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A Dirty Shame

Director: John Waters
Cast: Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Selma Blair, Chris Isaak, Suzanne Shepherd, Mink Stole, Patricia Hearst

(City Lights Pictures; US theatrical: 24 Sep 2004; 2004)


Flouting recent trends toward political conservatism and media self-censorship (see: Superbowl Aftermath, including the recent $500,000 fine slapped on CBS), John Waters’ new movie, A Dirty Shame, isn’t so different from his old movies. The man who directed Divine to eat dog poo and once called Patty Hearst his “favorite celebrity” has some experience with cultural “transgression,” certainly, and he apparently enjoys putting the MPAA ratings board through their paces.

That said, Waters has made his own incursions into the mainstream, most prominently, with 1988’s Hairspray, granting stardom to Ricki Lake and since turned into a Broadway musical and spreading the ecstatically good gospel of Harvey Fierstein. Waters himself seemed briefly interested in playing by general narrative rules, if not standard social boundaries, what with the coherent plots and sympathetic protagonists of Hairspray, Crybaby (1990), and even Serial Mom (1994). That phase soon passed, however, and his more recent films, 1998’s Pecker and 2000’s Cecil B. Demented, returned more or less to the raunchy plotlessness that characterized his first masterpieces (not quite so loony as Multiple Maniacs, but recalling the freeform class analysis of Desperate Living).

What’s striking about the release of A Dirty Shame, slapped with an NC-17 rating, is its demonstration of how far general definitions of “offensive” material have extended. Now that the kids on Jackass have made eating poo (or rolling in it, throwing it, producing it, and smearing it on your relatives) seem rather mundane, not nearly the earth-shaking horror it once seemed. Acts of feral violence and self-mutilation also look rather ho-hum, which leaves only a last frontier of dirtiness (which happens to be Waters’ favorite) sex.

The movie sets up a standard Waters plot: a Baltimore neighborhood self-divided into us and them (and if you’re “them,” it’s unlikely you’re paying to see the film). On one side are the neuters, headed by Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), who runs the Pinewood Park and Pay convenience store, and hedge-clipping Marge (Mink Stole). Their sworn enemies are the sex addicts, come together in a kind of religious fervor around the Christ-like figure of auto mechanic Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville), who whips out his call to action with handsome-cowboyish verve: “Let’s go sexin’!”

Raving and craving, the addicts come to self-realization by concussions—visited on them (as demonstrated in flashbacks) by seemingly heaven-sent accidents. Gauche by design, the film wastes no time making sense. The film opens as uptight housewife Sylvia (Tracey Ullman) puts off her horny husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak) when he nuzzles her in the kitchen: “I’m cooking scrapple for chrissake!” Moping while he walks to work at the Park and Pay, Vaughn passes a series of neighbors, all of whom seem to be getting some: a vavoomy woman invites his attention, as does her ever-ready-to-disrobe husband, and a family of “bears” (hairy and hefty) have just moved in.

At the same time, Sylvia is driving to work (also at the Park and Pay), grumbling behind the wheel, wondering why everyone around her seems so fixated on sex. Suddenly, an accident: she’s smacked in the head, just as Ray-Ray happens by in his tow-truck (while getting head from one his adoring, big-breasted disciples). Sylvia’s initial transformation occurs before his adoring eyes, though her understanding of it is marked by a series of images inspired by 1950s-style anti-sex, anti-drinking films, indicating ham-handedly the effects of mass-mediated restrictions on healthy libidos. Now freed from such retro constraints, Sylvia positively glows before Ray-Ray (prone to visions throughout the film), appearing to be his all-important 12th Disciple, the one who will discover a whole new way to orgasm. Thrilled and titillated, he bounds to her rescue, demonstrating his miracle-working by giving mouth to mouth to a squirrel, squished in the accident, as well as delivering to her the most momentous cunniligus she’s ever had.

This chance (or fated) meeting leads to all sorts of hysteria in town, as Sylvia’s sexification takes public forms. She seduces her husband (repeatedly), dances the “Hokey Pokey” at an old folks home (making creative use of her newly enlightened vagina to pick up a water bottle), dons a slutty skirt she finds in a dumpster, and most happily, reconciles with her daughter, Caprice (Selma Blair), who’s taken the stage name “Ursula Udders,” which doesn’t begin to describe the size of her breast implants or her capacity for self-exhibition (she is perhaps most noticeable when she is conked on the head a second time, and so becomes a born again neuter, embarrassed by her boobies and trying to hide them under a high-necked frock).

In a panic, the neuters put up a desperate fight for their right way of life (“We tried tolerance. It didn’t work!”). They organize muttery meetings, church gatherings (which introduces yet another former sex addict, Paige [Patty Hearst in a proper, church lady dress: she is, as always, most excellent]), and strident demonstrations, all of which devolve into heated screaming and hitting matches. It’s clear their days are numbered. While such a fantastic love-love-love, all-pleasure-all-the-time scenario hardly seems likely in our near future, A Dirty Shame remains hopeful and even sweet, less outrageous than traditional, really, in its appeal to familiar social structures: parents and children, husbands and wives, Ray-Ray and his tree. Of all the things to be scared of in this world, consensual sex—no matter how creative—is surely the least dreadful.

Even better, it finds reason to have faith in the broader world, beyond its Baltimore borders. If you have any doubt who will win this monumental battle for souls in bodies, the answer is assured with David Hasselhoff’s cameo appearance. At last, his purpose in the universe is confirmed.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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