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A DIRTY SHAME

2004, dir. John Waters
89 min. Rated NC-17.
Starring: Tracey Ullman, Chris Isaak, Selma Blair, Johnny Knoxville.

Review by Noel Wood

I've finally seen my first NC-17 film in a movie theater, and it took me until I was almost thirty to do so. I almost feel like I've broken some sort of unspoken taboo, like I've gotten away with something naughty, despite the fact that I'm working on being twice the age limit on such a film. I even had to show I.D. to get in. OK, that's actually sort of a lie. I had to show I.D. to get my student discount, which I'll continue to do using a nearly decade-old student I.D. from a college that no longer even exists by the name on the card.

The film I saw was the latest from audacious auteur John Waters, the appropriately titled A DIRTY SHAME. And believe me, this film is Waters at his most ridiculous. It's almost as if something has been stirring within him over the last couple decades while he did "safer" fare like CRY-BABY and SHAMPOO and SERIAL MOM and forced him to just blow his top. And I, for one, welcome this return to audacity.

Perhaps the film's audacity was so welcomed because of what this particular theater chose to show previews of beforehand. Rigorous pap like the Annette Benning old Hollywood romance BEING JULIA. Humorless drama like the overdramatic-as-hell-looking WOMAN THOU ART LOOSED. And finally, the film that tries to point out the bias of the Fox News channel by showing out-of-context quotes and sound bytes from Editorial commentators like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly. By the time the previews wrapped up, I would have probably found 28 GRAMS or MONSTER'S BALL uplifting. I'm beginning to wonder if this was some elaborate setup by the LeFont Theater company.

There's really not a whole lot of artistic merit or social relevance in A DIRTY SHAME, and I don't think there was ever really intent of it. This film is basically the cinematic equivalent to chronic masturbation, plugging every ounce of possible sexual innuendo on to the screen at one time. It's ridiculous, it's certainly not for everybody, and it's not indicitave of what John Waters is capable of as a filmmaker. The film is designed for one purpose, and one purpose that the director hasn't really been exploring recently: shock.

A DIRTY SHAME takes place in Baltimore, as do many of Waters' films. On this particular street in the city, a lot of changes have been going on. Seedy activities have replaced the wholesome goodness that the neighborhood once held dear. The Stickles family have certainly noticed this, having had to lock up their own daughter Caprice above the garage ever since her exotic dancing career (and bust size) has spun out of control. The wholesome folks in the community have bonded together and assumed the label of "Neuters", and are bound and determined to drive out this smutty element.

Sylvia Stickels learns quickly though that there's more to it than just an influx of perverts in town. On her way to work one day, Sylvia gets a bonk on the noggin, and next thing you know she's a raging sex addict. She is quickly spotted by a mechanic named Ray-Ray, who quickly "services" her and lets her know that she has his support. Sylvia's hormones overtake her, and the next thing you know, a game of Hokey Pokey at a nursing home turns into an interesting lesson in picking up water bottles.

This is a critical point in the movie. At this point, I was thinking that there was no way that the movie could top the particular parlor trick that Sylvia just pulled off. But oh, how wrong one can be. The next hour or so is practically a non-stop orgy of perversion, which eventually leads to a self-defined climax which, although you can pretty much see it coming, you'll still not believe that they went through with it.

A DIRTY SHAME makes no apologies for the level of lewdness it creates, nor does it try to pretent that it's something else for a single moment. The world Waters paints is straight out of an X-rated Bugs Bunny cartoon, with a bump on the head being the only means necessary to change a person's personality, and a second bump to bring them right back to normal. Most importantly, the actors involved all look like they're having fun with what they're doing.

Nothing is off-limits here. The film centers around Ray-Ray coaxing Sylvia into understanding her role in this ribald revolution, and in the process, we meet characters of every imaginable level of sexual fetish. They range from the mild (swinging, exhibitionism, obsessive masturbation) to the extreme (vomiting fetishes, public defecation, infantism.) It's truly a smorgasbord of deviancy, and it doesn't let up for a second once the ball starts rolling.

I appreciated the ridiculousness of it all, despite the fact that the film isn't exactly groundbreaking filmmaking. John Waters has been better, more relevant, and even more shocking in the past, but he's never put anything together that was this much of a clusterfuck of debauchery.

I can't say I recommend it, because it's definitely not a film for everyone. Hell, it's really not a film for most people. But if you've been wondering where John Waters has been storing all of that juvenile audacity for the last twenty years, then you might want to check this out; if at the least to satisfy your curiosity.

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