Cecil B. Demented
directed by John Waters
(Artisan, 2000)

As if jokes about Satanism, heterosexuality, homosexuality, celibacy, violence, death, religion of any sort and terrorism weren't enough, director John Waters has a little extra twist to add to the insanity: Cecil B. Demented, his take on the ultra-underground indie movie world, manages to offend everyone equally while its humor, when it's on, is prime, over-the-top vintage Waters audacity.

Full of irony and aggressive absurdity, Demented is Waters' tribute to actors who really mean it when they say they'd die for their art. It's a tribute to the indie movies that wouldn't be caught dead at Sundance Film Festival -- not that Sundance would invite them. And it's full of the little inside jokes and asides the Baltimore-based Waters has perfected.

His band of over-the-edge actors, cultishly following their director Demented (Stephen Dorff), masterminds the kidnapping of Hollywood goddess Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith). Their plan is to force her to become one of them, star in their outlaw movie and encourage her to turn against the evils of the big-screen, big-budget American movie. Accordingly, they infiltrate the staff of a Baltimore theater that's hosting a Heart Association benefit screening of Honey's movie. When she arrives, they spring into action, brandishing guns, tossing explosives and terrorizing the good folks of Baltimore. As a mean-spirited, wretched little heart patient on stage giggles, the evening's emcee gasps beside him, dying of a heart attack.

Now: who better to appear in a film about a rich woman kidnapped by terrorists, used by them, tutored by them and turned against "the system" by them? Well, if you're Waters, Patty Hearst, late of the SLA, comes to mind. Hearst has been in Waters films before, but never has her role been so apropos. Here, she's not the kidnapee, just the worried mom of one of the kidnappers. Yet it's a great inside jab that probably will be lost on lots of people under 30.

As with most Waters films, it's full of great lines that are absolutely absurd. When Honey meets her castmates, all of whom are sex-starved assistants who have vowed to be "celibate for celluloid," none of them are what you would call standard-issue. "Hi," she's greeted by one young woman. "I'm Raven, I'm a Satanist and I'll be doing your makeup."

What follows is guerilla movie-making, as Honey is forced into one public set-up after another, blasting her way into theaters, press conferences and public spaces as the cameras roll. It's the only way, Demented argues, to make a truly independent film. "Hollywood stole our sex and violence," he says. "There's nothing left for us but this." And slowly, slowly, Honey turns, becoming a fellow "prophet against profit" and a full, branded member of the band.

As Demented, Dorff (I Shot Andy Warhol) is an antic maniac, half demigod, half megalomaniac with a movie conviction that usurps all other allegiances. As Honey, Griffith sometimes is the weak link. Though it could be either her acting or her character's relative normalcy -- she's a diva, but she doesn't have her favorite director's name tattooed on her neck, after all -- in the midst of crudeness that makes her less interesting. She is playing an actress who's good, but no Meryl Streep, and it's a good fit for her.

Baltimore plays a sometimes unwitting, unflattering role, as it has in other Waters movies, and familiar faces like Ricki Lake and Mink Stole make welcome appearances. And, as vintage Waters goes, Demented is rude, crude, obnoxious, off-the-wall humor. All you Waters fans, rejoice.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 16 October 2001

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