Tucked somewhere in my files is a stapled sheaf of Xeroxed pages I call The Reject Rules, which I found on the floor in the film department while attending college. No doubt dropped by an angry young film student, it’s composed of a list of whiny fanboy proclamations (in all-caps type). For example: WE REJECT THE CINEMA OF STEPHEN SPIELBERG! and WE REJECT THE COMMERCE-DRIVEN FASCIST HOLLYWOOD STUDIO SYSTEM! I take it out once in a while for a chuckle.
Stephen Spielberg wasn’t handed the keys to Hollywood as a youngster and bid: “Go and pander to the lowest common denominator!” He worked his way up after making movies in his back yard, going to school, working low-level jobs, directing TV shows. Eventually he was able to land a job directing some shark monster movie. It made tons of money. People gave him tons of money to make more, and they still do. And he still just makes the movies he’d like to see himself. In turn, if American Graffiti had flopped, George Lucas would probably be making commercials today.
John Waters knows all this. He didn’t make Pink Flamingoes and Female Trouble because a studio executive turned him away and the government censored his vision. He made the movies he did because he wanted to. If he’d had more money, they would’ve looked different and might have been less hassle to make – Divine would have had lunch with a professionally trained dog instead of a street stray – but they still would’ve been his own movies and they still would have found an audience.
In Cecil B. DeMented, Waters at last answers those who say he’s sold out now that he’s making better financed (but still modestly-budgeted) features. Below the in-focus, cleanly-recorded surface, it’s still a Waters film, boiling over with snarky satire.
The title sequence, backed by a throbbing Moby track, sets the theme, the titles superimposed on the fading marquees of once proud film palaces and grindhouses. It’s a sad site – the old theaters and drive-ins are getting dangerously scarce. While hunting for drive-ins across the Midwest this summer, I was often greeted in my queries with looks of incredulity, as if locals had no concept of what I was looking for.
Stephen Dorff (Blade) stars as Cecil, an usher at an old Baltimore movie theater seething with rage at all the putrid Hollywood product he’s had to see all his life. He – like so many others – intends to make the kind of movies he wants to see. At the same time, he wants to send a message of rejection to the Hollywood that’s plagued him. And he’s willing to die for it.
He gathers his fellow theater workers together into a gang of terrorists/crew called the Sprocket Holes, operating out of an old warehouse. Since everyone knows that you need a known name to get any kind of attention for your film, the Holes kidnap film star Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) from the premiere of her latest picture, and forces her to act in their film.
Cecil stages a series of daring raids/shoots, setting scenes in real locations and capturing verite performances from “real people in real terror”. These scenes cleverly parallel Waters own early adventures filming Divine as he freaked out citizens along every boulevard in Baltimore. Honey’s performances during these scenes are a convincing enough that she’s perceived by the media and public to be in cahoots with the gang from the beginning. Gaining more attention than she’s had in years, Honey is seduced by the excitement and glamor of being an outlaw and soon joins the gang for real, even taking part in a branding ritual. Though Cecil rebels against the rules and regulations of the Hollywood system, the first thing he does is make a list of strict rules for his own productions (including celibacy for all), expecting unquestioning loyalty from his crew and criticizing union productions. He prides himself on “no budget”, but needs to steal to finance his film.
Unlike other filmmaking send-ups like Bowfinger, Waters still knows how to go too far, taking the situation to its logical conclusion. Cecil’s real terror leads to real gun battles with edgy policemen, and his crew dwindles with every encounter. Will Cecil live to finish the film?
While Waters successfully lampoons both the Hollywood elite and the so-called underground, though his fantasies carry him away at some points. When Cecil and company go to a multiplex to shoot (with live rounds) scenes of violent protest, the theater they end up in is more of a mini-mall. Running from their raids, the gang takes refuge in porn theaters and kung fu grindhouses, the very types of theaters whose disappearance they’re supposed to be protesting. Cecil even stages his fiery climax in a quaint old drive-in. With these places around every corner, just what is he fighting against?
Outside of a few tattoos of directors unknown to the average viewer, we’re given little idea of what type of film he approves of, just the ridiculous extremes of what he’s fighting against. Would even the most fervent fan of Forrest Gump like to see a sequel starring Kevin Nealon?
Waters also has race trouble. Despite filling the soundtrack with sharp raps (supposedly performed by black Sprocket Holes), it’s really not his thing and his discomfort is discernible.
Waters may lose his way here and there, but Cecil B. DeMented still manages to nail a lot of targets. A funny scene involves companions rolling their eyes at porn star Alicia (Urban Legend) Witt’s outrageous “hidden memories” of childhood abuse. An engorged porn house audience shuffles to Cecil’s defense like zombies. And Waters regular Patricia Hearst is on hand again, this time playing the distraught mother of a youth seduced into the terrorist gang.
Sloppy and scattershot, this is nevertheless a return to Waters’ early spark, despite the R rating. He’s once again setting his outcast underdog heroes in a crazy world where giant lobsters could leap out of the woodwork at any moment to assault unsuspecting housewives.
Ironically, the screening I attended was preceded by a “trailer” for the Chicago Underground Film Festival, which succeeded in annoying everyone – including Festival staffers in attendance (though I doubt they’d admit it). CUFF is a growing annual event, recognized internationally, that showcases amateur film and video productions by filmmakers operating outside the wicked commercial world. CUFF is funded by several corporate sponsors, and also celebrates cult directors. What used to be known as “underground film” doesn’t really exist as such anymore, but it sounds cooler than “amateur” and CAFF doesn’t have the same ring to it.