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Waters sports
No need to apologize for A Dirty Shame
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Naked lunch: Waters serves up A Dirty Shame. By Peter Keough.

It’s a dirty shame that John Waters hasn’t made a truly offensive movie in more than 20 years. One can only hope that the NC-17 rated A Dirty Shame will change that. Like Waters’s best and most transgressive films — Pink Flamingos, for example, in which the title of Most Disgusting Person leads to a litany of cinema’s most disgusting acts — Shame begins with a simple premise that unfolds into an encyclopædic glossary of depravity. A bump on the head turns certain people in the staid, blue-collar Baltimore neighborhood familiar from Waters’s śuvre from stodgy "neuters" — those whose only passion for sex is in condemning it — into raving addicts.

One of the toughest nuts to crack is harried housewife Sylvia Stickles, who’s played by the polymorphously funny Tracey Ullman. Sylvia has no time for the feeble gropings of her feckless husband, Vaughn (a feckless Chris Isaak), as she makes scrapple for her daughter Caprice (Selma Blair wielding a pair of beyond-Russ-Meyer prosthetic breasts that announce that this is indeed a John Waters movie; her stage name is Ursula Udders), who’s been locked in her bedroom to curb her nymphomaniac ways and exotic dancing. More important, Sylvia has no interest, until on the way to work at the Pinewood Park and Pay Convenience Store run by her mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), she gets in an accident, bonks her noggin, and sees the world anew.

The blow has a similar effect to whatever Dennis Hopper is sucking on in Blue Velvet, and guiding her in her newly libidinized state is Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville as a low-rent Jim Carrey), a sexual messiah who patrols the streets of Baltimore in his tow truck seeking out the newly concussed and converted. These he shuttles to secret meetings of his Sex Addicts Unanimous, whose new-found obsessions range from molysmophilia (a sexual attraction to dirt) to "upperdecking" (achieving gratification by defecating in a toilet tank). And Ray-Ray truly has a silver tongue. He converts Sylvia not so much by his eloquence — his philosophy is summed up in the simple battle cry "Let’s go sexin’!" — as in his talent for "going downtown for lunch." Ullman acts out the most convincing and hilarious orgasm in film history as she discovers that her calling is as a "cunnilingus bottom."

You will probably learn a lot from A Dirty Shame. Certainly many new slang terms for oral sex and a whole glossary of alternative sexual practices. To the term "teabagging" broached in his previous film, Pecker, enthusiasts can add "helicoptering," Roman showers," "splashing," and many more. But is this enough to sustain an 88-minute comedy? It is, but for those who grow weary of some of the gags and the grossness (as I did with the "bears" and the adult baby), Waters has higher aspirations for his film. I don’t mean so much the kneejerk plea for tolerance represented by the building battle between the "neuters" organized by Big Ethel and the addicts who are eager to spread their cranium-crunching gospel. That kind of preachiness tends to get sophomoric fast — witness the drudgery of Cecil B. DeMented. More inspired along these lines is Waters’s use of subliminal text, with words like "W-H-O-R-E" flashing across the screen at key moments. Jean-Luc Godard would approve.

But I think his greatest act of subversion in shame is more subtle and structural and plays on genre. Although he claims that Shame is a sex comedy, it’s actually more of a horror film, a variation on the zombie thrillers so popular of late, in which the bite of the damned spreads their contagion. In this case, the stricken are the persecuted and the saved, so the film draws on the sexual hysteria of religious fanaticism. Waters, unashamedly as usual, makes the messianic parallels between Ray-Ray and his apostles overt enough to earn a rebuke from the Catholic Church.

Watching Shame (and there is a little bit of Bergman in Waters if you think about it), I couldn’t help wondering what The Passion of the Christ would have been like had Waters directed it. Certainly more honest and entertaining than Gibson’s version — I would imagine a fusion of Carl Dreyer, Douglas Sirk, and Monty Python. But it could never be as funny as (spoiler alert!!!) Tracey Ullman ending a performance of the "Hokey Pokey" at a rest home by picking up a water bottle with her vagina. Because that’s what the film is all about.

Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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