John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented concerns a gang of crazed young underground filmmakers, led by the eponymous Cecil B. (Stephen Dorff), who kidnap a Hollywood star and force her to a play a role in their anarchic, shot-on-the-run anti-Hollywood 16mm film. As the movie opens–in Baltimore, as always–the star, Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) is bitching about crab cakes and having to be polite to the yokels. The city’s revenge comes swiftly. Cecil’s gang sweeps her out of a charity premiere and spirits her to its hideaway in an abandoned movie theater, where she finds that her new company is an assemblage of snarling misfits: a porn star, a Satanist (she does make-up), a junkie, a gay guy and his beloved, a straight guy who’s racked with guilt over his heterosexuality.
Given the premise, you may or may not be surprised to learn that Waters has again awarded a small part to his friend Patty Hearst, who once upon a time was kidnapped and forced to play a role in the radical scenarios of a group of crazed media-seekers. Does Patty not get the joke, or is her appearance in the film her way of saying it’s OK, even she can laugh at her gun-toting past? Hard to tell.
As Patty once did, Honey eventually comes to identify with her captors and casts her lot with them. And why not? Beyond being a bunch of cool wackos who have lots of goofy fun, they’re just the opposite of the rich, jaded Hollywood types she knows too well. These kids are passionate about cinema. Their makeshift studio-cum-hideout is a combination of Che Guevara, Peter Pan and Norma Desmond’s derelict manse in Sunset Boulevard. They’ve even tattooed themselves with the names of their favorite film directors. The list includes Otto Preminger (Cecil’s choice), Peckinpah, Warhol, Sam Fuller, William Castle, Almodovar and Fassbinder.
Cecil and his cronies are like the Bonnie and Clyde of oppositional cinema. Berserk with hatred of Hollywood, they stage attacks on its local manifestations (and film themselves doing so): a multiplex showing of Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut, the shooting of the sequel to Forrest Gump, a party where the Baltimore film commission schmoozes studio creeps. Rather than Tinseltown’s phony, brain-destroying crap, Demented and Co. want to save real movie culture: art houses, porn theaters, the last of the drive-ins.
All of this is fun and pretty consistently funny–especially for viewers who get the references. Waters stages his daffy satire at an assured clip and gets droll, confident performances from his cast, especially leads Dorff and Griffith, who don’t undercut their roles by winking at them. But that’s not to say that Cecil B. Demented is a seamless success. In fact, watching it can produce something akin to vertigo: Call it movie-culture cognitive dissonance, in spades.
Problem is, the film’s as cluelessly out of sync as Rip Van Winkle. If it had been made 10 or 12 years ago, it would have seemed only five to 10 years out of date. Whose notion of “underground cinema” does it purvey? The ’60s’, of course. And all those tattooed-on-the-arm celluloid heroes? Ditto. I can’t believe you’d find many 20-somethings in the year 2000 who know the oeuvres of–much less give a toot about–Otto Preminger and William Castle. Both were cult faves of collegiate cine-nerds circa 1969.
And look who’s selling a mock-revolutionary pose in making Cecil B. Demented. Not only is Waters 54 years old, but he’s now as much a part of the system as his fellow Baltimorean Barry Levinson. (Cecil B. Demented comes to us from USA Films, which is owned by Universal.) Who does he think he’s kidding? The most giddily clueless thing about the movie is that it seems to think it’s a barb that will sting the gilded hide of Hollywood. If it were satirizing kids who imagine themselves as cinematic rebels, when all they’re doing is aping the radical chic of 35 years ago (which was a bit ridiculous to begin with), that would be one thing. But Waters’ sympathies and allegiances are actually with Cecil B. and his motley crew, as if they bore even a faint resemblance to present-day young film aficionados.
Of course they don’t. They’re part of an imaginary world in which independent filmmaking–a term never used in the film–simply doesn’t exist. Shooting on 16mm? That’s so retro, too, at a time when any would-be auteur can pick up a mini-DV camera and make a feature. In fact, all of Cecil B. Demented‘s reference points for “radical”–tattoos, gays, porn, what have you–are now all so thoroughly a part of mainstream culture that the movie’s own sensibility ends up seeming barely a step away from the shopping-mall, multiplex mindset it purports to detest.
What Cecil B. Demented gives us ultimately is further proof of how some revolutionaries survive, once their salad days have passed, as nostalgia merchants. Still, it’s hard not to retain a fondness for John Waters; from the era of Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos on, his love of sleaze and bourgie-tweaking sensationalism always had a true believer’s guileless exuberance. Of course, Almodovar, one of Waters’ heroes, started from similar premises and has continued to grow, turning out films in recent years that far surpass his early work in depth and humanity. But Almodovar clearly was willing to grow, where Waters has been content to endlessly recycle his childhood fetishes and fantasies. If anyone’s interested, that’s one definition of the difference between an artist and an entertainer.