Judge Erick Harper, who is not our resident John Waters fan, nevertheless takes the case of the latest film of the master of gross-out humor. He finally found the ticket to making the most despicable movie ever: cast Melanie Griffith. That is, it's the most despicable movie until the live-action version of "Scooby Doo," starring Melanie Griffith.
"Lots of kids dream about making a movie, but only the ones willing to die for it succeed."
John Waters (Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos, Pecker) is in the minds of many people the ultimate independent filmmaker. He has built a reputation on a body of work where nothing is sacred and nothing is taboo. In a John Waters film the bizarre, the offensive and the absurd are embraced with relish.
In Cecil B. Demented, Waters takes aim at Hollywood and its parade of bland, formulaic, outright bad movies. He takes equal aim at the pretentious, fiercely "indie" filmmakers who value style or making a statement and remaining independent far more than they value making good (or even watchable) films. He turns plenty of his ammunition against himself; there is a good deal of Waters in the title character. As is typical for a John Waters film, bad taste abounds; it is not for nothing that Waters is called the Pope of Trash.
Facts of the Case
All of Baltimore society has turned out for a charity benefit opening of Some Kind of Happiness, the new screwball romantic comedy starring Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith—Working Girl, Another Day in Paradise, Milk Money). Little do they know that the majestic Senator Theater has been infiltrated by underground cinema director Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff—Blade, Backbeat, I Shot Andy Warhol) and his band of guerrilla filmmakers, the Sprocket Holes. At the appointed hour, just as Honey is about to take the stage, Demented and his compatriots strike. They kidnap Honey and whisk her away to their secret base of operations in the run-down Hippodrome Theater. Their plan is to force her to star in Raving Beauty, their underground movie, a manifesto against mainstream cinema and Hollywood commercialism. Cecil embraces a unique filmmaking style he calls "ultimate reality" which he says is about "real life…and real terror."
As production on Raving Beauty continues, Cecil and his film cultists have increasingly violent confrontations with multiplex owners, the Maryland film commission, a "family films" coalition, the police, and the Teamsters. They attack a shopping mall multiplex that is showing Patch Adams: The Director's Cut. They wreak havoc on the set of Gump Again, the Baltimore-based sequel to Forrest Gump, starring Kevin Nealon. Honey participates unwillingly at first, but soon she is seduced by the passion of Cecil and the Sprocket Holes, takes their cause as her own, and declares that she too is "Demented Forever." Their crusade against mainstream movies and bad cinema eventually leads to a fiery showdown with the law at a drive-in theater showing a Honey Whitlock triple-bill and lookalike contest.
Where Cecil B. Demented succeeds, it does so on the strength of Stephen Dorff's performance in the title role. Dorff is irresistible as Cecil; his passion for his filmmaking vision leaps off the screen and grabs the viewer. It is not hard to see why Honey Whitlock pulls a Patty Hearst and embraces the ideals of her captors. This character is also the source of some of the best humor in the movie, as we realize the crashing absurdity of the film Cecil is trying to make.
Another good performance comes from Alicia Witt (Urban Legend, Mr. Holland's Opus, Dune) as Cherish, a famous porn star who has seen the light and dedicated herself to Cecil's vision. Her performance is delightfully over the top and campy. The role as written is classic Waters, especially in one sequence where the character explains her "recovered memories" that account for her career choice.
In another classic Waters touch, Patty Hearst (Pecker, Serial Mom, Cry-Baby) herself makes a cameo appearance as the mother of one of Cecil's crewmembers. It's hard to imagine anyone more perfect, given the storyline.
Artisan has assembled a respectable collection of extra content for this DVD. Extensive production notes are provided, as well as a collection of cast and crew biographies that are impressive both in sheer numbers and in their completeness. Waters is nothing if not loyal to his friends; many of the people involved in this movie have been with him since his earliest filmmaking days in Baltimore, and the biographies highlight these connections. Also included are two theatrical trailers and two TV spots.
This disc also contains Comedy Central's "Canned Ham: Cecil B. Demented Behind the Scenes Special." This special aired on Comedy Central prior to the movie's theatrical release. It runs for 22 minutes and features Waters heavily, talking about this movie as well as his career in general and connections to his previous movies. Stephen Dorff and Alicia Witt also join Waters to discuss their experiences in making the movie and their impressions of the self-proclaimed "filth elder."
The centerpiece feature is a commentary track by Waters himself. I was struck by his deep knowledge of and affection for underground and offbeat films and filmmakers. Indeed, each of the Sprocket holes bears a tattoo of the name of a famous individualistic filmmaker: Preminger, Peckinpah, Almodóvar, Fassbinder. Waters has studied them all, has written about some, and knows others personally. Also through the commentary Waters shows a great nostalgia for the Baltimore theaters of his childhood, movie houses that used to specialize in certain genres such as action and martial arts, blaxploitation, even porn. Waters was very informative and engaging throughout the commentary, revealing many inside jokes and connections to his earlier movies. For a Waters novice like myself, the commentary was a very useful introduction to his personality and body of work. The best commentary tracks are the ones that give insight into the mind and personality of the filmmakers, and explain the decisions they make in the creative process, and this track is very good in that respect.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This movie raises a lot of questions that I frequently ask myself in my work here at the Verdict. Simply put, what is a good movie? Is it one that people enjoy, even if it is completely false and soulless? Is it one that tries to find nuggets of deep human truth, even at the expense of telling an interesting or entertaining story? In short, are movies art or entertainment, and what is the line between the two? Is art merely a term for anything that is done by someone who chooses to call himself an artist, regardless of its appeal or apparent merit? Cecil B. Demented stumbles onto these questions and does not attempt to answer them; this is probably for the best, because any answer would tend to reflect badly on this movie. In his attempt to skewer both schools of filmmaking, Waters has to walk a fine line and not let his movie stray into either side.
This might have worked, had it not been for Waters's unique conceits. Waters is part voyeur, part exhibitionist, and revels in putting things on screen that will make "normal" people uncomfortable. He does this at least partly to add his own unique texture to the movie, but he also does it for shock value, or titillation, or just because he can. It is one of the major downfalls of Cecil B. Demented that Waters spends more time trying to be devilishly witty and throwing in things to satisfy his own taste for the absurd than he does developing the plot or characters. It's as if Cheech and Chong remade Ed Wood.
The film suffers from an overabundance of supporting characters, and as a result most are underdeveloped. We get to know them in an awkward "Mouseketeer Roll Call" scene where they introduce themselves one by one to Honey and show off their auteur tattoos. We know them only in a form of shorthand: the gay guy, the druggie, the black woman, the woman with a beard, the geek, the Satanist, and so on.
While most of the actors are given very little to do, Melanie Griffith is given one of the largest parts in the movie, and is uniformly annoying throughout. Her early scenes as the pampered starlet are overacted and unconvincing, and she improves only slightly when Honey is taken into captivity. I found her baby-talk voice and halting delivery irritating throughout the movie. [Editor's Note: Is Melanie Griffith ever anything but annoying?]
Cecil B. Demented comes to us in anamorphic widescreen, in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture is a very mixed bag. Outdoor and brightly lit scenes are crisp and clear, with bright, faithful colors. Scenes taking place indoors or in anything other than direct sunlight are quite grainy, and colors are accurate but a bit washed out. .
The audio on this disc is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound is generally thin and muddled. Sound effects such as gunshots lack clarity and sharpness. Dialogue is generally clear and understandable, but sounds flat and hollow at times. Surround and directional effects are for the most part absent, with the rear channels used primarily for the musical soundtrack.
Cecil B. Demented has been hailed as a sort of manifesto, a wake-up call for Hollywood to stop making insipid, bland, brainless movies. Waters has created what could have been a very smart, very funny double parody of both the Hollywood machine and those who rail against it. In the end, he manages to create a movie that is the worst of both worlds; Cecil B. Demented is not mainstream or commercial, is too slick and high-budget to be truly underground, and for the most part fails as a statement or as entertainment. Devotees of Waters' films will no doubt want to purchase this for their collections, and they probably will not be disappointed. For anyone else I would recommend a more cautious approach. If you are really dying to experience John Waters, rent this as a beginner's introduction to his movies; you may wonder what all the fuss was about.
I find the movie and John Waters guilty; he most likely would prefer it that way. Artisan is acquitted on the strength of a solid collection of extra material, although the sound and picture quality could have been better.
We stand adjourned.
A final, personal note: If ever we needed someone like Cecil B. Demented, the time is now. As I prepare this review, I have just learned that the live-action Fat Albert movie has gotten the green light, and is considered a potential franchise for Fox. The live-action Scooby-Doo movie is already well underway. Hollywood continues to crank out mindless dreck adapted from classic sitcoms and endless sequels to dead franchises. Can Gump Again really be all that far behind?
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