John Waters has found the revolutionary fervor he never knew he had. The Baltimore-centric guerrilla filmmaker used to say that he was willing to sell out, except no one wanted to buy him. When someone did—or when the chance came to entrance the mainstream with his home-grown blend of candy-colored kitsch, idealism, and grotesquerie—he came through, with 1988’s Hairspray, one of the world’s perfect movies that couldn’t be described as one of its greatest. But then came the paper-thin goofs Cry-Baby and Serial Mom, and a truly distressing drift from his signature good nature and good sense with the snotty Pecker. What’s an underground director to do when sunlight dulls his edge?
Rewrite his own history, basically, and hand it down with love and ammo to a new generation of cineastes. Cecil B. DeMented is Waters’ directive to the young and disenfranchised, a stink-bomb lobbed into Hollywood’s plush halls; in it, he ennobles underground filmmaking’s rawness and wild creativity with ideological purpose rather than chalking up the shaky camera to a lack of cash. The film never reaches the exalted level of bad taste in which Waters formerly trafficked, but that would just be nostalgia—his outrageousness, this time, is outrage.
The film opens with decrepit Baltimore movie palaces transformed by Waters’ silver-screen dreams—the credits for this film appear on the marquees, eventually reaching the slick multiplexes as well. The jokes about the depressed state of film are bitter and kind of lame—so Pauly Shore’s not funny, and there are a lot of interchangeable sci-fi flicks with “star” in the title. But to the acolytes of Cecil B. DeMented (Stephen Dorff), a charismatic rogue filmmaker with a cultish crew in tow, unfunniness and a lack of originality are symptomatic of modern cinematic yard goods. In an audacious skewering of the Patty Hearst affair (Hearst is now one of Waters’ regulars), Cecil and his gang kidnap airheaded actress Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) and force her to star in Raving Beauty, their filmed version of artistic revolution.
Cecil and the Sprocket Holes—a cabal of disaffected youth who redefine diversity by way of Waters’ parallel universe—orchestrate a disruption of a Baltimore premiere and drag Honey to their dark den, the crumbling innards of the old Hippodrome theater. There, they menace her with their mission statement: to enact violent retribution on Hollywood for its sins. Each one—tormented heterosexual hairdresser, Satan-worshipping makeup artist, and rebellious porn star alike—has the name of a great director tattooed on some strategic spot. The list is telling; it’s not just the sanctified greats, but the rebels and freaks: Sam Fuller, David Lynch, Otto Preminger. (The omission of John Boorman and Douglas Sirk must have been a budget consideration.)
Griffith is the smartest choice imaginable for the role of bitchy, pampered Honey. She’s never been this good, but then again she’s never been asked to play a nearly washed-up product of studio life, used to telling and hearing coddling lies, keeping the march of time at bay with surgical enhancement and the use of her increasingly stressed babyish whisper. Honey’s ghoulishly “flattering” makeup and bizarre demands suffice as the punch line when, in town for the premiere of her latest film, she sneers at Baltimore “mutants.”
Waters knows who he is—a successful grown-up, reaching middle age, who’s stopped smoking and drives a big, safe car. Cecil B. DeMented doesn’t pretend to get down in the dirt with the kids—it’s tightly made and beautifully shot, telling the Sprocket Holes’ story clearly so that they can tell their messy stories. It isn’t grossness or weirdness per se that he admires, but partisanship and passion, the dialogue that films inspire. Honey’s not wrong when she pipes up: “People can make bad movies if they so desire,” and whereas Cecil and the gang disrupt the fat cats of Hollywood in their self-congratulatory galas, they also stop to argue with a group of indignant mothers who reasonably plead for decently made and entertaining family films.
As a working-class fantasy of revolution, Cecil B. DeMented puts heart into and air quotes around such statements as “Your Hollywood stole our sex and co-opted our violence—so there’s nothing left.” But as a feel-good terrorist art film for the dwindling ranks of movie droolers, it’s deadly sincere. On the run from angry union crews, the Sprocket Holes dash through Baltimore, finding refuge in broken-down theaters showing kung fu marathons (“Action fans! Help us!”) and porn flicks. In the cleverest joke of all—amplified because, uncharacteristically, Waters doesn’t point to it—the opening scene of the porno is virtually identical to the opening scene of Honey’s greatest triumph, except that one will devolve honestly into hilarious wank material and the other gauzes its sexual sadism with a nightie-clad-woman-in-peril plot. Heartfelt and rollicking, with a dream cast of eccentric young actors including Alicia Witt, Adrien Grenier, Jack Noseworthy, and the performance artist Harriet Dodge, Cecil B. DeMented makes you want to run out, hug a puppy, and bomb a movie theater. Speaking of which…
It’s funny how life sometimes hands you grim irony and sprinkles parsley all over it: Coyote Ugly is a textbook example of the kind of pointless, badly made Hollywood tripe the DeMent-heads would loathe. Trashy, disjointed, prurient as a peephole in a shower stall, it’s a sateen rag of a movie, absent a single recognizable reaction or emotion including, if I may paraphrase, “and” and “the.”
Plot? Sort of. Innocent female (Piper Perabo) moves from working-class New Jersey town to the Big Apple to become a songwriter; meeting defeat, she takes a job as a “coyote” in a notorious dive staffed with lithe female bartenders who are more apt to pour pitchers of water over one another’s fringed pleather halter tops than they are to pour shots. She meets a supposedly nice guy (Adam Garcia) who encourages her to live her dreams, and then they all come true, and you are out eight bucks and two precious hours of your short life, all for an up-close view of Tyra Banks’ rump in glitter pants, which you can see in any issue of Vogue.
Inexplicably written by a woman, this soft-core male drinking fantasy says nothing about women you couldn’t find in Inside Pamela 2. Comparisons to Flashdance are obvious, but Coyote Ugly is updated for more graphic times and with a repulsive delusion that it’s really about female empowerment. The bar of the title is actually a straightforward whorehouse metaphor: There’s the tough but sexy madame (Maria Bello), former queen of the coyote girls herself, and there are cardboard female types fulfilling the brothel fantasy roles: In addition to the virginal Violet, there’s a snake-mean brunette, a helplessly slutty blonde, and a hot black co-ed. How do we know they’re sassy? When asked if they can be helped, they say no. You go, girls!
In between stints of girl-girl grinding on the bar top at the booze bordello, Violet sits on the roof of her crummy Chinatown building and composes horrible adult-contemporary songs, which sound just like Diane Warren tunes sung by LeAnn Rimes. Violet’s penchant for talking to herself clears up many fuzzy plot details. For example, looking into a box of her tapes, she exclaims, “My tapes.” And the anguish of creation is expressed by a shot of sheet music, much scrawled upon, with the notation “may change later” over one line. Violet also likes to talk on the phone to her understandably disapproving father (John Goodman) while stripping down to her panties and bra.
There isn’t enough room to enumerate everything stupid and evil about this movie. Suffice it to say that it screams out for one important reality check: Ladies, should a barful of horny frat boys try to rape a bartender and sack the joint, it is extremely unlikely that you will be able to stop them by lip-synching to old Blondie. CP