How John Waters’ Pink Flamingos influenced Pedro Almodóvar’s first films

Fifty years ago to the day, on the campus of the University of Baltimore a 29-year-old filmmaker, John Waters, was presenting his new film as part of the Baltimore Film Festival. All three screenings of the film were sold out. They were attended by young lovers of underground cinema who were looking for new stimuli after the success of the director’s previous film Multiple Maniacs (1970). On March 17th, 1972, Pink Flamingos was screened for the first time; the most remembered work of trash cinema in history. It would also become one of those works that was banned all over the world. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, we immerse ourselves in the idiosyncrasy of this work to relate it to that of one of the most important active filmmakers: Pedro Almodóvar.

This article intends to analyze the influence of the film Pink Flamingos (Waters, 1972) on the first stage of Almodóvar’s career, understanding this first period as running from 1980 to 1984. During those years he made four films: Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), Labyrinth of Passion (1982), Dark Habits (1983) and What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984).

John Waters developed a new and groundbreaking way of doing cinema in the United States, which Almodóvar would look up to following the death of the dictator Franco in Spain. John Waters is an American director from the ’60s that crowned himself as the king of ‘trash cinema’ with films such as Pink Flamingos (1972), Hairspray (1988), and Polyester (1981). His cinema is characterized by low-budget films that show eccentric characters with no shame being nasty and disgraceful. His work is tightly connected to the historical context he lived in, as his work shocked the audiences of the time with its avant-garde themes and perspectives.

Almodóvar’s work on the other hand cannot be explained without mentioning John Waters. The Oscar-winning Spanish director is known worldwide for films such as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988), Todo sobre mi madre (1999), Hable con ella (2002) and Volver (2006). His films are characterized by the use of Spanish pop culture, popular songs, irreverent humour, strong colours, passion, eroticism, and a glossy aesthetic. On multiple occasions he has talked about Waters’ work with great respect and admiration, admitting he has been influenced by him. National and sexual identity, violence, death, and aesthetics are the main elements to discuss in this essay, as these are the topics both filmmakers have in common.

The film that will be at the heart of our analysis is Pink Flamingos. The main character in that film is Divine, a drag queen who under the pseudonym of Babs Johnson lives in a trailer in Baltimore. She lives with her mom Edie, who has an obsession with eggs; her son Crackers, who is a delinquent; and her friend Cotton. Divine is considered the world’s most unclean and filthiest person, a title she is very proud of. This ‘fame’ brings with it a lot of enemies, the main ones being her antagonists the Marbles, a heterosexual couple that steals babies to sell to lesbian couples. They are jealous of Divine’s title and are willing to do whatever it takes to take it away from her. The whole movie is a race to see who can outdo the other in filthiness.

NATIONAL IDENTITY

Both directors have a very close relationship to their national identity, and they portray the changing times in the United States of the ’60s and ’70s, and Spain of the ’70s and ’80s, respectively. National identity can be seen in two layers in their films: first in their social message within their historical context; and second in the plots, characterization, and props. John Waters’ Pink Flamingos shows a country that is changing and evolving. Some historical events that took place prior to making the film were the Stonewall Riots, the popularization of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, and the Watergate scandal. Even though Waters’ message throughout his career has been that there is no political intent behind Pink Flamingos, but it is intended to just give people something to laugh at, it is evident that the Stonewall Riots three years prior to the film’s release were of importance. “I pride myself on the fact that my work has no socially redeeming value”, he says. Nowadays this film is classified as queer political cinema.

So, seen from a queer perspective Pink Flamingos is a parody of American values and society. But how is this new queer national identity shown in the film? First of all, Divine lives with her very peculiar family in a trailer park. These typically American places are not only part of the American identity, but they also give us the term ‘trailer trash’ (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, n.d.). Our main characters can be labeled as such, referring to poor white people from a low social class. Also, Divine is an obese drag queen. Obesity is a typical American stereotype, only this time it is a drag queen. The makeup and outfits she wears are part of this queer perspective that was rolling over the United States during the ’70s. It is clear that Waters is making a kitsch and pastiche version of the American lifestyle.

Almodóvar shot his first feature film almost ten years after the release of Pink Flamingos and, just like Waters, he references the political spectrum of Spain in the ’80s. He is also known for making political queer cinema. We do not have clear quotes or evidence that he took inspiration from John Waters when portraying the national identity of his country, but we know that he had seen Waters’ filmography. Just like the American director, Almodóvar was living through a time of social change: Franco had died, La Movida Madrileña was part of his daily life, democracy began after almost 50 years of dictatorship, censorship had ended. Issues that were interesting to Almodóvar, such as homosexuality, female empowerment, laicism, and sexuality, were now talked about and discussed openly within Spanish culture.

PEDRO ALMODÓVAR, 1983

Starting with his first feature film Pepi, Luci, Bom, Spanish national identity is shown in a new way. Just like John Waters does in Pink Flamingos, Almodóvar parodies traditional Spanish society with characters such as Luci’s husband (a very conservative policeman) and Luci herself (a rebellious housewife). Moreover, he goes one step further and shows the younger Spanish generation and their way of living in a new part of national identity: La Movida Madrileña.

In his movie Dark Habits he touches on one of the main pillars of Spanish dictatorship, the Catholic Church. The main character, the Chief Nun, is a lesbian who enjoys giving refuge to former drug addicts just so she can have an affair with them; not your typical Catholic movie plot! Also, the names of the nuns themselves are kitsch: Sor Rata, Sor Víbora, Sor Estiércol. If we want to dig a little bit deeper we might say that these nasty names are influenced by the same love for filth and pastiche that John Waters shows in Pink Flamingos. Another thing that tips us off that Spanish national identity is evolving is the cult the nuns have for famous actresses such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe (referencing the end of the censorship and a new culture coming to Spanish cinemas). The posters of these stars in the Chief Nun’s office resemble the posters that hang on the walls of the Marbles in Pink Flamingos.

This movie is the perfect example of how Almodóvar takes Catholic motifs, traditions, and values to reinvent them and give them a new meaning. Through the traditional elements of Spanish culture (religion, authorities, heterosexuality) he depicts a new queer perspective that represents Spanish youth in a light-hearted tone and aesthetic.

SEXUAL IDENTITY AND ORIENTATION

Even if John Waters never accepted Pink Flamingos as a political statement in favour of the LGBT community, many assumed that its values were allied with the ideals of the gay liberation movement, which in the ’70s conquered institutions such as marriage and the family. In the case of Almodóvar, especially in his earlier works, he also challenges the traditional morals regarding sexual orientation and identity that were imposed on Spanish society until then, which marks the beginning of a transition after Franco’s death. With censorship finally abolished, in all his films sexuality played a huge role.

Pink Flamingos establishes a closed community of mentally disturbed criminals and perverts. The film starts with Divine and Crackers going to the city because Divine “has not fallen in love for three whole days”, referencing the promiscuity often associated with homosexuality. On their way they randomly attack people, such as a jogger who could be characterised as coming from a different world, heterosexual and non-perverted. Then there is a close-up of the American flag followed by Divine walking down the streets of Baltimore, passing graffiti saying “Free Tex Watson” (Watson was a member of the Manson Family), and finally defecating in a park. By tracking from the flag back to Divine’s actions and the graffiti, Waters creates a moment of nobility in contrast with perversion. Waters ridicules the establishment, its values, and its imposed order, promoting perversion to a value.

Almódovar in his first films also presents characters that are perverted and that seem to have no sense of morality. But like Waters he does not represent perversion as something negative, but rather treats it like something normal and even positive. In Labyrinth of Passion for instance we can easily identify the perverted characters. Sexilia is a declared nymphomaniac, Riza Niro is the homosexual son of Tiran, Queti the daughter of her abuser, and Sadec a homosexual member of a group of Islamic terrorists.

Regarding the other characters in Pink Flamingos, Cotton and Crackers are also presented as perverts. Cotton is a bisexual sadist and a voyeur who is excited to know what Crackers is going to do for her, begging for blood. Crackers is a sadistic exhibitionist with zoophilic tendencies who accepts to perform for Cotton. Crackers rapes Cookie together with a chicken in a really violent and bloody scene, while Cotton is watching with satisfaction until she has an orgasm. Sexual practices like BDSM and voyeurism and sexual orientations like bisexuality are also present in Almodóvar’s initial works. A clear example of this is Pepi, Luci, Bom. Initially Luci is presented as a traditional housewife who is married to a policeman and who seems to be very submissive and innocent. But then she develops a relationship with Bom, a woman, while still being in love with her husband, who she is angry with because he treats her too kindly. It turns out that Luci is a masochist who is sexually stimulated by being abused and mistreated. For this reason, when her husband gives her a beating and starts to treat her like a slave, she breaks up with Bom and goes back to live with her husband. Once again, Almodóvar is using the perversion in order to criticize the traditional ideal of marriage and the perfect housewife.

Returning to Pink Flamingos, the Marbles also appear perverted, but differently. Except for their unusual concept of what is romantic and one of them being an exhibitionist who exposes himself with a long sausage tied to his penis, the Marbles seem not to be really perverted. On the contrary, they are portrayed as respectable citizens. They are repulsed by other manifestations of perversion, as when they find out that Channing is a crossdresser who puts on Connie‘s clothes and impersonates her. They are mere imposters, a ridiculing representation of the homophobic gays of the 1950s, enemies of the Gay Power movement who pretended to be something they were not.

In Pedro Almodóvar’s What Have I Done to Deserve This? the director similarly uses the stereotypes of Spanish society of the time in order to create a social critique from a satirical and comical point of view. There is a homosexual dentist who is well-off and is infatuated with Gloria’s youngest son, the protagonist. The doctor-patient relationship evolves into a lustful love affair that is of interest to both parties. The homosexual character is presented as an unscrupulous being interested in a child; a pedophile who buys the boy with objects his family cannot afford. In fact, this connection between homosexuality and pedophilia was often made in relation to homosexuals in the late ’70s.

At some point during Pink Flamingos Cotton is asked if murder makes her happy. She answers that murder just relieves tension, but that you need to be happy already. In the past ‘gay’ and ‘happy’ were synonyms, and Waters is employing that pun. Murder can be a metaphor for homosexual sex, and crime and perversion for homosexuality. So, only a gay/happy person truly enjoys homosexual sex/killing, not just as a relief from (sexual) tension. Cotton points out she is at peace with herself, clearly declaring being happy as a gay person and accepting her identity. It is another manifestation of Gay Pride where people no longer feel ashamed of being gay. We could relate this idea to Almodóvar’s Dark Habits, in which the director shows a lesbian couple, one of them being a nun. The superior nun of the order, and the rest of the nuns also, stay happy because they use heroin. We can understand this addiction as the sexual desire that she feels towards women, specifically towards protagonist Yolanda Bell. Again Almodóvar uses the strategy of taking a social stereotype of homosexuals (being drug addicts) to mock it and moreover use it to challenge the establishment and traditional morality, since the lesbian is a nun, a clear critique of the ideals of the Catholic church.

It may seem that all of the manifestations of perversity in Pink Flamingos are a mere attempt to shock. They are not. In 1972 homosexuality was still a controversial topic. The wave of gay rights activism was surging but the misconceptions and intolerance dating back beyond the 18th century were still deeply rooted. Many people continued seeing homosexuals as mere perverts, and in their minds the concept of any violation of the heteronormative standard qualified as sodomy. What Waters’ films do is re-appropriate these beliefs for the queer audience and use them as a weapon against the aggressors.

Regarding Almodóvar, when Franco died in 1975 Spanish society started a process of opening up and progressing, but this was very slow and had as a starting point the ultra-conservative ideals of a dictatorial-catholic regime that lasted 40 years. His first films use that perversity in the form of grotesque scenes and crazy characters to challenge the beliefs that audiences had about sexuality and sexual identities and orientations. And in this way, as Waters did before, he became an icon for the queer audience, using all stereotypes to fight against repression.

VIOLENCE AND DEATH

When we watch Pink Flamingos or any of Almodóvar’s mentioned movies we find death, crime, drugs, prostitution, and even sadomasochism as common themes. And even though we have seen them portrayed in many other movies, none of them do it as these two directors do. In Pink Flamingos these topics emerge as a result of the motivation of the characters: “being the filthiest people alive”. From Connie and Raymond Marble kidnapping and raping to Divine eating a “dog’s freshly made turd”, to a party sequence in which they murder and eat policemen. Other acts, however, simply appear because that is how the characters are and what they enjoy: Raymond Marble exposing himself or Channing being castrated by the kidnapped girls. But why does Waters decide to choose these topics and show society this way? Society has always been mesmerized by sensationalism, from Roman gladiators fighting for a bloodthirsty crowd to current audiences watching reality shows such as Big Brother (any character from the movie would make an amazing guest). The goal of Pink Flamingos is to warn of the possible dissolution of society, apart from pulling up loads of laughter.

In one of Almodóvar’s appearances on ‘La Edad de Oro’, the show that most and best talked about La Movida Madrileña in the ’80s, he confessed his devotion to Waters, calling him the most obvious influence on his debut Pepi, Luci, Bom. His references to Waters’ movies in his own were clear: “What’s great about Divine and Sara Montiel is that they conform the only alternative of fat women we have”, the Spanish director confessed to Paloma Chamorro.

Pedro Almodóvar at La Edad de Oro TV Show, 1983

During that first phase of his career Almodóvar affirmed and reaffirmed that his major influences were Andy Warhol, Lola Flores, and of course Divine herself. And that is why we can clearly find those influences and references in his early films. For example, one can observe a recurring figure when analyzing the movies of both Waters and Almodóvar, that of a policeman, usually shown in a negative light. In Pink Flamingos they appear in a short sequence when the Marbles call them to spoil Divine’s party, at which they get killed and eaten. Since they don’t appear anywhere else in the movie, they are not exactly in the best of spots.

Almodóvar gives them more prominence in his movies but does not show them in a better light. In Pepi, Luci, Bom a policeman is portrayed as repressed, a male chauvinist and a fascist who mistreats his wife Luci and sexually abuses his neighbors Pepi and Charo, also blackmailing the latter. The failure of this man is partly due to Luci’s masochism, unsatisfied with how little he mistreats her, which leads to him exploiting his sadism. In What Have I Done to Deserve This? there is Polo who, apart from being a heroin user, intends to incarnate the ‘tough manly guy’ but in reality is impotent, as we see in a sequence in which he is unable to rape Gloria.

This sadism makes itself obvious in Pink Flamingos in the infamous chicken-killing sex scene and Cotton’s pleasure while watching it. Pink Flamingos is a film that will definitely shock anyone who watches it, but that is its purpose. We can get used to and desensitized to sex and violent scenes up to a point, but this movie is one you cannot get accustomed to even now, 50 years after its release. The way cannibalism, rape, incest, and other acts are shown will always remain shocking. There is a reason it initially got banned in various countries and is still rated NC-17 for “nudity, violence, and a wide range of perversions in explicit detail”.

And even though Almodóvar did not have that freedom of creation, he does not fall completely behind: rape, sadism, drugs, death and crime are reiterated motifs in his movies. This last one, crime, does not appear as it typically does, but is committed by women not moved by money or power, nor even passion: the crimes happen by chance, connected to disorders that derive from heartbreak or from love. In What Have I Done to Deserve This? Gloria kills her husband by accident, and in the TV short Trailer para amantes de lo prohibido a wife shoots her husband between the eyes just for abandoning her. (Sánchez, 2017, pp.139-140)

AESTHETICS

Although Pedro Almodóvar now has a much more elegant and glamorous aesthetic, in his first films this was not always the case, with his characters often shown in a state of catastrophe. This is not because he was a bad filmmaker or did not have the knowledge to make a more standard film, but he decided to make more experimental and chaotic cinema to break with the cinematic style of the previous decade in Spain. In this regard he was inspired by directors that he had been exposed to years before. One of the clearest examples is John Waters. As we have seen in the previous sections, Pink Flamingos is the most explicit case of this inspiration. And in the case of Almodóvar’s movies the most concrete example is Pepi, Luci, Bom. The aesthetic in both films is chaotic. They have poor image quality, hand-held camerawork, and are shot in terrible taste. Both directors look for that ugliness to turn it into contrarian beauty. As Antonio Castro asserts in his book Las Películas de Almodóvar (Castro, 2010), the reference to Pink Flamingos in Pepi, Luci, Bom is clear in the sense that Luci is to Almodóvar’s debut feature what Divine is to that of Waters. However, Labyrinth of Passion should not be overlooked. Although Almodóvar refers to it as a “less corrosive and less dirty” film, there is a great abundance of elements taken directly from Waters’ film, such as the exaltation of trash, especially in a sequence that takes place during the staging of a fotonovela; the taste for eschatology in the final section of the film, when a doorman defecates; or the transvestite style so popularized by Divine, which the director appropriates in his performance with artistic partner Fabio McNamara of the musical numbers Suck It To Me and Gran Ganga (Castro, 2010).

Both directors have a very theatrical style, some neglect for audiovisual techniques, and put all weight on the script and characters. We should see it as a marginal and alternative aesthetic that seeks provocation. There is a hybridization of genres that moves between melodrama and the postmodern humor of parody and ironic appointment. The presence of music in the works of both is also important, with Divine acting out the atrocities and Almodóvar putting his characters into playback performances. On the other hand, as was explained in the previous section, there is a focus on the representation of gender identities and orientations, and heterodox sexual behaviors in contrast with the dominant binarism. There are some points that have a demystifying function to subvert commonplaces or to question conventional meanings, such as the sexual impotence of the policeman in What Have I Done to Deserve This? – something that also appears in some characters in Waters’ movie.

Another element that we find in both directors’ films is the monologue, also very typical of that theatrical style we were talking about. Although the best-known monologues are found in All About My Mother (1999) or Pain and Glory (2019), there are many other interesting monologues to analyze in Almodóvar’s early works that rely on main characters such as Pepi in Pepi, Luci, Bom; Riza Niro in Labyrinth of Passion; Yolanda Bell in Dark Habits; or Gloria in What Have I Done to Deserve This? Almodóvar is clearly influenced by the type of character portrayed by Divine in Pink Flamingos, because of its strength and charisma. The protagonists acquire a certain air of self-centeredness.

Moreover, both directors represent voyeurism in a completely different way than other authors. Almodóvar converts the typical image of the voyeur (present in one of the male characters of Pink Flamingos) and transforms it into a woman enjoying male nudes – such as the “Erecciones Generales” contest in Pepi, Luci, Bom or Gloria watching a man in the shower in What Have I Done to Deserve This? – reversing in both cases “the role of women as a spectacle and passive sexual object” (Sánchez, 2017, pp. 454-455). The opening shots of Labyrinth of Passion also have a voyeuristic nature, with subjective shots of the characters Sexilia and Riza Niro looking at the intimate parts of the men who stroll through El Rastro.

From a musical perspective we should point out that Pink Flamingos sometimes seems like a videoclip, given the abundance of songs and musical themes and above all its preeminence over images. There are walls decorated with movie posters and Warhol screen-printed reproductions of movie stars. It is the same aesthetic that Almodóvar would adopt in most of his musical moments, with scenes that also seem to be videoclips, and his continuous references to different types of cinema or even to Warhol himself, one of his biggest reference points along with Waters and Paul Morrissey.

In conclusion, both directors were strongly influenced by their own context. Even if they worked during different times in history and in different countries, their contexts were similar in the sense that they were times of social change and (r)evolution. In this way, all the films analysed in this essay can be understood as political cinema with a main focus on sexuality, queer issues, freedom of expression, and breaking with what was traditionally accepted. Furthermore, both directors use the grotesque and the morally unacceptable to parody and ridicule conventional values and societies in their respective countries. They share a cult of filth and in their films perversion becomes a value. This is how both Waters and Almodóvar do satirical critique of traditional values and vindicate the existence of many other sexual identities and orientations that were socially unacceptable and discriminated against in those days.

The many similarities between the works of Waters and Almodóvar are evident. They both have stated their admiration for each other. Spain had been under dictatorship for 70 years, with a strong censorship applied to cinema. It is understandable that when the regime ended artists sought inspiration outside Spain, especially in the United States, the nation of liberty. Almodóvar wanted to break with existing values, morality and conventions, and he found an excellent source of inspiration in John Waters.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

*Article written by Alberto Vandenbroucke through an investigation draft by June Arteaga, Jara García, Lourdes García, Juan Ventas and Alberto Vandenbroucke

Pink Flamingos (John Waters)