John Waters! This guy is more than a movie-maker,
he is an icon. He deserves every bit of attention that he gets.
But, the question is, “What about his new movie?”
Forgive a brief history lesson:
There was never a closet built that was strong enough to hold
this man’s degenerate imagination. In the seventies, his films
were X-rated low-budget masterpieces of tawdry excess. In the eighties,
his films gained some “big-name” actors, found increasingly
believable budgets and production values, dropped down below the
“X” rating, and found a new, more mainstream audience.
Hairspray, with a full-featured narrative core, found relatively
enormous success and was later translated into last year’s
Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. His last two films left fans
from the early days amused but yawning. For them, the most intense
thing he had done lately was an appearance on “The Simpsons”…
until this film.
Now, A Dirty Shame gets an NC-17 rating. For all fans
of John Waters and his films, this is an important sign. Interest
is piqued. Some say that the film doesn’t deserve the rating.
It does. Some people say that American Pie is more offensive.
Well, of course it is, but that is a different kind of “offensive.”
The word on the street remains that the old John Waters has returned
to make his most intense and expressively risqué film since
Pink Flamingos, the trash masterpiece that started it all.
Has he, really?
I hate to give anything away about a movie, but I have to answer
that question. Part of the charm of seeing any John Waters film
isn’t about the details; it’s the joy of seeing just
how far he goes, what he does to challenge our sensibilities with
what new surprising outrage. With this in mind, I am sorry, but
the answer is “Yes!” This film is a roller coaster that
you simply have to ride, and you need to see it in a crowded theater.
Do not wait for the DVD.
On a nuts-and-bolts level, the film is an inspired fiction about
a Baltimore neighborhood that encounters a rash of sexual addicts
whose new obsessions have come about as a result of brain trauma.
Before the movie, you may want to brush up on your modern lexicon
of various sexual perversions in order to better interpret some
of the jokes. None of the sexual activities are really all that
sick or cruel, even being a bit predictable. They are, however,
genuinely funny. As with all of Waters’ films, the true genius
is in how the whole thing is integrated into his completely unique
world. The shock is not in the thing itself, but in the context
he creates. A Dirty Shame does this beautifully, with an
ending that puts the icing on the cake. I wasn’t one bit disappointed.
In fact, I was rather satisfied, with an odd desire to sleep. I
was so very happy that I got to see the film before the details
leaked out, and I suggest you do the same.
The mechanics of the film are flawless. Waters’ films are
never about traditional acting, but this cast excels. There was
some talk in the early stages about Meryl Streep
being cast in the lead role. Much as I would have loved to have
seen that, I don’t think she would have pulled it off as well
as Tracey Ullman does. Johnny Knoxville
is believable as a quasi-deity. Chris Isaak is
great in a crucial, straight role that requires a more disciplined
performance in a world where virtually every other actor gets to
go wild. Selma Blair deserves every conceivable
accolade for the incredible job she did of handling those two huge
props. Her role could have been so very embarrassingly dumb. Though
I don’t think you could ever describe her performance as subtle,
she is awe-inspiringly natural and hilarious. Mink Stole,
as always, heads the actors who have appeared in Waters’ films
since the early days. They not only belong; they are crucial. Flashy
production values would be anathema to his filmic world, but the
photography of this film occasionally conjures up visions of a David
Lynch film made in a hurry, and the music is a perfectly
appropriate homage to the sexual energy of the fifties music of
Waters’ youth. There are even CG effects (yes, CG effects
in a John Waters film), put to good use.
The surprise may be that the film isn’t really all that shocking
to some of us. Really, what can a movie do to truly offend you these
days, compared to what we can see on the Internet, compared to the
reality of current events? Of course, to the religiously intolerant,
this film will offend aplenty. Waters himself says, “Maybe
I’m asking the question—‘Can tolerance go too
far?’” Sure. Waters has always made us evaluate priorities.
The pursuit of extremes in sexual gratification can get awfully
silly, but this imaginative world of Waters gifts our tired reality
with a smile. The pursuit of extreme religious ideals is just as
silly, but we aren’t laughing now, are we? Maybe that is what
it is all about. What kind of world is it where John Waters’
vision is blasé? It is a world where real dangers so sorely
threaten us as to make the relief of his imaginary threats indispensable.
So, why no fifth star? Waters is a filmmaker who is alone in a
genre of his own making, and he established the benchmark in the
film Pink Flamingos. A Dirty Shame, as good as it is, just
doesn’t achieve the same level of intensity. Maybe Waters
needs to figure out how to reach out and literally hit us over the
head with his message. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t give
the man who brought us “Odorama” any ideas.