Back At The Raunch

Film still for Back At The Raunch

John Waters, Baltimore's guerrilla king of kitsch, became almost respectable when the 1990s brought tabloid geek-show bad taste into the mainstream. But if his films then had a too-manicured tidiness, his new A Dirty Shame takes him back to his sleazy, slippery, jagged-edged best, says J. Hoberman

There are two Americas, whose beliefs have little to do with political affiliation and even less to do with logical consistency: America the libertarian and America the puritanical. Faith in free markets hardly guarantees a favourable attitude towards same-sex marriage; protecting abortion rights does not necessarily extend to preserving a citizen's right to own a personal assault weapon.

Although there's no question as to which America John Waters prefers, both mindsets are travestied in A Dirty Shame. By Waters' lights, the US population can be divided into judgmental, self-righteous, crabby, normalising "neuters" and anarchic, infantile, proudly disgusting, non-conformist "sex addicts" - equally hysterical groups, both prone to cultish fanaticism and each only a bang on the head away from the other.

Not for the squeamish (but not above the saccharine), A Dirty Shame is Waters' attempt to revive the extravagant bad taste which made him first notorious, then celebrated, and finally respectable. These days the onetime bad boy is as much a personality as a film-maker: a talk-show veteran, famous enough to guest star on The Simpsons; the man with the most distinctive moustache in America; jazz-age journalist H.L. Mencken's successor as Baltimore's leading native son. The city declared its first John Waters Day nearly 20 years ago; even a casual visit will yield nearly as many chamber-of-commerce references to the Waters oeuvre as to Baltimore's crab cakes.

At 58 Waters has long since become his own trademark. His image is emblazoned on the print ads for A Dirty Shame; as a recognised authority on aesthetic shock he is called on to endorse such films as Catherine Breillat's Anatomy of Hell ("the most politically incorrect movie I've ever seen in my life"). One hopes he will eventually weigh in on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ - though his response to Gibson's sacred gross-out may well be A Dirty Shame.

Much to Waters' publicly expressed satisfaction, his most recent film was attacked by the Catholic League and the Catholic News Service for "rough, crude, and profane language, full-frontal nudity, sexual imagery, obscene gestures, scatological humour, casual portrayal and description of deviant sexual practices, a glorification of freewheeling sex and some sacrilegious imagery". No review could be better ­- save, perhaps, in the form of a subpoena from US attorney general John Ashcroft.

From his childhood puppet shows onwards Waters has thrived on publicity, outrage and exhibitionism. His 1972 underground blockbuster Pink Flamingos posited that millions of people might, no less than the movie's leading lady, willingly eat dog shit to achieve stardom - and perhaps some do. Waters was a trial buff whose fascination with criminal justice long predates the cable station Court TV, an aficionado of serial killers well before they became fashionable, a gross-out king when Todd Solondz, the Farrelly brothers and the South Park guys (right-wing libertarians) were still farting around in the schoolyard. A quarter of a century before Jerry Springer made daytime-TV history with a violent, voyeuristic, all-American freak show, Waters was plumbing Baltimore's depths to showcase "the filthiest people in the world".

Nor did Waters lack an aesthetic. He was a master synthesiser whose early shoestring productions infused Theater of the Ridiculous drag-queen humour with a regionalist sub-Warhol rawness, the raunchy energy of 1950s rock 'n' roll, 1960s underground comix, lapsed-Catholic blasphemy, a bit of P.T. Barnum, and the first, nameless stirrings of punk. The 16mm self-proclaimed "celluloid atrocities" Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos, all featuring the 20-stone gender blur Divine, satirised hippie broadmindedness even as they exploited it. One must do one's own thing - even if that includes incest, bestiality, theft or murder.

With the unexpectedly genial Hairspray (1988) Waters travelled from testing the limits of countercultural acceptance to affable endorsement of tolerance - more racial and physical, in this case, than sexual. The movie's 2002 incarnation as a Broadway musical, with Harvey Fierstein in the Divine role, is the ultimate naturalisation of the Ridiculous aesthetic. But that was hardly the end of Waters' assimilation into the American mainstream. The year after Hairspray opened, glamorous Charlize Theron won an Oscar playing truck-stop serial killer Aileen Wournos in Monster - a natural role for Divine.

If the 1970s represented Waters' most incendiary period as a film-maker, then the 1990s were the Waters years. The prophet was no longer wandering in the wilderness; American social reality had turned into one of his films. As the Clinton presidency came to a close, Pecker (1998) asked whether any cultural space remained for Waters after the apotheosis of shock jock Howard Stern and tele-circus ringmaster Jerry Springer and the seemingly permanent tabloid geek show that culminated in the tawdry spectacle of the president's impeachment for accepting a blow-job.

A Warholian joke, the young amateur photographer Pecker personifies the camera's innocent gaze and capacity to spin gold from dross (or worse). It was around this time that Waters reinvented himself as a gallery artist, typically transforming old movies into serial photographs and thus becoming a philosopher of the film culture that did so much to saturate the world with celebrity, sensation and sleaze. Earlier this year the New Museum in New York afforded him a retrospective 'Change of Life', which effectively canonised his taste. Significantly, it was the trio of mid-1960s shorts - Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Roman Candles and Eat Your Make-up - that garnered most praise.

Both a parody of and tribute to the spirit of the 1960s, Cecil B. DeMented (2000) satirised Waters' own early movies in which bands of social-outcast "life-actors" launched outrageous guerrilla attacks on bourgeois reality. Here a cult of Baltimore-based guerrilla film-makers led by the eponymous tousle-haired punk infiltrates a charity-benefit premiere and kidnaps the guest of honour, an overripe Hollywood diva (Melanie Griffith) who is held captive in a secret movie set and forced to act in DeMented's "outlaw sinema".

DeMented dreams of a movie so rank it will destroy mainstream cinema. Less grandiose than his alter ego, Waters is content to take potshots at the system. The DeMented gang desecrates a biography of David Lean, shoots up a theatre showing the "director's cut" of Patch Adams, battles Teamsters to disrupt the filming of Gump Again and takes refuge in a friendly porn theatre. Indeed, Cecil B. DeMented aestheticises Waters' original assault on taste: "Power to the people - perish bad cinema." Still, the director has not entirely ceded the kulturkampf. More or less abandoning plot and structure, A Dirty Shame is as near as he has come since the horrifying Desperate Living (1977) brought his early period to a close to the sort of movie DeMented might have made.

A non-stop raunchfest with a surreal premise and a provocative agenda, A Dirty Shame begins as a parody of Todd Haynes' Sirk pastiche, albeit one set very, very far from heaven. Waters' magic kingdom is the blue-collar neighbourhood of Harford Road, an obscure district in north-east Baltimore described to me by one local as populated by a combination of old ladies and drug dealers. It is here that a timely concussion transforms the grouchily overworked and sexually repressed grocery clerk Sylvia (Tracey Ullman) into something like a walking libido.

Harford Road is already polarised. In fact, it's a free-fire zone in the culture wars. Sylvia's daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), aka Ursula Udders, is famous in the local biker bars for her "criminally enlarged" - which is to say watermelon-sized - breasts. Blair's liquid-filled latex-and-rubber prosthetic boobs were designed by Tony Gardner, creator of Gwyneth Paltrow's Shallow Hal fat suit, and, an amorous pair of computer-generated rodents aside, these monstrous appendages constitute the movie's major special effect. (Had the mammophilic Russ Meyer, one of Waters' cinematic heroes, lived to see Blair shaking her stuff, he would have died a happy man.) Sylvia's hatchet-faced mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd, moonlighting from her day job as Tony Soprano's mother-in-law) is the de facto defender of Harford Road propriety: "We're not against anything. We're for the end of tolerance."

Reacting to an onslaught of stray dildos, gay bear families and porn-obsessed mail-carriers, Harford Road's beleaguered puritans decide to embrace their "neuterness". ("I'm viagravitated and I'm not gonna take it any more," one unhappy spouse declares.) Meanwhile the avid and hilariously impulsive Sylvia goes tramping around in leopardskin stretchies recovered from a Salvation Army deposit bin. Throwing out her elbows and knees, wide-eyed and rubber-faced, Ullman is in these scenes very nearly a female Jim Carrey. In one show-stopping sequence this sexual terrorist clears a day-room of confused senior citizens with a hoochified hokey-pokey that climaxes in an act more often seen in a Bangkok strip bar.

As Harford Road assimilates the knowledge that Sylvia "picked up a bottle with her cooter in the old folk's home", Sylvia herself, a newly realised and very horny "cunnilingus bottom", joins the cult led by charismatic garage mechanic Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville, star of Waters descendent Jackass). Ray-Ray - comparable in some ways to Cecil B. DeMented and in others to Mel Gibson's Jesus Christ - imagines that the arrival of this new disciple will hasten the "resurrsextion" and "day of carnal rapture". Then another concussion reverses Sylvia's madcap disinhibition...

"I wanted to do a Three Stooges sex comedy," Waters told one interviewer. A Dirty Shame may be more of a Three Stooges manifesto. "Sitting through it is like being in the company of a bunch of eight-year-olds who have just learned a new swear word," A.O. Scott wearily concluded his New York Times review. "At his age, Mr Waters should know better."

Better than what? Or whom? The fundamentalists who have determined the nature of American political debate and bid to turn the end of tolerance into an electoral strategy? As crass as A Dirty Shame may be, it also bids to put that crassness back into religion. The movie is not only shameless in its slapstick but wears its sentiment on its soiled sleeve - compared to the recent work of Waters fan Todd Solondz, it is almost corny in asserting that nothing human is foreign to its maker. It's not exactly material for a Broadway musical (unless some New York producer wants to get a jump on the soon-to-be imported Jerry Springer: The Opera, which similarly features a diapered 'adult baby'). But like Hairspray, A Dirty Shame does have intimations of a social struggle about to reach critical mass.

Underlying much American political discourse is the puritanical desire to exorcise the liberal excesses associated with the 1960s and reinstate those traditional values presumably driven underground. Waters (as his parody of Far from Heaven suggests) refuses to concede any special innocence to the past. Spiced with clips from vintage exploitation films and single-entendre 'party' records like 'The Pussy Cat Song' and 'Tony's Got Hot Nuts', A Dirty Shame has an antique 1950s feel. The movie has struck some as a comic, deliberately retro horror cheapster, a mock Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But mainly, in its sense of an underlying holy war, it parallels another argument for sexual diversity - Bill Condon's earnestly middlebrow Kinsey, with Liam Neeson playing the zoologist turned sex researcher, an only slightly more sedate Ray-Ray.

For some, the pioneering Alfred Kinsey (who, coincidentally, is also the subject of T.C. Boyle's new novel The Inner Circle) was a monster or at least a mad scientist. Operating in the 1940s and early 1950s from a college campus in deepest Indiana, Kinsey overturned America's sense of its sexual self. Condon takes pains to show that this doggedly square, if deeply eccentric crusader rebelled against the hypocrisies of his own puritanical upbringing to found his own cult and become the most dangerous man in America. "It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the [nation's] already deteriorating morals," rival evangelist Billy Graham declared when Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was published in late 1953.

Half a century later, Kinsey remains a puritan bête noire who may be held responsible for everything from jump-starting the sexual revolution and promoting junior-highschool sex-education classes to enabling pornography, gay rights and abortion on demand. Condon's reverential biopic has none of the erotic snap and crackle of Dusan Makavejev's classic celebration of Kinsey's contemporary Wilhelm Reich in W.R. - Mysteries of the Organism (1971). But neither does A Dirty Shame - though it's liable to erupt into outlandish gross-out at any moment. In the delirious climax of dirt-licking, chronic masturbation and food-based foreplay give way to a mix of Roman Catholic and Christian-fundamentalist cosmological fireworks and then a rapturous explosion of cosmic jizm.

Although Kinsey recognised but three sexual abnormalities - "abstinence, celibacy and delayed marriage" - it's possible that even he might have been stumped by the arcane practices Waters claims to have discovered surfing the internet. "Ever heard of sploshin'?" someone asks. How about 'Roman showers' or 'upper-decking'? (Spoiler alert: the first involves the ecstatic application of squishy foodstuffs; the second a vomitatious form of foreplay; the third defecating in a toilet tank.) If sexual activity in A Dirty Shame tends towards the wildly regressive, the movie itself is promiscuous in its means and ridiculous in its tolerance. Predicated on all manner of licking and rubbing, Waters' polymorphously perverse, far-from-phallocratic sexual democracy is not so much hilarious as goofy. Not for nothing does the new sex act Ray-Ray discovers involve banging foreheads.

Comparing Kinsey to A Dirty Shame brings to mind Georges Bataille's critique of the Kinsey project as suspect for its unavoidable detachment: "Any inquiry into the sexual life of subjects under observation is incompatible with scientific objectivity." And yet Kinsey's middle section - with the hero crusading for campus classes in marital preparedness, discovering a new interest in boys and enabling his devoted young assistants to swap wives - is pure Waters. So is the movie's spelled-out moral: "Everybody's sin is nobody's sin." Would that Kinsey and A Dirty Shame had traded directors and titles - especially since the good doctor does eventually confront a sexual creature who cracks the surface of his scientific detachment.

It's worth noting that, despite the absence of any real nudity or simulated sex acts, A Dirty Shame received the scarlet NC-17 rating. Perhaps the movie will test the limits of its audiences' tolerance after all. (Waters' most optimistic gag sends a liberal couple, relocated from nearby Washington DC to partake of Baltimore's diversity, screaming from their newly gentrified Harford Road home.) In its crude vitality, A Dirty Shame makes scarcely more concession to standard expectations than did Waters' first celluloid atrocities: the scattershot film-making oscillates between the fast and the furious, as well as the thin and embarrassing.

A Dirty Shame is far more rousing than arousing - though as a date film it would certainly break the ice. It's real accomplishment is to reduce cultural jihad to a matter of sexual preference (or non-preference). Seen as Waters' contribution to the 2004 American presidential election campaigns, the revelation of this 'dirty secret' makes for his most radical film in 25 years.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012