multiple Maniacs at last year’s New Orleans Film Fest and recently re-watching the trashterpiece on the big screen for the third or fourth time in my life with an appreciatively rowdy crowd at the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art (on my birthday!), I’ve been forced to reassess that apologetic stance. Basically, what I’ve been saying is bullshit. Pink Flamingos is a perfect work of fine art trash cinema, one of the most hilarious comedies ever made.

Much like in Multiple Maniacs, Divine plays herself in a boisterous love letter to her own drag persona. Instead of running an illegal sideshow, however, she’s embroiled in a tabloid-documented war for the title of The Filthiest Person Alive. She has a fairly solid claim to that throne too. Living in a secluded trailer with her two sexual deviant children and her egg-addicted mother (a top-of-her-game Edith Massey), Divine cultivates a kind of Quentin Crisp celebrity; she’s famous for being famous. This infuriates a married couple who are her only true competition for the Filthiest People Alive title, Raymond & Connie Marble (David Lochary & Mink Stole, respectively). The Marbles go out of their way to cultivate a reputation for Filth, forcing hitchhiking teens into slavery & impregnation so they can sell the resulting babies to lesbian couples on the black market. They taunt Divine directly by sending her human shit in the mail & reporting her birthday party celebrations to the police (who the revelers immediately eat & kill, naturally). Eventually, these pretenders to the throne’s “attacks on her divinity” get to be too much for Divine to ignore and the two factions come head to head in a race to see who can execute whom first. Of course, plot is entirely besides the point in this kind of bad taste comedy, which more or less extends the sideshow structure of Multiple Maniacs for a second, more depraved runthrough. Inane conversations about eggs, Divine shoplifting beef under her dress, and even the infamous dogshit conclusion all amount to more than anything that could be considered a plot point. It’s essentially a loosely connected strand of sketch comedy vignettes, a hangout film of the damned.

Waters was still a young, hungry filmmaker where he made Pink Flamingos. You can feel that green, eager-to-shock energy in his need to wear his influences on his sleeve. Movie posters adorn the walls of the Marble home; Russ Meyer’s fetish for classic cars & giant tits are echoed openly at every opportunity; the theme from the Jayne Mansfield film The Girl Can’t Help It soundtracks the shoplifting scene at the deli. Still, Pink Flamingos feels astoundingly ahead of its time considering the hippie-flavored Free Love vibes that dominated most counterculture in the early 70s. Waters’s mean freak proto-punk monstrosities, with their leopard print clothes & brightly dyed hair, are a total anomaly. Sometimes that reverence for exploitation cinema shock value can devolve into an amoral ugliness, such as in a hard-to-watch rape scene that involves the real-life death of a chicken (that the crew reportedly grilled & ate after the shoot) & a cry to free one of the key members of The Manson Family. Mostly, though, the so-called Dreamlander crew’s pre-punk ethos is expressed in transcendently silly, aggressively progressive ways: singing buttholes, go-nowhere diatribes about eggs, trans women flashing the camera, a D.I.Y.-flavored disinterest in formalism or good taste. Every time I see Pink Flamingos projected for an audience there are just as many disgusted walkouts as there are people laughing themselves to tears. As the film will be half a century old in just a few years and Waters’s penchant for Filth has been filtered through the mainstream thanks to decendents like the Jackass crew & the Farrelly Brothers, that’s no small feat. The film is just as funny, filthy, grotesque, and vividly punk now as it’s ever been.

The NOMA screening I recently attended merely just projected the same DVD transfer of Pink Flamingos I own at home (on a significantly smaller screen than where it usually plays at The Prytania). Yet, seeing it with that disgusted/delighted art museum crowd was an essential reminder of exactly how transgressive (and gut-bustingly funny) this nasty slice of trash cinema still feels with a modern audience. I need to stop downplaying its place in the Waters ouevre. Pink Flamingos is damn funny and, if punk still means anything culturally in the 2010s, damn important.

-Brandon Ledet