Cecil B. DeMented
Screenplay : John Waters
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Melanie Griffith (Honey Whitlock), Stephen Dorff (Cecil B. DeMented), Adrian Grenier (Lyle), Alicia Witt (Cherish), Larry Gilliard Jr. (Lewis), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Raven), Jack Noseworthy (Rodney), Michael Shannon (Petie), Harriet Dodge (Dinah), Zenzele Uzoma (Chardonnay), Eric M. Barry (Fidget), Erika Lynn Rupli (Pam), Mink Stole (Mrs. Mallory), Patricia Hearst (Fidget's Mother
I am always somewhat leery of films in which the characters too obviously function as the mouthpiece of the filmmaker. I am, of course, not naive enough to believe that movie characters are (or should be) completely independent of the writers and directors who create them. Characters in art, from literature to the movies, have often functioned to push the ideology of their particular creators. The trick is doing so without being too obvious about it.
This is the primary problem with John Waters' deranged comedy, Cecil B. DeMented. The titular character, a renegade terrorist filmmaker with an axe to grind against mainstream cinema, spends the majority of the film screaming and ranting his ideological maxims, which, not coincidentally, match perfectly with Waters' own views: "Power to the people! Perish bad cinema!"
There is so little difference between DeMented's point of view and Waters' that one has to wonder what the point was in creating a fictional character. Waters should have just starred in the movie as himself. Even DeMented's name is an allusion to Waters, as it comes from an early reviewer's nickname for Waters. Thus, DeMented is not so much a character as he is Waters' idealized version of himself: a terrorist who fights against the conformity of Hollywood and the co-option of his once radical crudity.
DeMented is played by Stephen Dorff, and to Dorff's credit, he makes DeMented a consistently watchable character. As with all of Waters' films, his dialogue is ludicrous and over the top, but Dorff manages to make it sound almost believable (the only actor who could truly spout Waters' insane dialogue with truthful conviction was Divine).
The story follows DeMented and his band of guerilla terrorist filmmakers, nicknamed the Sprocket Holes, as they kidnap a bitchy cinema diva named Honey Whitlock from the Baltimore premiere of her latest Hollywood movie, Some Kind of Happiness and convince her to become one of them by starring in DeMented's film, which is about (what else?) a group of cinema terrorists who hate Hollywood filmmaking. Honey resists at first, but once her hair is bleached out and she is wearing 10 pounds of black eye make-up and dressed in leather and spandex with a gun in hand, she quickly begins spouting DeMented's cinematic ideology.
DeMented and his crew, unhappy with traditional production processes, make their film an "Ultimate Reality," which involves actually terrorizing theater patrons viewing Patch Adams: The Director's Cut and breaking up a meeting of the Maryland Film Board, which has just announced that the sequel to Forrest Gump, Gump Again (with Kevin Nealon taking over Tom Hanks' role), will begin filming in Baltimore. DeMented's filmmaking techniques are not too far removed from those used by Waters in the early days, when he was almost arrested while making Mondo Trasho (1969) for filming a nude man on the Johns Hopkins University campus.
Cecil B. DeMented is, in many ways, the culmination of Waters' more-than-three decades of making films. Known primarily for his camp appeal and voracious ability to capture bad taste at its worst (saying a Waters movie is in bad taste is like commenting that the sky is blue), he has always had a violent undercurrent cutting through his movies.
From the George A. Romero-inspired cannibal scene in Pink Flamingos (1972) to Divine's admonition that "Crime is beauty" in Female Trouble (1975), Waters has always had a fetish for violence. He even wrote a chapter in his 1995 book Shock Value titled "Why I Love Violence." While most people think of him as the guy who had Divine eat dog feces on camera, he is also the guy who consistently visited members of the Charles Manson family in jail and proclaimed that he always knew he would either be a filmmaker or a mad bomber.
In a sense, he became both, as his films have functioned over the years much like bombs lobbed into the complacent sphere of bourgeois good taste. The fact that the Farrelly Brothers, Jim Carrey, and the Wayans have, over the last few years, caused bad taste to enter into the ranks of normality have made Waters' job that much more difficult, and has consequently made his most recent films (notably 1994's Serial Mom and 1998's Pecker) seems almost tame by comparison. Waters is obviously well-aware of this predicament, and at one point he screams through DeMented's character about how Hollywood has co-opted his sex and violence, thus the only thing left is cinema terrorism.
Cecil B. DeMented has the same loose, outrageously amateurish tone of Waters' other movies, and despite continually escalating budgets, his movies never look like they cost very much money. Waters tries to maintain his knack for the offensive, especially in a scene that depicts a theater full of, um, active, men watching a hard-core porn flick called Rear Entry that involves a hamster. Most of the scene relies on suggestion rather than in-your-face detail, and the fact that Waters avoids a "money shot" with the hamster is testament to either a) his admitted mellowing with age, or b) the studio's refusal to grant him an NC-17 movie, a rating that all of his early-'70s films now carry.
Still, one cannot argue that Waters has become too mellow. The mere fact that he made a movie with a narrative that reflects the kidnapping and brainwashing ordeal of Patty Hearst and has Hearst starring in one of the roles says something. His attempts at mainstream humor, such as mocking Patch Adams, is too easy and doesn't work at all. He gets solid laughs in a scene where Mink Stole, the only person to have appeared in every one of his films, plays a society woman who is trying to raise money for sick children while a child in a wheelchair glowers and makes faces behind her. Cinephiles will also get a kick out of Waters' placement of cinema references, especially the fact that each of DeMented's crew members has the name of an "acceptable" director tattooed on his or her body (these include Sam Peckinpah, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Spike Lee, Rainer Fassbinder, and Otto Preminger).
However, the scene in which each of DeMented's crew members walks by and shows his or her tattoo to Honey is instructive in showing what is essentially wrong with Cecil B. DeMented. Like the movie as a whole, the scene leaves us with less of the sensation that this display of tattoos somehow defines these people as characters, and more of a feeling that the scene is really about wish fulfillment for Waters. In effect, the movie is really about how Waters would love to have all of those names tattooed on his own body.
©2000 James Kendrick