Monday, April 28, 2014

A Dirty Shame (2004): The Mainstreaming of Sexuality

A Dirty Shame (2004)
dir: John Waters

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Shortbus, and how John Cameron Mitchell intended on bringing sex into the mainstream with a focus on acceptance and eroticism. In that review, I mentioned this film, John Waters' as-of-now final film, A Dirty Shame as the predecessor to Shortbus, but A Dirty Shame isn't one to make sex sexy. John Waters has never done that.

A Dirty Shame is a twisted fable of Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a sexually conservative and very uptight mother who, after being hit on the head, becomes a sex addict with a fetishization for cunnilingus. Her story fits into the larger story of Harford Road, Baltimore, Maryland, a neighborhood which was once a proud conservative neighborhood, but is now being invaded by sexual perverts of all types, all of whom have been hit on the head.

The group of sex addicts is led by Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville), who is a "sexual healer" and a prophet that announces a new sex act will be created, and it will be created by the 12th Apostle, Sylvia. Ray Ray's group consists of sexual beings of basically a variety of fetishes that John Waters could discover - sploshing, bears, polyamory, dirt, adult babies, breast fetishists - regardless of how complete his list actually is. For instance, there are no S&M kinksters in the group. At all. I imagine that Waters thought it had been overplayed as a fetish compared to the others, but still...

The sex addicts are lined up against the Neuters, the sex negative people, who are forming rallies in order to retake the neighborhood from the perverts. And, it all comes to a head one fateful night...well, you can guess where all this is leading.

Which is the main problem with A Dirty Shame. Its Us vs Them plot is so predictable and easy that one could easily accuse John Waters of cribbing his previous film Cecil B. Demented, which also cribbed liberally from Hairspray. Just replace race with film then with sex, and you have almost the same film done three times. And, much like a Xerox, the copies get a little worse for the wear each time.

It's not that A Dirty Shame is terrible. It's just so easy and facile. Where John Waters used to make movies about outsiders standing up against the world around them, now he's making movies about outsiders that kind of have the world behind them. With Hairspray, the world that was behind Tracy Turnblad was more the symbolic future world that didn't exist yet. Tracy was a rebel who was bucking a system that hadn't caught up to the audience. With both Cecil and A Dirty Shame, the audience is still behind the "rebels," but the increasing size of the people teaming with the rebels grew as well. Especially in A Dirty Shame, Waters' point is that everybody is (or should be) having consensual sex in a wide variety of ways, so why stigmatize it?

For all its immature talk about sex and perversions, A Dirty Shame actually isn't all that dirty. It has a few full frontals of men and women (all flaccid for men), and a bunch of intercut nudie classics, but John Waters really did stand behind his message that sex is fun. And, he made A Dirty Shame into a lighthearted romp that had the tonality of an elbow to the ribs. Which is also the problem. Because, instead of feeling like it's merely a nudge nudge wink wink, it feels like a 10-year-old discovering sex for the first time, and trying to innocently disgust the audience.

The mixed tone is really a shame because John Waters has some amazing material hidden deep in the movie. When Sylvia is on a sex rampage, and can't find anybody to screw, she screams at the world, "WILL SOMEBODY FINISH ME OFF?!" before lunging forward in search of a new partner. Or, one lady commenting, "Look, I'm not a prude. I'm married to an Italian." Or, pretty much every scene with the bears is comedic gold (even if they get the definition of Otter wrong). There is a whole litany of quotables in A Dirty Shame, but they're buried deep within an tonally off movie.

Which is a shame that A Dirty Shame is a borderline let down. It's half fun and half not. I really REALLY want it to be better. It's trying to be the punk version of shouting for acceptance. But, Waters' tone is really off here, and Tracey Ullman, unfortunately, just isn't all that great considering she has to swing between gruntingly uptight and gruntingly overly horny. Every performance is out of a different film, and Waters seems to have less control over the movie than he did with Pink Flamingos.

I wish it were better. And, it's not terrible. It's just a disappointment.

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