Whether you call it guerrilla filmmaking, outlaw cinema or the underground movie scene, there is no doubt that John Waters is one of the heroes of the pioneering movement that led to the current independent film boom. Displaying an unparalleled knack for exuberant shock humor, Waters made his reputation in the 1970’s with midnight movie classics like Desperate Living, Female Trouble, and the immortal Pink Flamingoes. Most of the biggest laughs in these no-budget efforts were of the squeamish, "I can’t believe what I’m seeing" variety, and it was only natural that this spirit would eventually filter into the mainstream, as the latest wave of gross-out comedies (Me, Myself and Irene, Scary Movie) proves.
With Cecil B. Demented, Waters is simultaneously paying tribute to and sending up the anarchic school of filmmaking he helped create – and presenting a sort of self-homage in the process (an early review of Waters’ work tagged him with the "Cecil B. Demented" nickname). It’s an idea that might have had some bite fifteen or twenty years ago. Unfortunately, Waters has had a second career that has now lasted as long as his string of cheerfully offensive cult hits. Beginning with Hairspray in 1988, audiences were introduced to the kinder, gentler John Waters. Hairspray worked (due in no small part to a final appearance by Waters’ late muse, Divine); most of the follow-ups (Serial Mom, Pecker) have not. Waters has become more like a lovably eccentric but essentially harmless uncle; he makes a great talk show guest, but his movies are increasingly flaccid and tame – and worst of all, often not very funny.
Cecil is no exception. Melanie Griffith stars as Honey Whitlock, a Melanie Griffith-esque movie star making a personal appearance at the Baltimore premiere of her latest film. Whitlock is a demanding, pampered Hollywood goddess who makes life hell for her personal assistant (Ricki Lake), complaining about everything right down to the color of her limousine. At the premiere, a band of terrorists known as the Sprocket Holes, under the leadership of zealous indie filmmaker Cecil B. Demented (Steven Dorff), kidnap Whitlock and spirit her away to their warehouse/studio compound. Whitlock is forced at gunpoint to star in Demented’s magnum opus, a broadside against bad Hollywood movies. Gradually Whitlock comes to believe in Cecil’s cause and becomes a willing participant in their escalating campaign of terror.
After shooting several scripted scenes, Demented announces that the rest of his revolutionary manifesto will be shot in full reality – on the streets with real people. This is just one indication of how out-of-touch with the times Cecil feels; the notion of filmed reality as edgy, underground fare is almost quaint in this summer of Survivor. The whole concept of a band of cinema terrorists feels even more outdated; their kidnapping and brainwashing of Whitlock is obviously inspired by the Patricia Hearst story (Hearst, a Waters regular, appears here as the mother of one the Sprocket Holes). This is not exactly timely satire, nor is the Sprocket Holes final assault on the set of Gump Again (starring Kevin Nealon as Forrest Gump – huh?). There’s no room for nuance in this screeching, painfully unfunny offering, no indication that Waters is aware that Hollywood occasionally makes a great movie or that independent filmmakers quite often make terrible ones.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Waters as a director is how little he has progressed; after thirty years, his movie-making is as amateurish as ever. He elicits the same sort of bellowing, one-note performance from Steven Dorff he used to get from his gang of non-professionals in the early days; the difference is, Divine and crew invested their histrionics with genuine fervor, and Waters provided them with inspired over-the-top soliloquies of filth and outrageousness. Here, ninety percent of Dorff’s dialogue is empty sloganeering: "I am a prophet against profit." "We are the ultimate bad review." "Celibate for celluloid." And Griffith is hopeless; she’s so out of place, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that she really did deliver her lines at gunpoint. Even a talent as vibrant as Alicia Witt is flattened by Waters’ stale technique (although she does have the only dialogue that evokes the Waters of old, her description of a very unusual family Christmas around the tree) .
John Waters’ place in the history of independent film is secure, but like fellow aging funnymen Albert Brooks and Woody Allen, he appears content to churn out watered-down trifles. His movie’s tagline may be "demented forever," but at this point, it sounds like an empty threat.