Cecil B. Demented
A Film by John Waters
The latest film from the now middle-aged enfant terrible John Waters has something to offend everybody. In a frenzy of self-referential (and self-mocking) self-indulgence, Waters pulls out many of the stops to maintain his reputation as one who can still, "shock the bourgeoisie." Yet his bumptious offensiveness has mellowed somewhat with the years, and a desire to merely provoke has been modified by an apparent impulse to educate - but one that still does not take itself too seriously.
Early in the movie, Waters dismisses what passes as film "criticism" as an occupation of parasites, who shill shamelessly for the Hollywood cash machine. He ridicules the simple-minded, cliche-ridden schmaltz of the spectacularly financially-successful Forrest Gump. His characters literally trash a screening of the cloying, emotionally manipulative Patch Adams.
He takes cheap but effective shots at the Hollywood star system, the economics of the film business, those who pander to film-makers in hopes of sharing the financial success and celebrity, and many other easy targets. The humor with which he makes his points is sometimes so sophomoric that it might make even the Farrely brothers blush. But taking it to the limit - and beyond - has always been a John Waters trademark.
The things that make us uncomfortable sometimes reveal a great deal about our own prejudices - and it is that kind of self-exploration Waters has always sought to provoke. As a persistent and intractable outsider he has had a love-hate relationship with mainstream culture, yearning to be "normal" while at the same time rejecting the hypocritical, unrealistic homogeneity of "normalcy."
Waters' attitude appeals to the suppressed fear of being an outsider that lies in all of us. He works to explode the myth of normalcy by pushing us to examine how arbitrarily and irrationally we draw the lines between what is acceptable and what is not.
At one point in the film, one of the characters - a hair-stylist - laments his heterosexuality in terms that might have been uttered by a gay character in a 1950's film. He talks about his shame at being unable to return another man's love, his sense that he is betrayed by his sexual preferences. Such a standing on its head of a conventional film cliche is another of Waters' attempts to make us see things differently, to question the assumptions that lie beneath what we take for granted.
And that is the point with many of Waters' films - not to offer us a value system, but to invite us - indeed to confront us and provoke us - to ask questions about the values we accept without thinking. His world is the un-confessed world of the unconscious where the hypocrisy of mainstream values is challenged, deflated, confronted. Often, it is not very pretty - and that seems to be how Waters likes it.
Another scene in the film takes place in an X-rated movie theatre. Although the visuals are far less graphic than those in most mainstream films, the setting and action challenges our sense of self-righteous condemnation. After all, the fact of the matter is that X-rated film and video is a large and very lucrative segment of the film business - however much we would like to deny it.
Waters also speaks to the desensitization brought on by the exploitation of our sexuality, our aggression, even our authentic emotional lives by the manipulations of a supremely profit-oriented, amoral, mainstream film-making culture. He contrasts the complacent, successful makers of manufactured, exploitative films, with the attitude of those who have a real passion for the kind of powerful communication film at its best can represent - film-makers who are willing - literally in Waters' scenario - to die for their art.
Several times in the film, the main character proclaims something along the lines of, "I'm Cecil B. Demented. This is my movie, and you're in it." Which of course, applies to the audience as well. While we watch the film, we are indeed in it. Waters challenges us not to be just passive consumers of film, but to be responsive, aware - to contemplate our role, as audience, in defining and directing film-culture.
At the same time, Waters pokes fun at the overweening pretention of his "auteur" character's own position - and at the paradox of having made a moderately big-budget film about rejecting the limitations and conventions of big-budget film.
The story - a ridiculous fable not meant to be taken seriously, revolves around the title character, a charismatic, aspiring underground film-maker (Stephen Dorff) and his cast and crew, known among themselves as "sprocket-holes." In an attempt to get their film made and seen, they kidnap fading Hollywood star Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffiths). Using Whitcomb's celebrity as a draw, they race around like a crew of Keystone Cops, filming events that they provoke and orchestrate.
The obvious parallel to the European (primarily French) "new wave" film-makers of the 1950s and early 60s, and the current "dogma" movement, with their earnest rejection of the artificial conventions of Hollywood, raises questions about both the pretensions and the legitimate aspirations of "outsider" "independent" film-makers, of course including Waters himself. In many ways, this film is less a polemic (although it has elements of that too) than a mocking self-revelation.
But those who are not familiar with Waters' work should be forewarned - some parts of it are sure to seem like the work of a "demented" twelve year old. Like a small boy with a worm, he can't resist the impulse to try and make the audience squirm. With the sometimes (perhaps demonically) inspired insight of such a child, he often succeeds.
Waters has been making films for more than thirty years. His first films were shot in 16MM black and white in and around Provincetown (MA and his hometown of Baltimore (MD), which still acts as backdrop for most of his films. His recent films have been shot in 35MM color, using sophisticated professional equipment.
His familiarity with the process stands him in good stead here, as the production values of the film add to its surreal, fabulist feel. Waters is able to create a look that has some rawness, yet it is closely crafted to achieve exactly the tone he wants. Again, he is exploring a paradox. As he has developed his abilities to control technique, he runs the risk of losing the thread of what he is trying to say. As his alter-ego Demented puts it in the film, "we see technique as the failure of style."
But the sets and locations, mostly in and around movie houses, both abandoned and active, show a flair and a campy irreverence that adds to the movies half-derisive, half- reverential attitude toward film as both entertainment and art. Even the opening credit sequence with its satirical take on multi-screen movie programs and its pastiche scoring that evokes the heavy-handed "movie music" compositions of John Williams and others, both celebrates and derides popular film culture.
The performances Waters gets from his cast give a lift to the material as well. The actors seem relaxed and at ease with the material, not overly solemn, but serious enough that the mixed message of sense and nonsense comes through loud and clear. Melanie Griffith shows a self-effacing wit playing a role that could be loosely based on her own life. She plays both the spoiled star and the revolutionary convert with a vehement conviction that makes the fable come to life.
Stephen Dorff is excellent as Demented. His charismatic energy, which is the key to making the thin story work, seems easy to believe and his endless wavering between self-righteous blather and accurate criticism gives both an edge of humor they might not otherwise have had. Even as a symbol in a fable, Dorff gives his character enough of individual humanity to give us something with which we can identify.
The supporting "sprocket holes" create a mixed ensemble that supports Dorff's efforts by taking themselves and him seriously enough to engage audience sympathy. Although they are largely caricatures they form a composite background that helps orient and anchor Dorff's and Griffiths' work. Cameos by Waters' discovery Riki Lake, long time ensemble member Mink Stole and favorite Waters pop icon Patricia Hearst (particularly ironic in this tale of a kidnapped celebrity) are typical touches that add a self-referential (and sometimes self-indulgent) texture to the film.
Many people will not like this film. Waters' patent offensiveness will turn off many potential movie-goers. But for those who try to see beyond their affronted prejudices, Waters presents an interesting and often amusing investigation of film-culture, and its possible future. Even Waters' worst films - and this is not one - are interesting and intriguing, for those who can put up with the confrontational style that is always part of the price of admission.
That's my take on it. What's yours?