John Waters is a name that is unmistakably associated with kitsch and trash cinema. Obsessed since early childhood with violence and gore, Waters still manages to combine such elements with playful irony in his low-budget, always Baltimore-based films. Having started as an underground artist, he was noticed by Hollywood after the success of Hairspray (1988) and Cry Baby (1990). His newer films are considered by some people to be too polished and commercial – Cecil B. Demented (2000) perhaps falls into this category as well.
Melanie Griffith plays Honey Whitlock – a self-centred, bitchy, bitter, once-famous star who is kidnapped by a group of guerrilla film makers under the leadership of Cecil B. Demented – the ultimate visionary. The members of his crew (each of them with the name of Waters’ favourite directors tattooed on them – Kenneth Anger, Sam Peckinpah, David Lynch, Otto Preminger, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Spike Lee, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar, and Andy Warhol) claim to be cinematic terrorists who are ‘punishing’ bad cinema.
Their aim is to create an alternative masterpiece starring the woman who represents everything they hate about the mainstream cinema. Cecil B. Demented is very low–budget itself, the ‘special effects’ are horrific, the plot ridiculous and acting…well, it’s not exactly impressive. Moreover, some critics said that it missed the chance to send an important message about the state of film in our times. But here is the trick – it’s not only a satire on Hollywood. It’s a satire on the satire. It’s the opposite of sending a message – it’s a message that’s failed to be delivered. On purpose. It’s so oversimplified and caricatured that it cannot possibly be taken seriously.
Every member of the terrorist crew has a weird quirk – there is a Satanist, a drug addict, an ex-porn star obsessed with sex, a heterosexual man who wants to be gay, and so on. The characters are so obvious and one-sided that you couldn’t possibly take them for any other stereotype. Obsessed with alternative cinema, they are a pastiche of pretentious ‘arty’ movie lovers. Melanie Griffith’s acting is so outrageous that it won her a nomination for the Worst Actress at the 2000 Golden Raspberry Awards. And yet, here and there you can spot some really intelligently funny elements – references to classic film-makers, the name of the visionary himself is a clear ‘homage’ to Cecil B. DeMille, the dialogue. (Among my favourite parts is the drug addict’s Lyle’s line: ‘Before I became a drug addict, I had so many problems. Now I just have one – Drugs! It’s given my life real focus’).
Have you ever heard the saying: ‘I’m so sarcastic; people actually think I’m stupid?’ I think this may be a case in point – it takes guts to go against all expectations and play with the deconstruction of the very art form you practice in your life and career.