The scrappy new John Waters film, Cecil B. DeMented, is a scant 88 minutes long, but it feels shorter. It's fun, fast-paced, and while it has some neat little subversions, it's largely insubstantial, just like the trashy movies it's trying to emulate. Waters has always been America's greatest rejuvenator of the B-movie ethic, and the sad thing is that he may never achieve the unadulterated heights of campiness and bad taste of his heroes Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis. In those old movies, the gore, the sex and the over-the-top melodrama were all done without a wink of irony. They were unintentionally campy and rough around the edges, while Waters works hard to achieve the same effects. He's damn good at it, and he believes in what he's doing on a gut level, but he still can't help looking like a slicker, more clever wannabe. His keen, insightful appreciation of trash makes him incapable of producing the real thing.
Stephen Dorff stars as the titular character, a take-no-prisoners guerrilla filmmaker named Cecil B. DeMented, and although he's been good in other films, like City of Industry, here he's glaringly lacking in the necessary flourish or charisma to carry the film. Cecil is the leader of a cultish group of cinematic renegades called "The Sprocket Holes," who all have cheesy B-movie names (Cherish, Raven, etc.) and tattoos of iconoclastic movie directors (Otto Preminger, Kenneth Anger, David Lynch) on some part of their anatomy. They're all committed to making an anarchistic, anti-Hollywood production called Raving Beauty, and in order to get attention, they kidnap a spoiled, bitchy, A-list actress named Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) to act as their star.
Griffith owns this role -- and the movie -- right from the word go. She had me hooked from an early scene in which a young female fan cheerfully wishes her "Good luck," on the premiere of her new film Some Kind of Happiness, and Honey venomously snaps that the proper showbiz salutation is "Break a leg" ("That cocksucker just jinxed my opening night!"). After her kidnapping at the gun-toting hands of Cecil and his crew, Honey quickly becomes indoctrinated into their extremist, anti-Studio mindset. Soon enough she's gleefully participating in their production and shooting up a multiplex showing Patch Adams: The Director's Cut.
This is more than just a casual nod to the real-life story of Patty Hearst. Waters has always seemed obsessed with Hearst, and she even has a bit part in this one (she's sort of joined the John Waters repertory company along with Mink Stole and Ricki Lake). Much like the S.L.A., the cult members in Cecil B. DeMented are all more than willing to take a bullet or two in the name of their cause (and most of them do). They call their filmmaking style "Ultimate Reality," and it basically involves filming their own terrorist activities on movie theatres, garden parties or any manifestation of mainstream Hollywood. But while Waters takes some easy pot-shots at American cinematic pabulum, the real target of his satire may surprise you.
I think Waters is making fun of the desperate independence of Cecil and his band of rebels. They're all grasping at straws to be more "real" and "honest" than the mainstream, and they're willing to die to prove themselves. One of Cecil's commandments also requires that each of them take a "vow of chastity" ("Celibate for celluloid!") while they're in production -- they can only get it on after they've wrapped filming. If this is beginning to sound familiar, then put it all together -- a vow of chastity, a commitment to "ultimate realism" with hand held cameras and actual locations, and no special effects allowed -- it sounds a lot like the movement that gave rise to Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration and Lars von Trier's The Idiots, among other things. To me, this is long overdue: Cecil B. DeMented is actually the first parody of Dogme 95 manifesto.