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The Eleventh Commandment: Agit director Cecil B. DeMented (Stephen Dorff) declares that 'technique is only failed cinema' in John Waters' new film.

Burn, Hollywood, Burn

John Waters takes revenge on the mainstream movie in 'Cecil B. DeMented'

By Richard von Busack

MOVIES LIKE Battlefield Earth are a critic's field day. Movies like Cecil B. DeMented, by contrast, are a critic's holiday. Made exclusively for an audience of cinéastes punch-drunk after a summer's worth of garbage, John Waters' newest work is a furious but funny account of the underground film community making a last stand.

As the tough-minded critic Jonathan Rosenbaum put it, "These days, the avant-garde doesn't even show up to claim the body." The names dropped by Waters in Cecil B. DeMented--Sam Fuller, H.G. Lewis, Rainer Werner Fassbinder--more than ever represent the fading memories of a fading cult.

A certain amount of desperation must inform Waters' attack. Can today's teenagers, the target audience for movies, remember when the name "Cecil B. DeMille" really meant anything? I don't know why Waters didn't take the title for his film from the code name for the central kidnapping in his narrative: "The Big Snatch." That would have made a dandy double feature to show with Pecker.

THE TITLE SEQUENCE, scored to a boiling, anxious house-music sampling of classic film themes by Basil Poledouris, gives notice that Waters isn't going to be a nice guy this time. The opening offers a tour of Baltimore theater marquees. Some are burdened with the sad word "Closed." Others advertise the standard junk. One sixplex is showing Star Wars, Star Wars, Star Trek, Star Wars, Star Trek, Star Wars. Before our eyes, the titles fritz out, like the Nazi insignia on the wooden crate in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and are replaced with the names of the cast and crew.

The film begins, of course, in Baltimore. It's the evening of the premiere of Some Kind of Happiness. A typical day unfolds for the movie's star, Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), a day of tantruming and savaging her poor personal assistant, Libby (Ricki Lake). Tonight, however, will be no ordinary premiere. Some terrorists have disguised themselves as theater ushers and concessionaires, and they are lying in wait for Whitlock.

The terrorists are known as the Sprocket Hole Gang--a revolutionary cell like the Symbionese Liberation Army, with the names of their favorite directors inked on their skin. Their fierce ringleader (Stephen Dorff), who boasts the nom de guerre "Cecil B. DeMented," bears a Fraktur-lettered tattoo of the name "Awful Otto," after Preminger, the most vicious of all autocratic directors.

The gang members, holed up in an abandoned theater, are working on their new effort, a film provocation that combines cinema verité with didactic, Brechtian drama. "We believe 'technique' is only failed cinema," DeMented declares.

Armed with cameras as well as guns, they're ready to start making Raving Beauty, a tale of an art house bankrupted by multiplexes. The kidnapped Whitlock will play the art-house theater owner, turned to rampage--after a beauty makeover and a little help from both a cattle prod and the Stockholm Syndrome.

The Sprocket Hole Gang is sworn to celibacy until the project is completed--a nod to soft-core king Russ Meyer, who supposedly enforced the no-sex rule on his sets, perhaps to precipitate the feverish atmosphere of his movies.

One of the gang's first outrages is an assault on a miniplex showing Patch Adams--The Director's Cut. Reacting quickly, the Maryland Film Commission defies the attackers with a provocation of its own: the announcement that the sequel to Forrest Gump, titled Gump Again, will be filmed in Baltimore as scheduled. This act forces the gang's hand, leading to a climactic shoot-out at a drive-in theater.

NO ONE ELSE makes movies the way Waters does, so in a sense it's hard to tell how he could have improved Cecil B. DeMented. One obvious problem is the casting of Griffith. She has always been a wistful, tentative actress, despite her fine acting lately, especially her role as Charlotte Haze in the latest version of Lolita.

Some stars, like Kathleen Turner, possess a great instinct for low comedy. Griffith, by contrast, seems uncertain, too vulnerable, as if she didn't get the joke here and was afraid she might. She's a little disingenuous, then. Watching her, I kept thinking of a story I once heard about Darryl Hannah.

After she played the mermaid in Splash, Hannah said she wouldn't go on certain risqué talk shows to promote the movie because she feared that the hosts "might make fish jokes that I wouldn't understand." (That woman with the mermaid's name, Lorelei Lee, in Anita Loos' novel Gentleman Prefer Blondes, was arrested for murder after her husband "became shot" by her pistol--that's the only other time I've ever heard of a sensibility as delicate as Hannah's.)

Griffith worked for Jonathan Demme and Brian De Palma once, but that was a while ago. Mainstream films, such as the ones DeMented and his cadre want to destroy, are really Griffith's bread and butter. Thus, one of her funniest scenes finds her stepping out of her ditzy character and coolly reminding her firebrand captors of some hard facts about what the public wants and what the market will bear. Like a true dogmatic, DeMented ends the conversation right there and changes the subject.

I wish Waters could have snuck in some more dialectic as dialogue: a lecture during a chase, Godard-wise, explaining how the independent film scarcely exists; how, instead, there are low-budget movies made with typical Hollywood structures and compromises and released by boutique arms of the large studios.

Still, Cecil B. DeMented is made with the same irked, lowdown quality that Waters has shown throughout his career. It's a hardball, grimy film, and I loved it. The Sprocket Hole Gang displays Waters' great gift for casting an ensemble. Its members include Adrian Grenier as a skanky junkie leading man--a double for Danny Mills, the chicken plucker in Pink Flamingos. A bearded lady named Dinah (Harriet Dodge) gives the film some exoticness. Maggie Gyllenhaal is sweetly likable as the gang's punkette makeup artist and unofficial chaplain--a Satanist, of course.

Alicia Witt plays Cherish, a porn star whose newest film, Rear Entry, figures in the plot. In an excerpt from Rear Entry, Waters breaks the gerbil barrier in a rodent/human sex scene that fades the hamster rape in The Nutty Professor II.

(The excerpt we see of Rear Entry also gives Waters the opportunity to show off a personal joke. The best movies he's written always feature a moment in which a character says the title of the movie aloud, preferably looking straight into the camera--for example, Elizabeth Taylor in The Only Game in Town announcing, "Marriage is the only game in town--and we're going to play it.")

IN ADDITION to being Waters' angriest film since Pink Flamingos, Cecil B. DeMented seems perfectly timed. This summer's crop is ranker than last year's--doesn't that always seems to be the case?--and films like Gone in 60 Seconds and The Hollow Man weren't improved by exhibition in suburban multiplexes.

As you walk through those littered, bus-station-like hallways, elbowing past sugared-out teens who are likely as not pissed because they've been ripped off again, you're thinking, this isn't what the future of cinema was supposed to be like, was it?

Cecil B. DeMented, fanciful as it is, offers more than just balm for the film maniac, though. The film-as-politics metaphor rings true. Cecil B. DeMented outlines how revolutionary art and revolutionary politics resemble each other, as we see the artists making propaganda and common-causing it with other dispossessed. In Cecil B. DeMented, cult-film fanciers stand shoulder to shoulder with kung fu and porn fans. In this comic version of revolutionary struggle, the chances of triumph are low, but the fighters are dedicated to giving the world a show they'll never forget.

Cecil B. DeMented (R; 88 min.), directed and written by John Waters, photographed by Robert M. Stevens and starring Melanie Griffth and Stephen Dorff, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the August 17-23, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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