A Dirty Shame
by Jon Bastian
Even Without His Most Famous Leading Lady, John Waters’s Latest Is Divine.
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In the course of a film career that now spans forty years, John Waters hasn’t gotten any more mainstream. Rather, the mainstream has caught up with him. He may have seemed to have dabbled in that territory with films like Hairspray and Cry-Baby. Happily, though, he returns to his earlier subversiveness with his latest, A Dirty Shame. As a bonus, this is his first NC-17 rated film, an “onus” (actually a selling point for fans) that he hasn’t suffered since at least 1977’s Desperate Living. All the same, despite those scarlet letters, John Waters is one of the most gentle-souled of indie subversives. No matter how icky his topics may be on the surface, there’s a giddy joy beneath them, so that ultimately, we can’t help but feel sympathy toward even the most perverse of sex addicts to whom he introduces us. To quote Larry Flynt, “Relax. It’s just sex.”
The story of A Dirty Shame in a nutsack, so to speak, is very simple. Strange things are going on in the Harford Road area of Baltimore. Suddenly, sex addicts are popping up (and popping off) everywhere, much to the annoyance of the so-called neighborhood “neuters,” those who consider themselves normal and shun sex of any kind. At the beginning of the film, this includes Sylvia Stickles (the hilarious Tracey Ullman, Small Time Crooks), who is dealing with her husband’s normal marital urges (Chris Isaak, From the Earth to the Moon) as well as with her exhibitionistic daughter, Caprice (Selma Blair, Hellboy), who’s better known as Ursula Udders because of her “criminally enlarged” breasts (an Oscar-worthy make-up job if ever there was one) and who’s currently under house arrest because of her propensity to drop her clothes and dance on a moment’s notice.
And then, thanks to a conk on the head, everything changes for Sylvia, who has a run-in with Ray-Ray (the charismatic Johnny Knoxville, Jackass), a tow truck driver who has powers of sexual healing. Apparently, a concussion can unleash a person’s inner sex-addict, which is exactly what happens to Sylvia, who suddenly becomes a raving nympho, described as a “cunnilingus bottom”, determined to sit on every face in town.
This turn of events is utterly abhorrent to Sylvia’s mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd, Requiem for a Dream), who here bears an eerie resemblance to Sylvia Miles and who has some of the best lines in the movie, especially in her scenes with Waters stalwart Mink Stole (Cecil B. Demented), who plays uber-Neuter Marge. The more outrageous their deadpan outrage becomes (“I found a dildo in my fountain!”) the funnier it gets, and their chit-chat early on had the audience rolling in the aisles.
Things come to a head as Big Ethel and Marge try to rally the neuters to end the decadence. Meanwhile, Sylvia turns an innocent hootchie-cootchie at the Old Folks’ home into a unique game of spin the bottle in one of the film’s more outrageous, hilarious set pieces. (Side note, in case you’re keeping track, this is where one of the two dick shots pops up, although it’s the only one worth seeing.)
Things escalate from there as Sylvia learns she’s destined to be one of Ray-Ray’s sexual apostles, the one who will lead them all to discover the one sexual act that has never been done before. Along the way, you may learn of quite a few acts you’ve never heard of, unless you’ve spent a lot of time online. Count yourself as hip if you already know such terms as sploshing or upper decking. (Surprisingly, though, there’s no mention of the classic Cleveland Steamer.)
The film heads toward it’s (literal) climax in an increasingly frenetic series of accidental head bonks that have the neuters and sex addicts swapping back and forth pell-mell, and we’re also treated to a good-natured, self-parodying celebrity cameo with a payoff that’s simultaneously gross and unexpected. Let’s just say that, when the shit comes down, it doesn’t land where you think it will.
Waters hits a nice balance of the grotesque and the sweet here. By film’s end, we have sympathy for all of the sex addicts, no matter how strange their proclivities may seem. Standouts in the cast include the aforementioned Shepherd and Mink Stole — the latter, in particular, has grown enormously as an actress since previous Waters outings, and it’s no surprise that she’s one of his few regulars who has appeared in a lot of other movies. Equally surprising is Patty Hearst, another Waters regular, who has a somewhat extended role here, and pulls it off with aplomb. Other standouts include Dora (Jackie Hoffman, Garden State), a chronic masturbator whose mousy looks belie the suggestive filth that comes out of her mouth; Dingy Dave (James Ransome, Ken Park), a mysophiliac whose tongue has been in places you wouldn’t want to step; and Officer Alvin (Alan J. Wendl, another Waters regular best known as Mr. Pinky in Hairspray), who loves dressing up as a baby.
A Dirty Shame is one of the more hilarious films I’ve seen recently, provided you’re not squeamish or uptight. The audience was regularly in stitches and many, many moments are gut-bustingly funny. On top of that, Waters (intentionally or not) taps into a sort of Joseph Campbell thing. The Ray-Ray storyline pretty obviously parallels a famous dead Carpenter, right through the dozen apostles, miraculous healings, resurrection and final ascension. But on top of that, there’s a running theme common to all religions (and suppressed in many of them) that good will come to the land when the people are sexually active. It’s a recall of the days when the youth of a village would go fuck in the fields before the spring planting to ensure a good harvest, something that survives only as the symbolic, phallic May pole. The last act of the movie turns Harford Road into a virtual Bacchanal and, ultimately, ends on a note of hope. Ray-Ray’s powers and Sylvia’s discovery will save the world from the neuters.
Maybe that’s reading too much into it, and implying things that Waters never intended. Still, if you’re a fan of his work, A Dirty Shame is a must-see film. If you’re not a fan, it may or may not be the best place to start. But if you’re not a neuter yourself, you’ll laugh your ass off.
Jon Bastian is a stage, screen and TV writer and a resident and native of Los Angeles.
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