as doting consumers, as the seeing of once-incomparable talents struggling to channel the innovations of their past can make them seem out of touch, out of place.
John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented (2000) is one such example of an iconoclastic filmmaker awkwardly falling victim to his own nostalgia. Having spent the previous 15 years toying with the mainstream through accessible musicals Hairspray (1986) and Cry-Baby (1990), Demented sees Waters attempting to rid himself of his newfound mainstream values and trying to reproduce the shocking textures of the films that made him famous in the 1970s.
For Waters die-hards, such might sound like a thrilling prospect on paper. Waters’ ‘70s-era misadventures, namely 1972’s Pink Flamingos and 1974’s Female Trouble, were transgressive (and groundbreaking) Z-comedies that consistently carried the energy of homemade moves, the camp value of incinerated reels of late-period Joan Crawford movies, and the inclination to shock their audiences (Pink Flamingos saw leading man Divine eat dog poop on camera; Female Trouble was dedicated to Manson family member Charles “Tex” Watson). Waters’ earlier works were a lot of fun, even if they were, especially in the case of 1970’s Multiple Maniacs, a lot to stomach.
Cecil B. Demented might’ve worked had it been made in that same creative period; for most of its running time did I dreamily imagine a parallel universe in which Divine could have starred as its central heroine, in which the budget were slim and all the actors had a ravenous look in their eyes. But something is lost in translation here, a reality amplified by the fact that Demented is too self-conscious to ever channel the anything-goes lovability of the features it’s so plainly trying to emulate. Thus it feels clumsy, too much like a filmmaker playing it safe when he’d just begun evolving.
The film, which at least is a brief 88 minutes, stars the doll-voiced Melanie Griffith as the stuck-up, has-been mainstream actress Honey Whitlock. Upon meeting her, we can’t stand the woman, whom I guess is supposed to be something of a composite sketch of Joan Collins and Lina Lamont. She’s vulgar, inconsiderate, and seems to take pride in her mistreatment of her employees. But perhaps we’re supposed to feel for her in the ways we did for Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), concluding that she’s such a grump because she’s trying to cover up the vulnerability inflicted by an increased drying up of film offers.
But she’s nevertheless a sourpuss we find hard to tolerate. So it’s a good thing that we’re freed from watching her hurl abusives close to the get go. Just as she’s about to start really getting on our nerves, she is kidnapped by the “SprocketHoles,” self-proclaimed kamikaze filmmakers carrying a passionate hatred for mainstream cinema in pocket. The group’s leader, Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff), informs Whitlock that he’s in the process of making his masterpiece. This will entail that he and his cronies commit quasi-terrorist acts, record the results, and attempt to piece together a sort of feature length as revolutionary as the best features of the filmmakers whom he idolizes, like Andy Warhol, Otto Preminger, and Kenneth Anger. Whitlock, who will star, is mostly needed to help the SprocketHoles gain widespread attention from the press.
At first, Whitlock is understandably horrified by this, desperate to get out of the potentially dangerous situation. But as the “shooting” unfolds, she finds herself intrigued by Demented’s chaotic guerilla style – and grateful for the way her involvement with his scheme is garnering more buzz than the time she was nominated for an Academy Award some years ago.
This premise can only hold up for so long before we decide that it should have been delegated to the length of a short. Or that Waters should have made the movie in the ‘70s rather than the ‘00s in which his shenanigans are so much less shocking. The central idea is interesting and is sometimes smartly embellished. The one-liners are memorable – “Family is just a dirty word for censorship!” Whitlock shouts in one of Demented’s scenes, adding later on, “I am ready for my close-up, Mr. Demented” – and the performances, particularly from the younger actors in the ensemble, bear an enthusiasm that likably suggests they’re thrilled to even be working with Waters in the first place.
But Cecil B. Demented is never quite as sharp a satire as Waters thinks it is. It’s both an extended comment on the elitism of snobby cinemagoers and on the despicable money-hungriness on the part of film executives and actors. But it mostly just feels like Waters and co. playing around with a premise that could ring truer if it were more refined – or if it were made by the filmmaker Waters was in the decades preceding. Sometimes it works. But after the highs represented by the one-two punch of Cry-Baby and Serial Mom (1994), it largely feels like a step backward. Shame that Waters would only make one more movie after Cecil B. Demented — he's so surely capable of evolving that he’d doubtlessly be able to recover from this late-period bump. But I guess we’ll never find out if that’s true or not. C
1 Hr., 28 Mins.
Cecil B. Demented
From Dario Argento’s Giallo (2009) to Brian De Palma’s Passion (2012), it’s an oft-unsaid truth that at some point many great filmmakers reach a point in their respective careers during which they’ve run out of juice. In which trying to recreate the successes of a bygone era start offering little reward.
Such a phenomenon is understandable. A winning streak can only last so long, and working in such an unforgiving industry can only lead one to want to eventually relive the days wherein the art of moviemaking was still a thrilling
thing. But these sorts of redundant failures can be disheartening to sit through