Director: John Waters
|Stars: Melanie Griffith (Honey Whitlock), Stephen Dorff (Cecil B. DeMented), Adrian
Grenier (Lyle), Alicia Witt (Cherish), Larry Gilliard Jr. (Lewis), Maggie Gyllenhaal
(Raven), Jack Noseworthy (Rodney), Michael Shannon (Petie), Harriet Dodge (Dinah),
Zenzele Uzoma (Chardonnay), Eric M. Barry (Fidget), Erika Lynn Rupli (Pam), Mink
Stole (Mrs. Mallory), Patricia Hearst (Fidget's Mother
|Year of Release: 2000
I am always somewhat leery of films in which the characters too obviously function as the
mouthpiece of the filmmaker. I am, of course, not naive enough to believe that movie
characters are (or should be) completely independent of the writers and directors who
create them. Characters in art, from literature to the movies, have often functioned to push
the ideology of their particular creators. The trick is doing so without being too obvious about
This is the primary problem with John Waters' deranged comedy, Cecil B.
DeMented. The titular character, a renegade terrorist filmmaker with an axe to grind
against mainstream cinema, spends the majority of the film screaming and ranting his
ideological maxims, which, not coincidentally, match perfectly with Waters' own views:
"Power to the people! Perish bad cinema!"
There is so little difference between DeMented's point of view and Waters' that one has to
wonder what the point was in creating a fictional character. Waters should have just starred
in the movie as himself. Even DeMented's name is an allusion to Waters, as it comes from
an early reviewer's nickname for Waters. Thus, DeMented is not so much a character as he
is Waters' idealized version of himself: a terrorist who fights against the conformity of
Hollywood and the co-option of his once radical crudity.
DeMented is played by Stephen Dorff, and to Dorff's credit, he makes DeMented a
consistently watchable character. As with all of Waters' films, his dialogue is ludicrous and
over the top, but Dorff manages to make it sound almost believable (the only actor who
could truly spout Waters' insane dialogue with truthful conviction was Divine).
The story follows DeMented and his band of guerilla terrorist filmmakers, nicknamed the
Sprocket Holes, as they kidnap a bitchy cinema diva named Honey Whitlock from the
Baltimore premiere of her latest Hollywood movie, Some Kind of Happiness and
convince her to become one of them by starring in DeMented's film, which is about (what
else?) a group of cinema terrorists who hate Hollywood filmmaking. Honey resists at first,
but once her hair is bleached out and she is wearing 10 pounds of black eye make-up and
dressed in leather and spandex with a gun in hand, she quickly begins spouting DeMented's
DeMented and his crew, unhappy with traditional production processes, make their film
an "Ultimate Reality," which involves actually terrorizing theater patrons viewing
Patch Adams: The Director's Cut and breaking up a meeting of the Maryland Film
Board, which has just announced that the sequel to Forrest Gump, Gump
Again (with Kevin Nealon taking over Tom Hanks' role), will begin filming in
Baltimore. DeMented's filmmaking techniques are not too far removed from those used by
Waters in the early days, when he was almost arrested while making Mondo
Trasho (1969) for filming a nude man on the Johns Hopkins University campus.
Cecil B. DeMented is, in many ways, the culmination of Waters' more-than-three
decades of making films. Known primarily for his camp appeal and voracious ability to
capture bad taste at its worst (saying a Waters movie is in bad taste is like commenting that
the sky is blue), he has always had a violent undercurrent cutting through his movies.
From the George A. Romero-inspired cannibal scene in Pink Flamingos (1972) to
Divine's admonition that "Crime is beauty" in Female Trouble (1975), Waters has
always had a fetish for violence. He even wrote a chapter in his 1995 book Shock
Value titled "Why I Love Violence." While most people think of him as the guy who
had Divine eat dog feces on camera, he is also the guy who consistently visited members of
the Charles Manson family in jail and proclaimed that he always knew he would either be a
filmmaker or a mad bomber.
In a sense, he became both, as his films have functioned over the years much like bombs
lobbed into the complacent sphere of bourgeois good taste. The fact that the Farrelly
Brothers, Jim Carrey, and the Wayans have, over the last few years, caused bad taste to
enter into the ranks of normality have made Waters' job that much more difficult, and has
consequently made his most recent films (notably 1994's Serial Mom and 1998's
Pecker) seems almost tame by comparison. Waters is obviously well-aware of this
predicament, and at one point he screams through DeMented's character about how
Hollywood has co-opted his sex and violence, thus the only thing left is cinema terrorism.
Cecil B. DeMented has the same loose, outrageously amateurish tone of Waters'
other movies, and despite continually escalating budgets, his movies never look like they
cost very much money. Waters tries to maintain his knack for the offensive, especially in a
scene that depicts a theater full of, um, active, men watching a hard-core porn flick called
Rear Entry that involves a hamster. Most of the scene relies on suggestion rather
than in-your-face detail, and the fact that Waters avoids a "money shot" with the hamster
is testament to either a) his admitted mellowing with age, or b) the studio's refusal to grant
him an NC-17 movie, a rating that all of his early-'70s films now carry.
Still, one cannot argue that Waters has become too mellow. The mere fact that he made a
movie with a narrative that reflects the kidnapping and brainwashing ordeal of Patty Hearst
and has Hearst starring in one of the roles says something. His attempts at mainstream
humor, such as mocking Patch Adams, is too easy and doesn't work at all. He gets
solid laughs in a scene where Mink Stole, the only person to have appeared in every one of
his films, plays a society woman who is trying to raise money for sick children while a
child in a wheelchair glowers and makes faces behind her. Cinephiles will also get a kick out
of Waters' placement of cinema references, especially the fact that each of DeMented's
crew members has the name of an "acceptable" director tattooed on his or her body (these
include Sam Peckinpah, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Spike Lee, Rainer Fassbinder, and Otto
However, the scene in which each of DeMented's crew members walks by and shows his
or her tattoo to Honey is instructive in showing what is essentially wrong with Cecil B.
DeMented. Like the movie as a whole, the scene leaves us with less of the sensation
that this display of tattoos somehow defines these people as characters, and more of a
feeling that the scene is really about wish fulfillment for Waters. In effect, the movie is
really about how Waters would love to have all of those names tattooed on his own
¬Overall Rating: (2)