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Media > Reckless Eyeballing

Troubling Waters

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the strangest of them all?

Alicia Witt as Cherish in Waters' Cecil B. Demented
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Published 8/16/2000

“The appeal of my movies?” repeats writer-director John Waters with a wry chuckle. “I think my audience has two things in common (with me): They have a really good sense of humor about themselves and a basic hatred of authority.

“I always root for the outsider,” he explains, “and when you make a movie you don’t have to be completely realistic. So I always choose subject matter that’s sometimes not funny in real life to make a comedy, and at the same time, all the people that lose in real life win in a John Waters movie.”

To put it simply, the world of a John Waters film is unlike any other, and the 54-year-old provocateur was American cinema’s gross-out king long before flying excrement and semen jokes became a Hollywood staple. Using his hometown of Baltimore, Md., as a sort of anti-Hollywood, he began making crude, low-budget social satires such as Mondo Trasho more than 30 years ago. The seminal Pink Flamingos, about the search for “the filthiest person alive,” became a hit on the midnight movie circuit and established Waters and his favorite performer, the outrageous drag queen Divine, as cult stars.

Movies such as Desperate Living were about the kind of marginal people rarely talked about in polite society, let alone featured in films. They were lewd, loud, vile, repulsive, and represented the sheer joy of bad taste. As Waters got older, his movies lost some of their rough edges, but maintained a sharp satirical outlook. Even his first foray into the mainstream, the sunny musical Hairspray (1988), contained his familiar flamboyant touches and dealt with the thorny subject of integration.

But his 15th film, Cecil B. DeMented, is being released just when popular culture has — for better and for worse — embraced his particular sensibility. In fact, America is coming more and more to resemble a John Waters movie.

“I’m not involved in the battle of film that’s going on now,” Waters says, “and it makes me laugh, with all the movies trying to out-gross each other. I still won. Nobody thought what happened to Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary was real. Everybody knows the end of Pink Flamingos (Divine eating dog excrement) was real. So I’ve gracefully retired from the gross-out wars. But, it’s true, American humor has gotten a lot closer to what I started out doing.

“That’s fine with me,” he continues. “It makes it easier to get my movies made. It makes it easier the next time I pitch a movie and I say some outrageous idea. They used to say, ‘You can’t have that!’ And now they say, ‘Make it weirder!’”

Cecil B. DeMented marked the first time a production company (the French media giant Canal+) told Waters to push the envelope even more. His reaction? “I felt like falling to my knees. That never ever happened on another movie, ever.”

He responded by giving one character, a porn actress turned film revolutionary, an ornate backstory about family trauma and granting her a “tirade of recovered memory.” Cecil B. DeMented, which Waters calls “my action movie for the Hollywood-impaired,” pokes fun at nearly every subject which was once considered taboo but is now a staple of television talk shows. But his biggest target is moviemaking itself.

Waters has benefited, he admits, from a climate where “every studio is looking for the next little weird movie.” Yet he’s created a tale of cinemaniacs who are openly contemptuous of an industry which regularly thwarts real innovation, and respond by kidnapping a Hollywood diva to star in a guerrilla production helmed by “prophet against profit” Cecil B. DeMented. (John Waters received this moniker in the press, which dubbed him the schlock Cecil B. DeMille. He took it as a compliment.)

“There’s irony involved,” says Waters via telephone from Washington, D.C. “I’m not the real Cecil B. DeMented. Right now I’m riding in a limo on a press tour. If I were the real Cecil B. DeMented, I’d be hitchhiking or pulling a carjack to get to my next interview.

“Nobody had to do anything (really extreme on this film),” he adds. “Melanie Griffith didn’t really have to set her hair on fire. In the old days, I probably would have asked her to do it for real.”

Even if his methods have changed, Cecil B. DeMented is fueled by the same anarchic fervor of early Waters films such as Female Trouble, while the kidnapping closely resembles the experience of his friend Patricia Hearst (who’s acted in his last four films).

“It was a tiny bit based on her, certainly,” explains Waters, “but it was also based on everything from the Manson family, Warhol, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, and the SDS to my early career. It was millions of different things put into one fantasy that if everybody’s taste in movies was so strong, it became political.

“Cecil B. DeMented,” John Waters says of his radical revolutionary alter ego, “is driven so insane by the desire to make films that he’s willing to die. So as long as you let Cecil make a movie, there’s no violence. But as soon as you try to stop his movie, there’s carnage.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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