Cecil B. DeMented

Director: John Waters
Screenplay:John Waters
Stars: Melanie Griffith (Honey Whitlock), Stephen Dorff (Cecil B. DeMented), AdrianGrenier (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), MinkStole (Mrs. Mallory), Patricia Hearst (Fidget's Mother
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 2000
Country: USA

I am always somewhat leery of films in which the characters too obviously function as themouthpiece of the filmmaker. I am, of course, not naive enough to believe that moviecharacters are (or should be) completely independent of the writers and directors whocreate them. Characters in art, from literature to the movies, have often functioned to pushthe ideology of their particular creators. The trick is doing so without being too obvious aboutit.

This is the primary problem with John Waters' deranged comedy, Cecil B.DeMented. The titular character, a renegade terrorist filmmaker with an axe to grindagainst mainstream cinema, spends the majority of the film screaming and ranting hisideological 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 towonder what the point was in creating a fictional character. Waters should have just starredin the movie as himself. Even DeMented's name is an allusion to Waters, as it comes froman early reviewer's nickname for Waters. Thus, DeMented is not so much a character as heis Waters' idealized version of himself: a terrorist who fights against the conformity ofHollywood and the co-option of his once radical crudity.

DeMented is played by Stephen Dorff, and to Dorff's credit, he makes DeMented aconsistently watchable character. As with all of Waters' films, his dialogue is ludicrous andover the top, but Dorff manages to make it sound almost believable (the only actor whocould truly spout Waters' insane dialogue with truthful conviction was Divine).

The story follows DeMented and his band of guerilla terrorist filmmakers, nicknamed theSprocket Holes, as they kidnap a bitchy cinema diva named Honey Whitlock from theBaltimore premiere of her latest Hollywood movie, Some Kind of Happiness andconvince her to become one of them by starring in DeMented's film, which is about (whatelse?) 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 anddressed in leather and spandex with a gun in hand, she quickly begins spouting DeMented'scinematic ideology.

DeMented and his crew, unhappy with traditional production processes, make their filman "Ultimate Reality," which involves actually terrorizing theater patrons viewingPatch Adams: The Director's Cut and breaking up a meeting of the Maryland FilmBoard, which has just announced that the sequel to Forrest Gump, GumpAgain (with Kevin Nealon taking over Tom Hanks' role), will begin filming inBaltimore. DeMented's filmmaking techniques are not too far removed from those used byWaters in the early days, when he was almost arrested while making MondoTrasho (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-threedecades of making films. Known primarily for his camp appeal and voracious ability tocapture bad taste at its worst (saying a Waters movie is in bad taste is like commenting thatthe 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) toDivine's admonition that "Crime is beauty" in Female Trouble (1975), Waters hasalways had a fetish for violence. He even wrote a chapter in his 1995 book ShockValue titled "Why I Love Violence." While most people think of him as the guy whohad Divine eat dog feces on camera, he is also the guy who consistently visited members ofthe Charles Manson family in jail and proclaimed that he always knew he would either be afilmmaker or a mad bomber.

In a sense, he became both, as his films have functioned over the years much like bombslobbed into the complacent sphere of bourgeois good taste. The fact that the FarrellyBrothers, Jim Carrey, and the Wayans have, over the last few years, caused bad taste toenter into the ranks of normality have made Waters' job that much more difficult, and hasconsequently made his most recent films (notably 1994's Serial Mom and 1998'sPecker) seems almost tame by comparison. Waters is obviously well-aware of thispredicament, and at one point he screams through DeMented's character about howHollywood 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 theycost very much money. Waters tries to maintain his knack for the offensive, especially in ascene that depicts a theater full of, um, active, men watching a hard-core porn flick calledRear Entry that involves a hamster. Most of the scene relies on suggestion ratherthan in-your-face detail, and the fact that Waters avoids a "money shot" with the hamsteris testament to either a) his admitted mellowing with age, or b) the studio's refusal to granthim 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 amovie with a narrative that reflects the kidnapping and brainwashing ordeal of Patty Hearstand has Hearst starring in one of the roles says something. His attempts at mainstreamhumor, such as mocking Patch Adams, is too easy and doesn't work at all. He getssolid laughs in a scene where Mink Stole, the only person to have appeared in every one ofhis films, plays a society woman who is trying to raise money for sick children while achild in a wheelchair glowers and makes faces behind her. Cinephiles will also get a kick outof Waters' placement of cinema references, especially the fact that each of DeMented'screw members has the name of an "acceptable" director tattooed on his or her body (theseinclude Sam Peckinpah, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Spike Lee, Rainer Fassbinder, and OttoPreminger).

However, the scene in which each of DeMented's crew members walks by and shows hisor 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 sensationthat this display of tattoos somehow defines these people as characters, and more of afeeling that the scene is really about wish fulfillment for Waters. In effect, the movie isreally about how Waters would love to have all of those names tattooed on his ownbody.

©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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