WHAT WAS SHOCKING a few decades ago seems tame today, on screen as in society, and that's a truism that informs John Waters' latest in-your-face comedy. The director of such gross-out, trashy chic classics as Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living has changed with the times, going on to make more conventional pictures including Hairspray and Cry-Baby. He uses real actors now (along with a few hardy icons from his early works), employs bigger budgets, premieres his films at Cannes—but, oh, those halcyon days! Cecil B. DeMented unabashedly looks back at the no-budget era of guerrilla filmmaking during the '60s and early '70s, a more innocent and less professional period when Waters and others got their start in exploitation movies, porno flicks, and pure avant-garde art cinema. Set in the present, Cecil isn't a mere autobiographical picture, nor a simple nostalgia exercise, but its cheerfully strident satire of Hollywood's present-day conservatism can only be understood in light of the past.
CECIL B. DEMENTED
written and directed by John Waters with Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, and Patricia Hearst opens August 18 at Neptune
When Hollywood starlet Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) is abducted from the Baltimore premiere of her latest vapid film, the kidnapping inevitably recalls—at least among older viewers—the SLA and Patty Hearst (a member of Waters' stock company, with a small part in Cecil.) The brainwashed band of self-styled radicals that nabs her is under the strict command of one Cecil B. DeMented (his nom de guerre), a dictatorial would-be director and de facto cult leader played by Stephen Dorff (Backbeat, Blood and Wine).
The arrogant diva Whitlock finds herself both captive and den mother in the Sprocket Hole gang's lair, an old dilapidated movie house clearly modeled on Warhol's Factory. There, she's to star in their laughably bad movie, an amateurish but impassioned attack on mainstream cinema. "Your Hollywood system stole our sex and co-opted our violence," Cecil declares during one of his many rants, which amounts to Waters' thesis for the picture.
FILMS ABOUT FILMS are tricky. For every Sunset Boulevard there's a lame, self-conscious effort bogged down in process and insiderism (The Muse). Cecil starts brightly and briskly, offering ample comic rewards for video store clerks who'll get every obscure reference and knowing Waters gibe. Each member of the gang sports a tattoo of his or her favorite director; all pray to Warhol. Watching their initial attempts to film Whitlock in their studio and on the streets—cinema verit頳tyle—makes for silly fun, and you share some of the bygone excitement Waters and his peers must've felt grabbing shots without permits, filming without crews, making movies on the fly.
Times have changed, however, since the pre-VCR era. Our cool, corporate media age has made radical politics and radical film hopelessly pass鮠The idea of reviving and conflating the two appears promising, and you initially root for Waters to reach beyond his usual bell-jar world of kink and kooks. He's smart enough to mock Cecil, his acolytes, and our multiplex fodder (e.g., Patch Adams—The Director's Cut), but the targets are too easy and the arrows fall too short. When a family movie audience refuses to shelter Cecil's fleeing gang, you can feel a certain mean-spiritedness slipping through the comedy—as with Waters' treatment of fandom in general. Like the angry Cecil, Waters knows what it is to be a spurned outsider (at the box office, anyway). Ultimately, this director never lifts his movie beyond the level of a redundant one-joke comedy that overstays its welcome.
Otherwise, Griffith seems game but out-of-place; her Whitlock elocution suggests a parody in her mind only. Dorff has little to do but rave, while his followers are mere caricatures good for just a few laughs (only Alicia Witt of TV's Cybill stands out with her flashes of comic wit). Together, they're the gang that couldn't shoot straight.
Read Brian Miller's interview with John Waters.