To say that John Waters’ 2000 film Cecil B. DeMented is a hit-and-miss affair is really to miss the point. It’s as deliberately anarchic as its subject matter, and despite its unevenness it’s more successful than it has any right to be. Its sheer energy and Waters’ bravado carry it through.
Cecil B. DeMented is a would-be independent film-maker who has gathered around him a devoted circle of guerilla underground film-makers. They’re kind of a cult, and they call themselves the Sprocket Holes. Their dream is to smash the corrupt Hollywood studio system. And they not only dream about doing this, they have a plan to make their dream a reality. They will make a movie called Raving Beauty, which will be an object lesson in cinematic purity. And they have a plan to generate so much publicity for the film that no-one will be able to ignore it. They will kidnap a major Hollywood star and force her to star in the picture.
They realise that this movie will probably cost them their lives, but independent cinema is a cause worth dying for! It soon becomes clear that they consider it a cause worth killing for as well. They storm a theatre (in Baltimore of course) where the ageing faded bitchy spoilt brat star Holly Whitlock (played by Melanie Griffith) is making a personal appearance at a charity bash to promote her new romantic comedy. The organiser of the charity gala is killed as a result of a shoot-out between the Sprocket Holes and the police.
Holly Whitlock is extremely obstructive at first, but gradually she comes to identify with her kidnappers. She starts to believe in their dream. There are of course uncanny similarities to the real-life story of Patty Hearst, kidnapped by urban terrorists back in the 70s, and in fact Patricia Hearst herself plays a small role in the film. In any other movie this would be creepy, but Patricia Hearst is a regular member of John Waters’ stock company of actors, in fact she’s more or less a part of his cinematic family, and somehow it doesn’t seem creepy at all.
The Sprocket Holes are the sort of collection of misfits that you’d expect to find in a John Waters movie. Cecil B. DeMented himself is an insane visionary. His chief assistant is Cherish, a former porn star. The makeup girl is a likeable Satanist. The director of photography is addicted to at least half a dozen different drugs. The hair stylist is tortured by guilt because of his heterosexual tendencies, which he has tried without success to repress. They have all taken a vow of celibacy until the movie is completed, as a result of which they are all permanently obsessed by sex.
The Sprocket Holes encounter numerous obstacles in their attempt to make their film, mainly because their film is about a bunch of radical film-makers who declare war on the Hollywood system. This involves them in another gun battle at a film industry function, and yet more violence erupts when they try to disrupt the making of the sequel to Forrest Gump, Gumped Again. On the run from studio heavies, film union representatives and the cops, as well as enraged movie fans who declare that they like family entertainment, the movie guerilla are rescued by king fu film fans. Still on the run, they take refuge in another movie house, which is screening a season of Cherish’s porn films. The audience recognise her, and willingly join the running battle on the side of the Sprocket Holes.
The movie ends in mayhem, but while Cecil B. DeMented proclaims his contempt for phoney life-affirming endings, the ending of Waters’ movie manages to be cataclysmic, tragic, farcical and yet weirdly life-affirming. Whatever his feelings for the subjects of his rather caustic satire, Waters loves movies and somehow there’s the strange feeling that the movie is saying that movies will survive even the efforts of the cynical manipulators who run the studios and the efforts of crazed fanatics like DeMented.
While Waters doesn’t neglect a single opportunity to mock the opportunism and greed of Hollywood, the movie’s satire is directed just as much at the oh-so-serious and pretentious indie film crowd who see themselves as the saviours of film. The Sprocket Holes’ vow of celibacy certainly appears to be a dig at the Dogme people. There are some wonderful sight gags involving movie marquees, and some great lines, my favourite being Cecil B. DeMented’s proclamation that, “Technique is nothing more than failed style.”
It’s difficult to say if we’re expected to see Cecil and his crew as heroes, anti-heroes or just crazies. I suppose that depends on how you feel about Cecil’s belief that movies are worth dying for! In fact they come cross as a mixture of all those characteristics. They’re idealists, but they’re violent and they kill people. They’re visionaries, but they’re also pretentious and pompous and more or less talentless. They’re all certifiably insane, but they form an odd little family and they care about each other. This ambiguity works in the movie’s favour, preventing it from being just a tiresome tirade against the evils of big business.
Perhaps the movie’s biggest strength though is the acting. Melanie Griffith is absolutely superb. Stephen Dorff is perfect as the crazed visionary Cecil. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a delight as the Satanist makeup artist. It’s Alicia Witt though as the crazed but oddly loveable porn star Cherish who shares the acting honours with Griffith.
Structurally the movie is a complete mess, but I’m inclined to think that it’s supposed to be that way. The chaotic nature of the movie is essential to its success. There are times when you wonder if they’re really going to be able to stretch out such a slight plot to feature film length, but it’s a fairly short film and every time it’s in danger of starting to drag Waters or his actors find the necessary inspiration to keep the momentum rolling.