Saturday, 19 May 2012

Cecil B. Demented (2000)

Dir. John Waters
Starring: Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier

To commence any cinematic exploration of Maryland, one would have to start with something by John Waters. Baltimore’s own maverick film-maker has been producing work close to his heart (and close to his house) since the ‘70s. His work includes 1972’s Pink Flamingos (famous for the scene in which transvestite Divine eats dog faeces), 1988’s Hairspray (starring Ricki Lake which later spawned a musical remake), and 1990’s Cry-Baby (with Johnny Depp). I could have watched any of those movies, but I was recommended to seek out the more recent Cecil B. Demented.
Cecil B. Demented can be seen as Waters’ testament. It is his chance to take a pop at all those things about Hollywood / the studios / mainstream American cinema that irk him. In it Hollywood star Honey Whitlock (an exceptionally game Melanie Griffith) is kidnapped by the eponymous Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff) and his gang of guerrilla film-makers (the SprocketHoles). They aim to cast her in a piece of agitprop cinema outside control of the big studios. They are devoted to the great auteurs of world cinema and believe that movies should be art – which means that it might well be offensive, tasteless, violent, pornographic and, well, un-popular. At first Honey is held against her will. However, as shooting (in all senses of the word) progresses she realises that the old her had a reputation as an unlikeable, diva-ish hack actress. The knives are already out for her. And so she resolves to go for it, and give the performance of her life. She even contributes her own ”vision” of what they should be doing – in her case, invading the set of a Forrest Gump sequel, ‘Gump Forever’.
This shows the sort of enemy Cecil and his demented followers have identified. When Fidget (Eric Barry) wavers and wants to return to his parents, the other SprocketHoles remind him of his folks’ bad taste: “Just remember, your parents liked Godzilla…They wouldn’t even let you see R-rated films as a child… They’ve never even been to a midnight movie… They enjoy classic TV sitcoms turned into feature-length films… They’ve never rented a porno movie… And to top it all off, they talk out loud in the theatre once the feature has begun.” Even Honey agrees that that last trait “really is unforgivable”. There are plenty of other pot-shots along the way: Pauly Shore marathons, multiplexes showing nothing but Star Wars or Star Trek, the director’s cut of Patch Adams, the Flintstones sequel, directors who take classic European films and then remake them for an American audience (prompting said director to splutter that American audiences will not read subtitles). The Moving Picture Association of America (“Hey, hey, MPAA – how many films have you censored today?”) and the Baltimore Film Commission get extra special ribbings. Basically, if it’s safe or unadventurous or mainstream or – heaven forbid! – popular it is precisely the sort of thing that Cecil and his SprocketHoles hate.
So what do they love? Well, they have their agitprop-y slogans: “I’m a prophet against profit!”, “Technique is nothing more than failed style!”, “Family is just a dirty word for censorship!” The SprocketHoles worship those directors who, like Cecil, imprint their works with their own personal vision and style: Otto Preminger, Andy Warhol, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Kenneth Anger, Pedro Almodovar, Sam Peckinpah, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The gang comprises the outcasts and unmentionables – drug addicts (Adrian Grenier), ex-porn actresses (Alicia Witt), satanists (Maggie Gyllenhall), homosexual rednecks (Mike Shannon), and heterosexuals ashamed of their heterosexuality (Jack Noseworthy). And in key segments they are helped by kung fu movie fans, the occupants of a porn theatre and an ironic student crowd at a drive-in cinema. If something could ever possibly be described as a ‘cult movie’ then it is certainly in the good books of this cult of movie-makers – appropriately enough as John Waters revels in his reputation as a cult movie-maker. There are elements of his own cult style in there. Regular collaborator Ricki Lake (yes, the chat-show hostess) appears as Honey’s publicist, and Fidget’s mother is played by Patty Hearst (the heiress who was, in real life, kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Front and later joined them in their activities – a clear influence upon the story here).

Shooting in Baltimore: Melanie Griffith becomes a cinema terrorist

Overall though, this is Waters let loose with a big budget. No more small-town stories, this has a huge cast, a Hollywood star, guns, explosions, car-chases and stunts. One might almost say that this is John Waters going mainstream. Hollywood movies are all about action rather than personal dynamics, and I would say that this film is, yes, an action movie. Laced with plenty of humour along the way. This is Waters’ own Blues Brothers (though with fewer musical numbers and, if I’m honest, better jokes). So it is not quite as revolutionary as Waters, I think, intends it to be.
What have I leant about Maryland?
It seems to be all about the seafood here. Honey is sick of the crab cakes and steamed crabs. Later, the movie execs literally get sick on oysters.
I get the feeling that Baltimore’s style is not for everyone. Honey is furious when a white limousine is sent to pick her up. Obviously though, Waters celebrates the quirkiness of the city’s inhabitants, from the extremes of the SprocketHoles’ various personalities, to the dinginess of its porn cinemas, and to the zeitgeist-y irreverence of the drive-in’s patrons.
Oh, and obviously the Baltimore Film Commission has quite a lot of sway. They are portrayed as wanting to attract movies to shoot in the city.
Can we go there?
As one might expect from a John Waters film, the entire movie was shot on location in Baltimore. Honey Whitlock is at first ensconced (in the Presidential Suite) of the Harbor Court Hotel, before she is kidnapped from the Senator Theatre (currently closed for renovations). The Hippodrome (now the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center) was used for the gang’s lair. And Bengies Drive-In was used for the film’s climax.
Overall Rating: 3/5

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