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Tucson Weekly Crème DeMentia

Schlock Auteur John Waters Returns To His Roots.

By James DiGiovanna

AUGUST 28, 2000:  IS IT GENIUS to film someone eating freshly laid dog excrement? To make a movie about a hidden civilization of killer lesbians and their grotesque, heterosexual queen? To claim that the death penalty is the criminal equivalent of the Academy Awards? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then you, too, must be a John Waters fan.

Waters is a true auteur, not only writing and directing his own films, but, on occasion, even shooting and editing them. Cecil B. DeMented, his latest, is a paean to this spirit of American bootstrap D.I.Y. activity. His dedication to self-determination and free enterprise would make Waters a poster boy for the Republican Party, if gay men who made films about feces-eating killer lesbians could get the job as Republican Party poster boy.

The film's titular character, Cecil B. (Stephen Dorff), is a renegade director (modeled after Waters himself) who kidnaps a Big Hollywood Star, Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith, essentially playing a parody of herself), in order to force her to star in his disgusting, anti-commercial exploitation film.

Cecil's cult-like cast and crew, "The Sprocket Holes," have dedicated themselves to the furtherance of fringe filmmaking, foregoing carnal pleasures until the completion of their magnum opus. Each has tattooed the name of an auteuristic director on his or her body. Spike Lee, Kenneth Anger, Otto Preminger, David Lynch, William Castle, Andy Warhol, Fassbinder, Almodóvar, Herschel Gordon Lewis, Sam Peckinpah and Sam Fuller are their gods, and they're willing to die for the purity of this pantheon.

Honey Whitlock finds herself forced, at gunpoint, to co-star with the drug-addled Lyle (who notes, "Drugs saved me. I used to have a lot of problems, now I only have one: drugs!") and ex-porn star Cherish (Alicia Witt, who probably unfairly increased my enjoyment of the film, since I could have a good time just watching her eat cereal for two hours). Together, they make a movie about terrorist actions committed against the commercial film industry. In a cinéma vérité move, instead of hiring extras, the film crew just goes out and commits the terrorist actions, with cameras rolling, allowing any of the bystanders or victims to have their moment on celluloid.

This is, oddly, something Waters himself used to do (although he generally avoided killing his unwitting extras). Cecil B. DeMented is, thus, both an homage to Waters' early work and a return to the style that made him (in)famous.

During the later '80s and '90s, Waters dropped his low-budget schlock-fest style when he got actual funding for his films. Many fans were saddened to think that the master of independent cinema had "sold out" or gone Hollywood, and his more recent work actually started getting good reviews from mainstream critics. Luckily, Waters realized that when Joel Siegel likes what you're doing, it's time for a deep re-evaluation.

Cecil B. DeMented is in no danger of getting the thumbs-up from Michael Medved, and it's a good thing. It's a wicked film, featuring things like excessive drug use, random killings, gerbil porn and an extremely squishy sound effect to indicate the occurrence of intercourse.

It's interesting to see this kind of gross-out material handled well. While Waters may be the inspiration for the likes of the Farrelly brothers, his take on the unacceptable is completely different. It's rather like the difference between those Three Stooges fans who just find the Stooges funny, and those who find it funny that other people find them funny, and yet still find themselves enthralled when Curly does his Curly dance. Waters is in the latter school, and so has a certain distance from his work that's lacking in the more recent cinema of disgust. While the Farrelly brothers appeal equally to children and underdeveloped adults, Waters' audience is more the unpleasant, antisocial teenagers who hate children and underdeveloped adults.

And yet he celebrates the culture of stupidity--it's just that he likes his stupidity straight up, rather than focus-grouped and manipulatively directed toward its audience. From those who still wear beehive hair-dos, to the shockingly bad films of idiot-savant director Herschel Gordon Lewis, to the shockingly schmaltzy melodrama of Patch Adams, Waters loves that which does not know why it is so entertaining.

This kind of ultra-ironic attitude narrows his audience considerably. The uptight pro-family crowd would be utterly appalled by what he does, and fans of morning drive-time DJs might find themselves offended by the fact that he's not pandering to them, he's making fun of them.

But if you fall in that narrow gap of humanity that thinks that the Reagan presidency was great because it was so hilarious, and you can't stop watching Al Gore's speeches because you find his lisp so stereotypically gay, and you have an autographed picture of Dick York inside a fur-lined frame, then you'll no doubt enjoy Cecil B. DeMented.


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