From the opening shot of A Dirty Shame, it’s obvious that Todd Haynes isn’t the only one giving Douglas Sirk a hummer—but where an academic Haynes politely spits out the spunk, John Waters is only too happy to crap it out his ass. This NC-17 freak show could just as easily have been called All That MPAA Allows, and here it’s plenty: Tracy Ullman picks up a water bottle at a nursing home with her “runaway vagina” and Johnny Knoxville (the requisite cute boy Waters wishes he could bone) gives a squirrel mouth-to-mouth, and that’s only in the first reel! Post-Divine, Waters’s framing has grown progressively more mannered, but the content is still as transgressive as ever. Though not as seductively unhinged as Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, Ullman is game here as Sylvia Stickles, a dried-up housewife who turns into a W-H-O-R-E after suffering a sort of carnal concussion (call it a sexcussion if you will) during a traffic accident. A clever Waters tailors the events surrounding everyone’s head traumas to their sexual addictions, a fetishistic association that similarly plays out in the film’s mise-en-scène—the film begins as a kind of analog experiment, but when someone bonks his or her head, a multimedia crisis ensues. Objects become more lucid, Waters’s way of triggering a connection between the film’s characters and their naughty bits. (“Believe” reads the loud-and-clear sign in the parking lot outside the Pinewood Park and Pay convenient store, which the clueless, pre-concussion Sylvia dutifully misses.) A Dirty Shame is the kind of film only a prude could hate, but while Waters dares to liken Knoxville’s sex fiend to Christ, the director’s beef isn’t with God but with the average right-wing nut’s anti-pleasure agenda, which is mirrored in a “neuter” community’s assault of the film’s sex addicts. But these people—from Sylvia’s grotesquely tittied daughter Ursula Udders (Selma Blair) to a group of bears and their young cubs—don’t pose a threat to common decency as much as their tortures do. Think then of A Dirty Shame as Imitation of Life by way of Frankenstein—subversively wholesome and with acceptance in mind. More importantly, the gags are non-stop and, even better, consistently hysterical. In fact, the speed with which Waters dishes out the naughty jokes and non sequiturs is both frightening and exhausting (my favorite line: “Don’t you find it weird that everyone in this town has a penis?”), but if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is a film that means to make us feel raw after its 88 minutes are over.
- John Waters
- John Waters
- Tracy Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Chris Isaak, Selma Blair, Suzanne Shepherd, Mink Stole, Patricia Hearst, Jackie Hoffman
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