“If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation,” said John Waters (Waters, 1981, p. 2). That said, is any of his filth art? I think so, and I think that the baddest of the bad, Pink Flamingos, deserves special recognition.
John Waters’ 1972 film Pink Flamingos is representative of the art genre, ‘Grotesque Realism’, first articulate by Mikhail Bakhtin in his 1965 published dissertation, Rabelais and His World. Even though Pink Flamingos is not a work that was produced at the cusp of the Renaissance as was Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, the movie exhibits many of the same earthy references to the body and nature and is constructed in a manner that produces hegemonic-bending humor in the same carnivalesque manner as early Renaissance Grotesque Realism.
Given this auspicious beginning, however, I will not be considering the Institutional theory of art attributed to but mostly rejected by Arthur Danto. Danto was concerned that art may satisfy certain conditions but otherwise art, “is an honorific predicate” (Danto, 1981, pp. 28-29 & 31). Certainly Pink Flamingos is no ‘honorific predicate’. In fact, John Waters himself called it filth. He agreed with the US Supreme Court definition of obscene in Jacobellus v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964) 378 U.S. 184, that this work had ‘no socially redeeming qualities’ (Waters, 1981, p. viii). On that note and candid but authoritative critique by the film-maker himself, we begin, this inauspicious project into the depths of depravity.
Believe it or not, Waters’ brand of filth-full humor is nothing new. Excrement, cross-dressing, masks, and costuming, bumbling authorities, flatulence, sodomy, and diverse sexual acts were integral parts of early Grotesque Realism in Rabelais’s work…and many of these were amplifications of what occurred during real carnivals which Rabelais used to write his literary critique of society. The guttural brand of humor used by both Rabelais and Waters therefore isn’t novel. Let’s face it, people have been picking their noses and eating snot probably since we stepped onto the African Savannah. In fact, the depth of ‘depravity’ that some might accord Waters’ works are no less extreme than Rabelais’s works, even though they are separated by half a millennia. It appears civilization, technology, space exploration, and the modern sedan have not altered our need to express in all our earthy possibilities what it is to be human.
I will not contest the possibility that some may reject Grotesque Realism as a genre of literature. Literary genres are inherently subjective and malleable like any other categorization of art or literature. However, if there is good scholarship behind the subject and, I believe that there is for Grotesque Realism, I am asking the reader to suspend disbelief if only to understand that this project is not to certify whether Grotesque Realism deserves its place in the pantheon of literary genres but to explore its nature both in the very real context of the fifteenth century carnival and as it is also portrayed in the twentieth century through the antics of two feuding families in Pink Flamingos.
The ribald, guttural, body-centric, and earthy nature of the genre in and of itself is anti-prude to use a crude neologism, but works such as Rabelais’ have transcended cultural periods when even piano legs were covered up because they were considered visual representations of human form. To explore this thesis that Water’s work is a valid example of Grotesque Realism I will briefly compare elements of both Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel and Waters’ Pink Flamingos.
This does not mean that I will need to or will want to make the case that Pink Flamingos is in any way a literary masterpiece like Gargantua and Pantagruel. Far from it—it is crude and rude, its dialog is stiff and campy, and the filming is only a step or two beyond amateurism. I am sure if we were to unearth other works or testaments to actual carnival events such as written chronicles of the feast of fools written in the time of Rabelais, we would find Pink Flamingo-esque plays and fiction that were also crude and rude but were as much Grotesque Realism as Gargantua and Pantagruel.
What is Grotesque Realism?
Mikhail Bakhtin in his 1935 dissertation, later published in Russia in 1965 as, Rabelais and His World, explained that the works of fourteenth century author and physician, Rabelais required more in depth study in order to understand the nature of his work in context of his times. Bakhtin said, “Rabelais is the most difficult classical author of world literature. To be understood he requires an essential reconstruction of our entire artistic and ideological perception, the renunciation of many deeply rooted demands of literary taste and the revision of many concepts. Above all, he requires an exploration in depth of a sphere as yet little and superficially studied, the tradition of folk humor. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 3)” With this work, Bakhtin provides a detailed exploration into folk humor of the middle ages and Renaissance and insight into the psychological underpinnings of the carnival. Bakhtin’s technique is literary analysis which we should not confuse with the genealogy of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s task of genealogy determines, “…to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body, (Foucault, 2010, p. 83)” Rather, what Bakhtin does is show how the Grotesque Realism celebrates the body in quite different ways from what are considered mainstream today, but Bakhtin argued, in the spirit of folk humor and carnival, were quite acceptable and even desirable during Rabelais’ time.
Rabelais lived on the cusp of the Renaissance at the end of the Medieval. In the prologue to Bakhtin’s book, Michael Holquist explained that, “The decline of freedom in the Renaissance becomes apparent when it is chartered as a proportional rise of new practices for representing certain aspects not only of the body, but of language. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. xxi)” What Bakhtin does with Rabelais is to explore how his Gargantua and Pantagruel represents the body through the carnival and laughter that was not only acceptable at the time but part of the very fabric of society.
During the middle ages there were lords who commanded the earthly lives of their serfs and the church who commanded the serf’s and the lord’s eternal souls. These were not easy times which had been so recently and irreverently upended by the obscenity called the Black Death. The Black Death had one socially redeeming feature, with fewer people in Europe there was more to eat. Then too, with many nobles now in their graves, land reform had not become a matter of law, it simply happened. Feudalism, however, had not been completely desiccated by the plague. Perhaps because all of the social upheaval, new lands to till, and fattening bellies, there was time to feast and make fun of everyone, including authority and the church, where there had only been pestilence, starvation, and death only a few years before.
Through activities such as carnivals, feasts of fools, and other regular celebrations there were opportunities to turn the hegemonic tables (both ways) if for just a moment. And this was a time where the people were still close to the land and the issues of the seasons and the life and death on farms and in the fields. They were tied to the world, not apart from it as were the people who in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance flocked to the cities from the countryside.
One can list the many causes of the rise of the Renaissance but one is particularly cogent. During the Middle Ages populations increased but farming techniques did not improve and land reform was non-existent. People denied even their subsistence flocked to the cities which were unclean and overcrowded. From the east came the bubonic plague which some estimate killed a quarter or more of the European population, sparing neither lord nor serf. David Haddock and Lynne Kiesling record that land reform came from the fact that whole aristocratic families perished or could no longer defend or maintain their lands (David D. Haddock & Lynne Kiesling, 2002). The cities became less crowded and because food was now plentiful and because jobs were more available there was more time for leisure, contemplation, education and the arts. In the early Renaissance in Italy lived Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. One wonders what they would have done at a viewing of Pink Flamingos (in subtitles of course), laugh or puke…Remember, for Waters, either is acceptable.
Norman Cantor noted that the decline of the aristocracy and the Protestant reformation reduced the power of the royal/cleric hegemony (Cantor, 2001). David Herlihy noted how the cities became more sophisticated and merchants and petty bureaucrats became more important arbiters of culture (Herlihy, 1997). When the cities became dominant, there was a backlash against the earthy humor of the past, leading to Foucault’s later observation that the body has been destructed. However, Bakhtin showed us how the body was central to the Grotesque Realism of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.
The folk culture of the Middle Ages, Bakhtin summed up with: carnivals and other ritualistic festivals, parodies, and curses and oaths (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 5). These included carnivals and feasts where participants parodied the trappings of power, including feudal and church practices. As Bakhtin said, “The basis of laughter which gives form to carnival rituals frees them completely from all religious and ecclesiastic dogmatism, from all mysticism and piety. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 7)” They imitated and parodied the trappings of power and laughed at it and each other. Any and all were shown in the light of the fool, often in garish costumes or as cross-dressers. And as Bakhtin reminds us the carnival exists at the border of art and life but as life itself expressed in a particularly constructed ritual (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 7). Rank was suspended and the peasant became the aristocrat and the aristocrat the peasant. Bakhtin pointed to Erasmus, Shakespeare and others as masters of portraying the carnival in their works (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 11).
“I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs,” says Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, Act 1 Scene 1. Are we not reminded of, well, something like that, in the toe sucking scene between Raymond and Connie Marble in Pink Flamingos?
And the laughter is that of all the people: serf, or lord, or cleric. But Bakhtin was careful to distinguish the carnival and folk humor from the negative, the parody of today. In fact Bakhtin reminded us that this folk humor was ambivalent, neither negative nor positive (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 14). Everyone laughed at each other. Why oaths and swearing? Simply it was the language of the marketplace, the discourse of commerce and the dialectic of competing interests—merchants, farmers, city dwellers and lords and their servants. Marketplace language was complex and guttural and it was as much a part of the transaction as barter and money (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 16).
Bakhtin coined the term ‘Grotesque Realism’ to reflect not only the animated spirit of the time in carnivals, parodies, and cursing, but also the body. In Grotesque Realism, the body is positive. It is not the private body of today that should be hidden, is private and as a result something of a mystery and its showing (as well as its functions) as being somewhat unclean or even unnatural. In Rabelais’ time Bakhtin made clear:
We repeat: the body and bodily life have here a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character; this is not the body and its physiology in the modern sense of the world, because it is not individualized. The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 19)”
The body of the Middle Ages is still entangled with nature which in the favorable seasons, springs forth lustily into bramble and keeps on growing until it dies in the first major frost. Then, the body and death are inextricably tied; and death as a result is not a negative, it is simply a fact of life. Sex, eating, defecation, birth, and death are all wound together, inseparable and intertwined. And it matters not whether this body belongs to an aristocrat, peasant, fool, or cloistered monk, the body is the same because it is the body of humanity.
There is a strict relation in Grotesque Realism: down is earth which is both death and the womb—and down is the genitals, the belly and the buttocks. Downward is both degradation and rebirth—the body and its waste is moldering in the ground which in turn produces more life. The downward is always conceiving (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 21).
The upward is the heaven of their Christian religion. Can I have a hallelujah!
Why is Pink Flamingos Representative of the Genre Grotesque Realism?
First a plot summary for Pink Flamingos from the Internet Movie Database (which is concise and distubingly accurate), “Queen Divine lives in a caravan with her mad hippie son Crackers and her 250-pound mother Mama Edie, trying to rest quietly on their laurels as ‘the filthiest people alive’. But competition is brewing in the form of Connie and Raymond Marble, who sell heroin to schoolchildren and kidnap and impregnate female hitchhikers, selling the babies to lesbian couples. Finally, they challenge Divine directly, and battle commences… IMDb, avail: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069089/ accessed 3/22/15). The war that rages is over who really is the filthiest person alive.
Gargantua and Pantagruel’s plot is a bit more complex. First, understand that the overall plot was secondary to scene creation in order to emphasize humor and absurd situations and actions of people of all walks of life. In book one Gargantua is born so large he kills his mother. He is a giant, pictured in the book’s woodcuts as a creature probably twenty feet tall or higher and with ample girth to make him look voluptuous—like Divine, but certainly not as pretty. He travels to Paris to become educated but then is sent by his father to defeat the Dipsodians, which he does and thus conquers Dipsodia. Hurray! The second book concentrates on Gargantua’s education. But once again Gargantua is called away (education-interruptus), home this time to defeat King Pirochole who has started a war between bakers and shepherds. Gargantua wins, of course, and establishes a monastery. In the third, fourth and fifth book we are regaled with the adventures and mis-adventures of Pantagruel, Gargantua’s son, also a giant. I imagine that a Gargantua and Pantagruel movie if ever made would not be nominated for an Academy Award for its plot summary. Like the television series, Seinfeld, its non sequitur scenes would capture the imagination and likely a few Emmys. However, it would have to be shown on a high numbered premium ‘adult content’ cable channel rather than prime time.
The simplest approach to comparison is to look at the categories of analysis Bakhtin used to describe Grotesque Realism through Rabelais. First is laughter. Waters noted that at the premier of Pink Flamingos, “The audience roared with laughter in all the right places and shrieked in horror in others. (Waters, 1981, p. 20)” Bakhtin characterized Grotesque Realism’s laughter as, “Laughter has a deep philosophical meaning, it is one of the essential forms of the truth concerning the world as a whole, concerning history and man; it is a particular point of view relative to the world; the world as seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from the serious standpoint. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 66)” Bakhtin suggested that beginning in the seventeenth century this deep philosophical meaning became lost (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 67). With Grotesque Realism we recognize, “…its positive, regenerating, creative meaning. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 71)” Who cannot both laugh and gag at the absurdity of Gargantua saying:
I will go then, said he, and piss away my misfortune; which he did do in such a copious measure, that the urine taking away the feet from the pilgrims, they were carried along with the stream unto the bank of a tuft of trees. (Rabelais, 1894, pp. Chapter 1, .XXXVIII, How Gargantua did eat up six pilgrims in a salad.)
Or, how could we not both laugh and gag at Divine opening a gift, a wrapped pig’s head as a birthday present which is received with an expression of sheer delight and mirth on Divine’s face.
In the language of the marketplace, during the feast of fools, Bakhtin made this observation, “During the solemn service sung by the bishop-elect, excrement was used instead of incense. After the service the clergy rode in carts loaded with dung; they drove through the streets tossing it at the crowd. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 147)” Waters uses human excrement to underscore the meaning of filth. Connie and Raymond Marble send a turd in the mail to the Divine family to show they are the filthiest people alive, not Divine. But Divine outdoes their own filthy act by consuming a dog turd at the end of the movie. Excrement in Grotesque Realism was tied to fertility and in Pink Flamingos it is tied not to fertility per-se but to being recognized publicly as being potent at something—filth (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 149). We have come a long way—or not—as we are shown a somewhat more sanitized vision fertility in today’s society when People® Magazine recognize the sexiest man and woman alive. Divine, unfortunately, never made even the short list for that honor…perhaps only because Divine is otherwise uncategorizable.
In the medieval carnival there is festivity, food, jokers and verbal abuse. Roles are comically reversed and the gentry are made to be fools and serfs their superiors but neither makes it out without showing how foolish each other is. In Pink Flamingos Divine’s birthday party is held outside Divine’s family’s dilapidated trailer in the cold where a gaggle of strange characters perform acts of supreme flatus, and send off in a wheelbarrow the egg man and the demented egg lady Mama Edie into marriage, if such a union between the two is even possible. The banquet for the birthday party includes salty snacks, beer, and assorted other convenience store delectables. But this is the present-day and which we must contrast with the banquet of the middle ages where the wealth and bounty of the land in gross exaggeration was a subject for celebration, not the squalor of the poor today who are relegated to their own meagre feast of fast foods and cheap snacks (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 303).
And of course, there is the body, particularly as Bakhtin called it the lower stratum. Beyond scatological events, Pink Flamingos is riven with strange sexual acts including sex with animals, toe sucking, flashing in the park and more. Waters seems to want to strike at every taboo that was present in early nineteen seventies society and remains with us today. And while the Marbles try to outdo the Divine family in every sexual way possible in order to prove their superior filthiness, in the end Raymond Marble flashes what he thinks is a woman and is flashed back by a transsexual. He runs off, disgusted, depreciating his claim to dethrone the filthiest person alive.
We are confronted by Divine who dresses in flashy women’s clothes, but we are never really sure of Divine’s gender. With both the flashing scene and Divine’s uncertain countenance we are left to wonder where is the origin of gender and whether it is something that anyone but the individual can have access to. Above all we are asked what does gender really mean and what is its worth? In Grotesque Realism, the body is the body, period.
In Gargantua and Pantagruel, Panurge is asked how to build solid walls on the cheap in Paris and he says the cheapest could be made from the privates of Parisian women because they give up sex for a penny or so, so loose are their morals. (Rabelais, 1894, pp. Chapter 2. XV, How Panurge showed a very new way to build the walls of Paris.). We begin to see from both works that it is who you are that matters, not gender. We see in Divine not the stereotypical cross-dressing show-queen of the back alley theaters of the nineteen sixties, but a snarling person who commits crimes and acts against society with abandon—while still dressed and made up to the hilt.
The Loss of the Body; the Deprecation of Humor
However, as the Renaissance progressed, this earthy degradation-cum-regeneration view of the downward, the body, and the earth changed. Renaissance Realism, as Bakhtin called it, combined elements of folk humor but what became evident is that the body lost its universality and became, “…the bourgeois concept of the complete atomized being. (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 24)”
I suggest that as we have progressed through many ages following the Middle: Renaissance, modern, industrial, and now post-modern, that we have retained the Renaissance Realist completely atomized body but have lost the element of folk humor in most of our sanitized albeit R-rated cinematography. This portends ill for people like John Waters who celebrates the body not in its individuality but the body as a product of nature, capable of all sorts of natural acts… and who is qualified to call such bodily functions and activities unnatural or obscene if they can be conceived of and performed by humans? In John Water’s world the authorities are made foolish by doing things authorities do and the peasants live like animals and with animals because we are all animals. Sex is and gender isn’t personal. In fact it has no meaning. Divine simply is: painted, dressed up, and at the same time aims a mouthful of invectives towards the camera that spew forth like so much vomit. Divine is the Gaia incarnate, the filthiest ‘person’ alive because the world is a filthy place.
Bakhtin suggests to me that all of this: Divine, and the whole production of Pink Flamingos is nothing more than a carnival of sorts, a parody with appropriate cursing and oath making and that it should accord similar billing with Rabelais’ works of Grotesque Realism. However, the problem is, can we today consider an effort of Grotesque Realism to be aesthetic, a form of art? Or have we moved so far away from the body and folk humor to the point where folk humor and the body, rather than being the testament to and the mirth of humanity, have become its obscenity which deserves censure and banishment? John Waters recalled that after enjoying Waters’ more mainstream Hairspray, a Florida family decided to rent Pink Flamingos, resulting in Waters paying a fine of five thousand dollars because the move was judged to be obscene (Waters, 1981, p. viii). Duh, said Waters. Some people just do not have any sense of humor.
By destroying the body and sanitizing humor we have let go of our deepest roots of being in the world. We have hidden away the body rather than celebrate it. Our sanitized humor no longer celebrates the body, life, death other than in oblique reference. It is the loss of earthy realism, grotesque or otherwise that is perhaps is the most obscene thing we have done to ourselves. Therefore, I say: Bring it on John Waters!
Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Rabelais and His World (H. Iswolsky, Trans.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Cantor, N. F. (2001). In the wake of the plague: the Black Death and the world it made. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Danto, A. C. (1981). TGhe Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.
David D. Haddock, & Lynne Kiesling. (2002). The Black Death and Property Rights. The Journal of Legal Studies, 31(S2), S545-S587. doi: 10.1086/345566
Foucault, M. (2010). The Foucault Reader. NY: Vintage Books.
Herlihy, D. (1997). The Black Death and the transformation of the West: Harvard University Press.
Rabelais, F. (1894). Gargantua and Pantagruel P. Gutenberg (Ed.) Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1200/1200-h/1200-h.htm
Waters, J. (1981). Shock Value. Philadelphia: Running Press.