Friday, April 14, 2006

Cecil B. DeMented

(2000, 87 min.)

Starring Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier, Larry Gilliard, Jr., Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Eric Barry, Zenzele Uzoma, Erika Lynn Rupli, Harriet Dodge, Ricki Lake, Patricia Hearst, Mink Stole, Kevin Nealon.

Written and directed by John Waters.

Our title character is a self-proclaimed guerilla filmmaker, who, with his merry band of assorted freaks (the porn star, the Satanist, the drug addict, etc.), kidnaps bitchy movie star Honey Whitlock (Griffith) while she’s doing a publicity appearance in Waters’ beloved Baltimore, and forces her to be a participant in his experiment in “outlaw cinema.”

Waters takes his fascination with the SLA/Patty Hearst (who naturally appears here in a small role) incident to its logical conclusion, imagining a scenario where a Hollywood actress is at first forced to participate in an endeavor that goes against everything she knows and believes and then eventually changes sides and takes up with her captors. The main problem here, ironic given that Patty’s true identity was central to the intrigue of the incident, is that he hasn’t drawn a concrete portrait of who this actress really is. Griffith, who does fairly well given how little she has to work with, sometimes doesn’t even seem like the same person from one scene to the next. Instead of really giving her a character, Waters instead just makes her one, relying quite a bit on tried and true stereotypes. This is doubly ironic considering the target the director has in his sights: a bland moviemaking industry that would rather churn out the familiar than take risks. In not developing Honey’s transition from pawn of the system to enemy of same, he falls victim to the same hackwork attitude he longs to lampoon.

Similarly, and while I realize Waters is trying to represent his hometown as always, doing a spoof of Hollywood that never actually sets foot in the’s not that such a thing can’t work, but somehow it feels a little odd, though it’s amusing in a self-referential way for Waters to have the actual head of the Baltimore Film Commission be present at a rally that the outlaws attack for kowtowing to the industry. That’s certainly a step up clout-wise from a guy shooting super 8 movies of an obese transvestite (may he/she rest in peace).

Nevertheless there is still stuff to enjoy here (depending on your taste, but then it’s Waters; it’s always a matter of taste or lack thereof) in the spoofing of both the mainstream and the underground, the latter of which is at least in part Waters skewering himself, which make the scenes in which members of the collective spew out revolutionary rhetoric easier to take. (It’s kind of like Godard, but with a sense of humor, or rather a sense of humor that’s actually funny. Yeah, yeah, I know. Don’t get me started.)

There are also plenty of film references (each of the outlaws has a tattoo of the name of a filmmaker most suited to their particular function, a device some found cutesy, but which I thought was moderately clever), a couple of suitably Waters-esque outrageous ideas and some truly funny moments. But in the end, while I applaud the filmmaker’s spirit, the fact is that in the hands of a more skilled writer, this could have been a lot more than the enjoyable trifle it is.

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