When John Waters is at his best, as he is in his latest, Cecil B. Demented, he can drive you in in a way few filmmakers have ever managed to do. But recognizing that fact can sometimes be difficult in today's market-driven context. In fact, for the first half-hour or so of Cecil, I found myself reflexively evaluating it in terms of the guidelines we all -- critics as well as audiences -- have been trained to follow: "This isn't going to make much money, because it's not likely to appeal to anyone other than John Waters fans, but it cost so little that Artisan isn't taking much of a risk in backing it."
But then came the scene in which it's revealed that the members of a terrorist group -- whose kidnapping of a middle-range movie star sparks the action -- have had the names of their favorite film directors tattooed on their arms. It's a joke, of course, but a serious one. For tattooing the names of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pier Paolo Pasolini -- artists whose lives and works Waters reveres -- on your body is no simple fashion statement: Films like In a Year of 13 Moons, Salo and, by extension, Cecil B. Demented are antithetical to everything currently called "the movies." And to support them is a kind of terrorist act.
Shot on location in his beloved Baltimore, Cecil B. Demented is a return to the sort of movie Waters hasn't really made since Desperate Living. Melanie Griffith may be the star, but the writer/director treats her no differently than the 300-pound transvestite named Divine whom he started with. In other words, Griffith gets more serious respect from Waters than she has ever been afforded in her career to date. Cast as Honey Whitlock, an actress whose once-blossoming career is beginning to edge toward the skids (why else would she be doing publicity in Baltimore?), Griffith is redolent of temperament -- something that Waters, like no director since Visconti, fully appreciates. Bored, anxious and jumpy as hell, she demands that her much-abused personal assistant (Waters-discovery-turned-talk-show-phenom Ricki Lake) find out whether Pat Nixon "got fucked" in the presidential suite of the hotel where she's staying. No, it's not a serious question. She just wants to see people jump through hoops for her.
Yet on another level it's perfectly serious; Honey is ripe and ready for trouble. Consequently, when the Sprocket Holes Gang-- a terrorist outfit led by a young man (Stephen Dorff) calling himself Cecil B. Demented (the name a Waters critic slapped on him way back when) -- kidnaps Honey and forces her to be in their movie (a seemingly endless project in which the relationship between offscreen and on has been permanently erased), her secret dreams come true. Her inner anarchist is unleashed. And this in turn opens onto another region of Waters legend -- his friendship with Patricia Hearst.
In 1976, only two years after Divine declared, "Crime is beauty," in Female Trouble (arguably Waters' greatest film), Hearst, the granddaughter of legendary newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by a self-styled radical terrorist group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was then subjected to brainwashing techniques -- which included her being forced to spend more than 50 days in a closet and then rob a bank with her SLA "comrades" -- which left her as vulnerable as putty. Not helping matters was the FBI's placing Hearst, who had no political affiliations or activities before the kidnapping, on their most-wanted list. And so she went into hiding. When finally found, she was put on trial for grand theft and convicted; she served almost two years of a seven-year term and was released with help from President Jimmy Carter. However, this was merely a commutation of her sentence, and to this day Patricia Hearst Shaw (she married her postordeal bodyguard, Bernard Shaw) seeks a full pardon.
John Waters entered the picture in 1998, when he met Hearst at the Cannes Film Festival, where director Paul Schrader's film of her account of her ordeal, Patty Hearst, premiered. Striking up a friendship with Waters, Hearst went on to appear in his Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker and now Cecil B. Demented -- in which she plays the worried mother of one of the Sprocket Holes Gang members.
You might say Cecil B. Demented is Waters' way of answering the undoubtedly perpetual query "What's Patty Hearst really like?" and its inevitable follow-up, "Do you think she was brainwashed, or was she in on the whole thing from the beginning?" And to judge from this film, Waters is resolutely noncommittal on both questions. Hearst is certainly more normal than Griffith's Honey Whitlock. Yet in telling Honey's story, Waters can't help but project all America's secret fantasy: that Hearst had indeed turned in revolt against her class. Moreover, the Sprocket Holes Gang has a lot more going for it than the SLA ever did. Striking a revolutionary blow for movies makes a lot of sense in a culture where theatrical release is little more than a springboard to video sales and rental -- the ultimate destination of all audiovisual experience today. Anyone trying to buck this tide becomes a sort of terrorist.
In Cecil B. Demented, Waters offers a worldview that's uniquely his own. Imagine a gang operating out of an abandoned theater. Imagine them getting support from the few old-time movie houses still in operation, playing porn and action films. Now witness a fight to defend the Sprocket Holes Gang from a band of "family-viewing" thugs (led by Waters regulars Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce). And that's not to mention the gang's guerrilla takeover of Gump Again -- the sequel to Forrest Gump, a film that Waters clearly despises with a passion. It's all here, charged by Griffith's funky glamour and the gleam of perfectly calibrated insanity in Stephen "Call me if you can't get Johnny Depp" Dorff's eye. The crowning touch? Cecil's real name is "Sinclair Beckstein." And if you really know your movies, then you're aware that that's the name of the author of "O Brother Where Art Thou?" -- the novel Joel McCrea wants to make into a movie in Sullivan's Travels (the Coen brothers pay similar tribute with their upcoming George Clooney musical, which bears the title of the novel).
In short, Cecil B. Demented is essential viewing.
Opens Aug. 25 at the Tivoli.