[Originally written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
The revolution will not be televised, but if John Waters has his way it may play at a theater near you.
A spoof of independent filmmaking at its most absurdly radical (and contradictory) fringe, Cecil B. Demented affectionately lampoons both Hollywood and guerrilla cinema in a bizarre revision of the Patty Hearst story. Shrill, bitchy Hollywood screen queen Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith, whose kewpie doll voice and aging baby face are right at home) is kidnapped by shaggy bottle-blonde would-be auteur Cecil (Stephen Dorff) and his slogan-spouting crew of cinema outlaws “The Sprocket Holes,” a combination guerrilla cell, filmmaking collective, and cinema cult.
Cecil declares war against Hollywood with the ultimate underground movie “Raving Beauty,” a series of assaults on mainstream cinema played as both political statement and film realism. Honey, his initially reluctant star, becomes invigorated by the sheer thrill of rebellion and adopts her young misfit captors as a worried Mommy while seeing her cultural cachet rise with her new reputation as a cinema rebel.
Cecil is less a rebel than the ultimate indie filmmaker as cult leader. All of the Sprockets are branded with tattoos of their cinema heroes; Cecil’s is the infamous Otto Preminger, the patron saint of high-minded tyrants. It’s a gag bound to go over the heads of Waters’s young target audience, as are many of the Sixties revolutionary references and film insider jokes (who’s going to notice that Cecil’s theme music quotes Preminger’s Exodus?).
Never the most technically accomplished of filmmakers, Waters gets the job done with a flat, at times clumsy style that periodically flags and drags the momentum down. As in all his other films, he relies on his cast’s enthusiasm to bring his script to life. When they click it’s good, giddy fun.
Water has always celebrated misfits, outcasts, and cultural rebels and their self-made families, and this is his most outrageous, anarchic such bunch in decades. They assault a Maryland Film Commission luncheon, crash the Baltimore set of Forrest Gump 2: Gump Again (“Life is like a crab cake”), and shoot it out with angry Teamsters, but there’s an odd sense of innocence to the entire enterprise which recasts the film in an innocuous vein. Waters never mines their bundle of contradictions, he just enjoys their passion.
At one point Honey makes an impossible thirty-foot jump (a pure action hero movie move), looks up in wondered astonishment after landing without a scratch, and shrugs acceptingly. In that moment simple movie magic collapses the distance between the sloganeering, filmmaking, and film viewing into one big fantasy. It’s Waters’s way of saying: It’s only a movie.