A Dirty Shame
Director : John Waters
Screenplay : John Waters
MPAA Rating : NC-17
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Tracey Ullman (Sylvia Stickles), Johnny Knoxville (Ray-Ray), Chris Isaak (Vaughn Stickles), Selma Blair (Caprice Stickles), Suzanne Shepherd (Big Ethel), Mink Stole (Marge the Neuter), Paul DeBoy (Wendell Doggett), Wes Johnson (Fat Fuck Frank), Alan J. Wendl (Officer Alvin)
There are a few things you can always count on in a John Waters movie. The soundtrack will be composed largely of obscure 1960s music. Mink Stole will have a role. No matter how much the budget was, it will still look cheap. And there will be some bluenose complaining about the disgusting behavior of Waters’ heroes.
“Oh, it’s a sick world,” one character grouses in Waters’ latest bad-taste opus, A Dirty Shame, and you can almost hear Waters cackling joyfully behind the camera, “Oh, yes it is—and isn’t it wonderful?” A Dirty Shame, which wears its NC-17 rating like a badge of honor, revels nonstop in the kinds of fringe sexual behaviors that bluenoses would definitely call “sick,” but it’s done with such an air of breezy silliness that it’s hard to find offensive. Maybe it’s the ultimate proof of today’s Jackass/South Park culture having finally surpassed him that Waters’ fetishistic obsessions seem charming now, rather than threatening. Part of this is certainly due to Waters himself and how he has embraced camp over anarchy. His midnight trash epics of the 1970s were laced with a genuine sense of anger that made their shocking visuals ring. More than 30 years later, he’s softened, even if his subject matter has not.
A Dirty Shame is a typical Waters concoction about a battle between a group of liberated sex addicts and the “neuters” who look down not just on their lewd sexual behavior, but sexual behavior in general. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out whose side Waters comes down on because, if there’s one thing he hates, it’s a hypocrite, and the ultimate hypocrite is someone who professes to hate sex because, well, what could be more natural than sex? Waters’ movies always side with the outsiders of society, those who offend for reasons both legitimate (the characters who want to racially integrate a Baltimore dance show in 1988’s Hairspray) or illegitimate (the gross-out mavens vying for the title of “Filthiest Person Alive” in 1972’s Pink Flamingos).
The protagonist of A Dirty Shame is Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a frumpy, repressed Baltimore housewife who rejects any sexual advances from her frustrated, air-head husband (Chris Isaak) and then chastises him when he, um, takes matters into his own hand. Sylvia is keeping her teenager daughter, Caprice (Selma Blair), under house arrest because of her activities at the local biker bar, which involves her stripping and showing off her “criminally enlarged” breasts, which earned her the stage name “Ursula Udders.”
One morning, Sylvia gets clunked on the head, and the resulting concussion turns her into a sex fiend. (This also gives the film its most amusing retro sequences, where Waters edits together blurry, bizarre footage from old nudie films to visualize her change of heart.) Sylvia’s transformation (or, to keep with the movie’s religious satire, “conversion”) aligns her with a group of sex addicts led by tow-truck driver Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), a messianic leader who has the power to heal and can literally set Sylvia’s crotch on fire just by looking at it. Ray-Ray’s followers all adhere to a specific kind of sexual deviation, much the way Waters’ heroic rebel filmmaker Cecil B. DeMemented’s followers were each aligned with a groundbreaking movie director. So, we get a trio of “bears,” who are large, hairy, homosexual men who like other large, hairy, homosexual men; a police officer who’s into infantilism, which means he spends most of the movie dressed up in Victorian-era baby clothes; and a “splosher” who likes pouring food on her privates. Each of these sexual variations is carefully catalogued for the audience, thus making A Dirty Shame double as both a comedy and some kind of demented educational film.
The neuters are led by Sylvia’s even more repressed mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), who hardly needs to be surrounded by bears and sploshers to be offended. She gathers the other neuters at her corner convenience store to hold a morality rally, which doesn’t amount to much more than a bunch of straight-laced tightwads complaining about all the lascivious behavior that’s been going on in their otherwise respectable neighborhood. Meanwhile, the sex addicts heed Ray-Ray’s enthusiastic admonition to “Go sexin’!,” which essentially means terrorizing the neighborhood with their libidinal antics. Waters ups the ante by depicting these extreme forms of sexuality in religious terms, with Sylvia as the 12th apostle who is destined to produce a new form of carnality never seen before, which builds up an anticipation for an act that Waters can’t possibly deliver on and stay within the limits of legality.
Longtime admirers of Waters’ manic filmmaking career will find much to admire in A Dirty Shame, particularly since Waters comes closer to fully indulging his love of bad taste than he has since 1977’s Desperate Living. The humor is more goofy than outright hilarious, though, with Waters constantly goosing the audience for a reaction with adolescent visual pranks like phallic hedges, trees with bark that resembles genitals, and the giddy joy of hearing respectable-looking people saying very dirty things (you can almost picture Waters congratulating himself at his typewriter every time he came up with another clever term to describe a sexual act).
Since moving into mainstream PG-rated material with 1988’s Hairspray and 1990’s Cry-Baby, Waters has been making each of his films starting with 1994’s Serial Mom a little bit raunchier. But, much as its NC-17 rating seems to declare it as such, A Dirty Shame is not exactly a true return to form because Waters will never be able to go back to the home-movie anarchy that characterized his earlier work unless he completely ditches his Hollywood ties, something I don’t see him doing at this point. Rather, A Dirty Shame is much like listening to someone skilled at the art of telling dirty jokes: Even if the joke itself isn’t really all that funny, it’s sure fun to listen to the person telling it.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Fine Line Cinema