Now available: John Waters' 2004 paean to perversion A Dirty Shame
Synopsis: An accident transforms stodgy suburbanite Sylvia Stickles (Tracy Ullman) into a sex addict, propelling her to the center of a Baltimore culture war. ---
Rating: 5 / 5
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Remarks: A Dirty Shame represents John "The Pope of Trash" Waters' triumphant return to his gloriously filthy cinematic roots.
The commercial success of Hairspray (1988) -- along with the sudden death of leading drag performer Divine -- marked the beginning of the auteur's er, "mainstream" period, if you can call it that.
Not that there's anything wrong with Hairspray, Pecker, Serial Mom, Cry-Baby and Cecil B. Demented. They all retain something of the joyously warped sensibility that is the trademark of Water's earlier films -- it's just a little more subtextual, is all. (The exigencies of Hollywood contracts written by servile MPAA bootlickers tend to leave scenes featuring certain Watersesque elements -- yodeling assholes, giant rapist lobsters, etc. -- on the cutting-room floor. And anyway, Waters was learning that PG or R ratings opened up a whole new world of audiences to shock.)
But longtime fans always knew he'd come back to his roots. The world of sexual fetishes and perversions is richer and more varied than we know -- and, at its heart, A Dirty Shame is a litany of kink.
The central conflict in nearly all Waters' films is a parody of the classic sociological battle between deviance and established norms.
In this case, the deviants are sex addicts who, having overrun most of Baltimore, are encroaching upon a "nice" suburban street to the chagrin of its established residents. A citizens' brigade is formed, and a culture war ensues.
This movie could almost be described as a remake of Pink Flamingos with a better budget. Its impossibly, crazily, wonderfully depraved Baltimore -- capable of spawning a messianic sex cult -- seems like Waters' nostalgic return to the Baltimore of Flamingos, with its rival factions of ambitious degenerates.
Of course, Waters has matured a lot as a filmmaker since then. His sense of humor has, relatively speaking, acquired some subtlety without losing its wickedness. Among the small touches that make this film so amusing is the goofy family of three growling, burly, half-dressed gay men -- a hilarious send-up of the gay bear subculture. It's just chock full of amusing and visually stunning conceits -- subliminal messages, delirium-sequences that occur when characters get hit on the head, flashback imagery recounting how they got hit on the head, etc. -- making it the weirdest John Waters flick since Multiple Maniacs.
Today's hysterical conviction that everything must be made suitable for children has only produced a world that is unsuitable for adults. Deviancy hasn't disappeared -- it's just a lot better organized these days.
So maybe this film isn't so much about nostalgia for some lost Golden Age of Sleaze, but about life in a faux-sanitized era when even traditional sex acts are still fodder for controversy. Our squeamish society really should know better by now -- and now, just as in the day of Pink Flamingos, Waters' prescribed remedy is to shock the hypocritical prudishness right out of us.