Flickchart Road Trip: Maryland
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
This past week represented at least my fourth trip to Maryland, which isn’t that much of a surprise since one of the best men at my wedding (I had two) grew up there and still lives there now. It was to attend his wedding that I visited Annapolis back in 2011, and to give a speech that was sort of funny but failed to really explain to everyone how awesome he is. Thankfully, it wasn’t one of those train wreck wedding speeches you always see in the movies, but I still regret that it was more roast than toast. Oh well. They were at his wedding, so I’m sure they know he’s awesome.
Because we spent a couple good days in Annapolis last time, I decided to focus on Baltimore this time, waving at Washington D.C. on my way up I-95. (I of course did stop in Annapolis to visit them.) I’ve been to Baltimore twice, but both times it was to see an Orioles game at Camden Yards, the stadium that came to be considered the template for how to build a retro baseball park. It’s a beautiful stadium, but I didn’t need to see a third Orioles game, so then I considered slumming around in the projects they showed us in The Wire, looking to score some drugs and avoid getting shot. When that seemed like too much work, I settled on the going to the aquarium. The National Aquarium is a cool building with all sorts of angles and other bits of impressive (albeit 30-year-old) architecture, lying near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It was a warm day, so the aquatic cool of all the fish tanks was soothing. I’m no marine expert, but it seemed like a pretty impressive collection.
Seeing all those fish really whetted my appetite for Maryland’s culinary specialty: blue crab. I walked to a nearby place and had a pint or two with my crab feast. I would love to tell you that I tore the legs off several dozen crabs in an orgy of consumption, but to be honest, I’m a bit lazy when it comes to extracting the meat from crabs. If I hadn’t been sure, my friend’s wedding served to remind me of that fact. So I got some terrific crab cakes and a crab louie salad, and left the place feeling only slightly guilty about failing the traditional crab test of my masculinity.
Fortunately, John Waters isn’t a guy who gives a flip about masculinity, traditional or otherwise. There are a number of the Maryland director’s films I hadn’t previously seen, but I decided on the one that’s been lurking in my Netflix queue for years, just waiting for its opportunity to burst out in all its vulgar glory. That’s right, I’m talking about Pink Flamingos (global: 2280), his 1972 assault on politeness, decency and good taste. I’m just glad I didn’t watch it the same night I ate the crabs.
What it’s about
Iconic drag queen Divine (playing herself) is living in a pink trailer in Phoenix, Maryland with her family (not playing themselves). Divine’s mother Edie (Edith Massey) never strays from the child’s crib in which she lives, and has an unhealthy obsession with eggs. Divine’s son Crackers (Danny Mills) has an unhealthy fixation to match his grandmother’s, though it’s with the chicken rather than the egg, and it’s sexual. Living under the pseudonym Babs Johnson, Divine has been named by a local tabloid “the filthiest person alive.” Although that would seem like a title no one would want, a couple in nearby Baltimore — Raymond and Connie Marble (David Lochary and Mink Stole) — becomes enraged by Divine’s designation, believing they are far more filthy than she. The “baby ring” they run out of their basement — which involves kidnapping young women, impregnating them by their “butler” (Channing Wilroy) and then selling the babies on the black market — would certainly suggest they have a case. The rivalry between the dueling filth mongers eventually takes on apocalyptic proportions as various degeneracies are exchanged over the course of the escalating conflict.
How it uses the state
Several mentions are made of Divine’s trailer being in Phoenix, Maryland — an unincorporated area in Baltimore County which, surprisingly, is described by Wikipedia as “affluent.” There are also scenes of Divine and others in Baltimore, which narrator Waters calls “Ballmer” (as the locals pronounce it). However, it seems pretty clear this is a skewering of America on the whole. The titular pink flamingos outside the trailer are the perfect symbol of Americana. Also, when a mailman tries to deliver a package to the trailer, Divine says several times “There ain’t no address here,” furthering the idea that this is a stand-in for anywhere in America.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Maryland movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Pink Flamingos will battle:
1) The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez). My Flickchart: #193/3507. Global: #2753. Who knew that Burkittsville, Maryland would be the place you went insane from fear? Audiences who saw The Blair Witch Project at the beginning of its run emerged from theaters nearly as rattled as the three twentysomething witch hunters who get lost in the woods, though audiences who caught it post-hype were famously more reserved in their praise. I saw it even before its release date, so you know which camp I was in. In addition to a landmark web campaign that created the illusion these events were real, Blair Witch was notable for rejuvenating the found footage genre — a trend that continues to this day. The more I think about it, that guy really should not have kicked that map in the river.
2) Diner (1982, Barry Levinson). My Flickchart: #640/3507. Global: #755. Baltimore native son Barry Levinson has made numerous movies that take place outside his home city (Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, etc.), but his most personal films keep returning to the Baltimore of his youth. Diner is the best of those. It’s a portrait of a bunch of friends who kick around a greasy spoon in 1959 Baltimore and patter about their lives, their loves and especially sports. (As a matter of fact, one subjects his wife-to-be to an intensive sports quiz as a prerequisite to marrying her.) This loving but layered dramedy was also a jumping-off point for a number of future stars, including Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Paul Reiser and Tim Daly.
3) Hairspray (2007, Adam Shankman). My Flickchart: #1215/3507. Global: #3950. Since I’m doing a movie by another Baltimore native son, John Waters, as my main movie, I decided I couldn’t also compare it to John Waters movie. However, that says nothing about comparing it to a remake of a John Waters movie — or really, a cinematic version of the Broadway version of a John Waters movie. Adam Shankman’s delightful musical has far more to recommend it than the morbid curiosity of seeing John Travolta in drag. In fact, its opening number — “Good Morning Baltimore” — is one of the cheeriest homages to a city I’ve ever heard. Nikki Blonsky is simply wonderful in the role originated by Ricki Lake, and others having a grand old time include Michelle Pfeiffer vamping as an evil stage mom and Christopher Walken engaging in a carefree waltz with Travolta’s Edna Turnblad. (Yes, Travolta is enjoyable too.)
4) Ladder 49 (2004, Jay Russell). My Flickchart: #2366/3507. Global: #5743. A much more macho John Travolta than we see in Hairspray appears in my #4 Maryland movie. Travolta plays the captain to Joaquin Phoenix‘ firefighter trapped in the rubble of a burning building in Ladder 49, a Baltimore-based drama that clearly pays homage to a city to its north, and to the many first responders who were lost in the September 11th attacks. Coming less than three years after 9/11, Ladder 49 probably had no choice but to be straightforwardly solemn, painting in broad, heroic strokes as it profiles the Irish-American firefighter at the story’s center. It does have a compelling flashback structure, however, as Phoenix’ character ponders key turning points in his life while awaiting a rescue that may come too late.
5) Annapolis (2006, Justin Lin). My Flickchart: #3214/3507. Global: #10856. Many unsuccessful movies are sunk by genre cliches. Annapolis gives us a slight variation on that: It’s sunk by the cliches of two different genres. It’s both a bad military training movie and a bad boxing movie, catching James Franco just before he became the kind of star who could transcend limp material. Franco plays the guy who got into the titular Maryland naval academy off the wait list, but still has to show everyone his refusal to play by the rules, an attitude he also takes into the boxing ring. He’s a little like the title character in Cool Hand Luke in being defined by his rebelliousness — but only in that way. Tyrese Gibson and Jordana Brewster are on board as other stock characters.
First duel: Pink Flamingos vs. Hairspray. Any version of Hairspray is better than Pink Flamingos. In fact, any brand of hairspray is better than Pink Flamingos. Hairspray wins.
Second duel: Pink Flamingos vs. Ladder 49. A fire factors into the third act of Pink Flamingos, and frankly, I’m glad no one from any firehouse was nearby at the time. Ladder 49 wins.
Third duel: Pink Flamingos vs. Annapolis. Extreme conventionality beats extreme unconventionality. Annapolis wins.
Pink Flamingos finishes last out of the six movies.
It’s hard to talk about how “good” a movie like Pink Flamingos might or might not be, because there is nothing traditionally “good” about it. Unfortunately, I also thought there was nothing non-traditionally good about this vile and pointless collection of repellent behavior and perverse shocks.
I suppose saying the movie has no point is not correct, because the vileness, the repellent behavior and the overall perversity are its point. A veteran of a relatively modest number of Waters’ tamer films — Serial Mom, Pecker and the original Hairspray — I must have thought that Waters was more cheeky than debased. I knew he had a reputation for pushing boundaries, but decided that his was probably a relatively sanitized version of rebellion.
Pink Flamingos changed that perception entirely, as well as my perception that I’d be willing to let him take me wherever he wanted to go. I don’t entirely know what I was expecting, because I knew it was supposed to be downright disgusting, culminating in a famous scene in which Divine eats dog poop. Yet somehow it managed to gross me out and discomfit me in a way that I didn’t find liberating or exhilarating on any level — and this is coming from someone who openly embraces the idea of seeing things he’s never seen before in movies, and doesn’t consider himself the slightest bit prudish. To even list the aberrant behaviors on display here might offend anyone reading this who has deliberately avoided seeing Pink Flamingos to this point in their lives, so I’ll just hint at a few. In one instance, activities occur with a live (though soon-to-be dead) chicken that would give any animal rights group conniptions. In another, there’s the same kind of pornographic sex act that made Vincent Gallo‘s The Brown Bunny notorious, only it’s performed by a character on another character who’s supposed to be her son. If there were a clever narrative thread joining any of these outrageous acts, it would at least give a desperate viewer something to cling to, but the whole production is so cheap and slipshod that it makes a person wonder why Waters was considered to have any talent whatsoever. I’m just glad that his future projects have confirmed that he’s more than just the sum of his desire to push our buttons.
In a way I feel disappointed in myself for not being able to embrace the sheer cinematic anarchy on display here, the reckless chutzpah that drove Waters to spend money on a film that might never have been seen by anybody. (In fact, it was originally banned in several countries.) Instead, I find his motivations to be immature and misanthropic. Even acknowledging that this movie is “an exercise in bad taste,” as it is famously known, Waters still has to answer for making me endure 90 minutes of this figurative, and sometimes literal, effluent.
I’m heading to dreaded Delaware. Why “dreaded”? Well, when was the last time you were consciously aware of a movie being set in Delaware? I’ve managed to find one that (mostly) qualifies: Clean and Sober, in which we’ll see if Michael Keaton can kick his drinking habit. As for the five I’ve already seen … well, it’ll be an interesting week.