Sunday, 28 April 2013

Review #609: 'Cecil B. Demented' (2000)

Cult director John Waters has always been a favourite amongst those familiar with the 'Midnight Movie' circuit. The Midnight Movies were a bunch of films that included David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970), and Waters' own Pink Flamingos (1972), that were screened in New York in the 1970's to an audience looking for an artistic vision that tended to push the boundaries of taste and subject matter, and led to re-discoveries of films now considered classics such as Freaks (1932) and Night of the Living Dead (1968). Waters, as well as championing the great auteurs such as Pasolini and Fassbinder, was always an outspoken fan of zero-budget schlock like Criminally Insane (1975) and the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis. And this is the focus of Cecil B. Demented, a movie essentially for cinephiles, and one that has the movie business as a whole fixed in its sights.

Hollywood starlet Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) is on the verge of another smash hit when she attends the premiere in Baltimore. In front of a shocked audience and many cameras, she is kidnapped by psychopathic film director Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff). Demented takes Honey back to his studio, where his loyal crew, calling themselves the Sprocket Holes, have a vision to take cinema back for the auteurs, and crush the studio system (who are in production of Forrest Gump 2). Honey is to be the star in the first of a new movement - Outlaw Cinema - a process that strips back all production values in favour of achieving ultimate reality. They have also taken a vow of chaste, and will not have sex until the movie is done. Seeing opinion of her drastically slide on television, Honey starts to sympathise with Demented's movement, and eventually she wilfully comes over to the cause.

It can be said that true satire cuts both ways, and that is certainly what Waters achieves with this. As an obsessive movie fan myself, there's many a time when I've been eager to tear down the poster of a new Zac Efron movie or punch someone in the face when they've describe how much they love Marley & Me (2008). I sometimes want to scream about how much they're missing through ignorance and that it's their fault so much shit gets made. But there's times when I've looked back at my own pretentiousness and felt embarrassed at criticising someone who ultimately wants something entirely different out of cinema than I do. Demented's bunch of misfits are nothing more than dysfunctional psychopaths; cartoon cut-outs that are too extreme to not laugh at. Waters seems to be amused more by these scarf-wearing chin-strokers than by those who inadvertently fund the studio system.

Although a lot doesn't really work in Cecil B. Demented, I still got a lot out of it. This is mainly due to the fact that I share a lot of Waters' opinions, and can get as much enjoyment out of a tacky old Larry Cohen or Herschell Gordon Lewis horror as I could with something from Godard or Bunuel. Occasionally the bad taste humour doesn't go down so well, such as the sloppy penetration sounds when the gang can finally get down to it, or the rather silly 'Demented Forever' sing-a-long, but Stephen Dorff's wide-eyed, energetic performance managed to be a nice distraction. Demented could be seen as an answer to many of Waters' fans objections to his occasional dabbling with the mainstream, with his colourful efforts Hairspray (1988) and (the very enjoyable) Serial Mom (1994) playing in direct contrast to Pink Flamingos, which infamously contains a scene of dog-shit eating. But this is a criticism and a homage to the movies, something that all cinephiles can understand.

Directed by: John Waters
Starring: Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Country: France/USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Cecil B. DeMented (2000) on IMDb

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