In Cecil B. DeMented, John Waters takes the culture wars to the streets of Baltimore. Of course, Waters has long been at the center of these political skirmishes: his avant-garde, underground shock cinema has been a continual thorn in the side of conservatives who call for a “responsible” and “respectable” Hollywood. And the relative softening of Waters’ trademark raunchy style after his 1988 Hairspray (which garnered a PG rating by the MPAA), suggests that the cost of Waters’ “mainstreaming” has been precisely the outrageous, critical edginess that has made him such an impressive force in American independent film.
Paradoxically, the Hollywood that has made his post-Hairspray commercial and critical success possible is the institution to which Waters continues to be in direct opposition. In Cecil B. DeMented, Waters makes his critique of the Hollywood industry most pointed, engaging with public debates over art versus commerce and “cinematic correctness,” and challenging the complacency and self-righteousness of the “mainstream,” “respectable” movie-going public.
The film chronicles the guerrilla filmmaking of radical auteur Cecil B. DeMented (Stephen Dorff), as he and his crew, the “Sprocket Holes,” kidnap Hollywood superstar and, naturally, prima donna megabitch Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), and force her to star in their production of Raving Beauty. Along the way, they are pilloried by representatives of state and local governments, Hollywood, and cinematic correctness (the police, traditional families, union-card holding production crews, etc.). Cecil and the Sprocket Holes persevere, but after the last scene is shot, the production falls apart, several crew members are left dead, and Honey and Cecil are arrested (unable to resist, Waters reenacts Gloria Swanson’s final scene from Sunset Boulevard—“Mr. DeMented? I’m ready for my close up.”). But this catastrophic end to the filming is immaterial to the cinemaniacs.
All that matters to them is that the film is finished, regardless of whether it will ever be shown or anyone will see it. Of course, media being what they are, much of Raving Beauty has already been seen by the scores of people tuned to the news to follow the ongoing story of Honey’s kidnapping and the making of Cecil’s film. As Cecil and the Sprocket Holes take over public spaces (a cineplex screening Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut, a Maryland Film Commission PR gig, etc.) to film segments of Raving Beauty, they are simultaneously filmed by television news crews. Essentially, two films are being made: “Raving Beauty and the media’s sensational interpretation of the crime.
And so, the very institutions Cecil rails against insure his notoriety. The “meaning” of Cecil’s film is, however, transformed by its newsification. Rather than a testament to underground art, it becomes a piece of conservative propaganda. Moreover, the media attention and the film’s conception are both predicated on the participation of Honey Whitlock, superstar, just as the commercial success of Cecil B. DeMented is in some ways predicated on the star power of Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren and Hollywood brat, as well as of the uber-hip Stephen Dorff. “Mainstream” and “non-mainstream” mutually establish the very conditions of possibility for each other. Cecil and the Sprocket Holes can only be part of the cinematic underground if there is an aboveground to resist. Melanie Griffith can only be a Hollywood superstar in relation to “hip” and “edgy” or unknown actors like Stephen Dorff, Adrian Grenier (as Lyle) or Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Raven). The correlate to this is that the mainstream will always try to rehabilitate the non-mainstream to re-set its own limits. so, Stephen Dorff will no doubt become a star (if he isn’t already), and John Waters has in many ways already become a part of mainstream popular culture.
Throughout Cecil B. DeMented, Waters takes pot-shots at the Film Commission, an institution to which he must still repeatedly appeal for filming rights and permits, even though he essentially put Baltimore on the Hollywood map. The relationships of art and commerce are impossible to separate from one another, and Waters is too smart not to recognize this. This being a John Waters film, there are the requisite perverse aspects and gross-out scenes. The presence of these elements suggests both that Waters continues to resist the arbiters of Hollywood taste and respectability, and that this is the shtick that his backers, literally, bank on. My favorite little perversity of Cecil B. DeMented is Cecil and the Sprocket Holes’ dedication to “celibacy for cinema.” The crew pledges not to have sex until Raving Beauty is completed, which just makes everyone more horny. The crew is constantly dry humping and groping each other when they think Cecil isn’t looking, and Fidget (Eric M. Barry) never takes his hands out of his pants. Celibacy never looked so dirty.
Since his early films with Divine (like Female Trouble and Polyester),Waters has challenged gender roles and norms and sexual mores, and Cecil B. DeMented is no exception. Memorably, Waters introduces us to Rodney (Jack Noseworthy), the makeup artist for Cecil’s film. Rodney wants to love the driver Petie (Mike Shannon), but is, he laments, straight. Rodney tells Honey, “I’m ashamed of my heterosexuality,” and that even though he wishes he could love Petie, “I hate that certain thickness in my pants.” I have to admit, a self-hating straight man who wishes he were gay, for all its obviousness as social and political critique, is rather refreshing.
Unfortunately, not all the perversities of Cecil B. are so shocking or pointed. The “shrimper” in Mondo Trasho, the sphincter wink and chicken fucker in Pink Flamingos, and even the tea-bagging go-go boys of Pecker, were undoubtedly new to many who saw them. This is not the case for the gerbil act in Cecil B. DeMented: Cherish (the fabulous Alicia Witt, from TV’s Cybill), Cecil’s love interest, is a former porn star “recovering” memories of her childhood sexual abuse. While fleeing from the law, Cecil, Honey, and the Sprockets hide out in a porno theater that is showing one of Cherish’s films, and we watch a scene where she coos and coaxes a gerbil to her back door. But Cherish’s gerbil-ing feels merely recycled from a thousand old Richard Gere jokes jokes that have even made their way into Scream. Is it just me, or does that fact that Waters resorted to this rather worn out sexual fetish anecdote suggest that there is nothing left that might upset the so-called status quo?
While the film doesn’t function as effectively as earlier Waters’ endeavors as a challenge to sexual norms, it does resist social and political orthodoxy. Cecil and the Sprocket Holes find allies in the fans of B-grade action adventure films and pornography. Porn, action adventure, and underground cinema, Waters asserts, share a common enemy in conservatism and the “family values” for which it purports to stand. When confronted by a group of angry mothers outside of the “Family Theater”(its marquee professes to show “No NC-17, X, or R rated films. Ever”), Honey screams at them: “Family is just a dirty word for censorship!” Indeed. Sex, violence, and transgressions of any sort (whether of cinematic, sexual, or political norms) are the enemies of a banal, uniform, and family-oriented cinema and culture.
And yet, Cecil B. DeMented, like all of Waters’ films, does appeal to some sort of “family.” Waters gives voice and representation to the “misfits” of U.S. society, including queer or queer-friendly individuals who might see in the movie a kind of community. This queer “family” is not limited to sexual transgressors, but anyone who would resist norms of gender and sexuality, as well as of subjectivity, “respectability,” cinema, politics, and beyond. As Cecil observes, “We are the orphans of cinema. Without our movies, our lives do not exist, we are not human.” In the dominant U.S. cultural imagination, queer desires and identities are perpetually seen as precisely less than human, and always orphaned, believed to be isolated and alone. Waters’ films deny that logic and offer one site around which another “we” might emerge. Without this remarkable (even “objectionable”) work, where would we, the perverse, the misfit, and the queer, be, or where might we find representation of ourselves?