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A Dirty Shame (John Waters, 2004)  

   A Dirty Shame is pretty much the same as any other late John Waters film, which is to say it’s anarchic on the surface and warm and fuzzy underneath. More than once, while watching it, I thought of the American Pie movies, which also combined raunch with sweetness in a way that proved the two weren’t mutually exclusive. Here, though, the two modes are coming at you simultaneously, so it never feels like you're being coaxed into liking characters, only to see them humiliated. Even the most reactionary forces and absurd cultural artifacts on display only seem to bemuse Waters. It’s as if he’s utterly convinced that everyone, deep down inside, shares his view of the world, which is surely a reductive perspective, but at the same time it's a liberating one for a farce to have. When characters finally own up to their libido, he chuckles at their previous propriety. The movie uses a lazily incorporated Christ allegory to assault the Religious Right. In it, sex-addicts, in search of the “carnal rapture” that a heretofore unperformed sex act will bring, square off against the prudish “neuters”, who are prone to larger-than-life statements like, “tolerance went too far, and we all know it!” By focusing his entire plot on sexual addiction (which is certainly a constant theme in his work), he is perhaps forcing himself into a thematic box, but the unceasing procession of gags he invents is diverting enough that the lack of further topicality only occurs as an afterthought.


    In A Dirty Shame, Waters employs his familiar aesthetics in satirizing suburbia by simply challenging its own banal products to withstand the scrutiny of his camera’s attention. When he shows things like scrapple, formstone siding, the Hokey-Pokey, or urbanites who refer to the antics of white trash as “texture”, in their natural habitat he doesn’t need to embellish much to make a joke. In this respect, Warhol still seems to be Waters’ prime influence, which results in an undeniable datedness. With the right attitude, however, that datedness could simply just feel “retro”, since Waters purposely utilizes outmoded novelty songs, attitudes that seem hilariously quaint, and filmmaking techniques that often mine laughs out of their archaic nature (the “subliminal” W-H-O-R-E flashing on the screen, for example). It’s fairly obvious that on some level Waters is still rebelling against a time when he himself must have felt repressed by the society that surrounded him. He’s not so much tracing the roots of current social discontents as he’s dredging up old ones, laughing at them, and setting them to rest.  Still, there are times when one wishes Waters were a bit more with the times. After all, it's odd that in a film about the perceived perversion of suburbia, race never becomes an issue. As in most of his movies, too many subplots gum up the works of A Dirty Shame a bit. The third act is a mess, dominated by a desperate FX spree, although it still remains funny. The NC-17 rating is a bit unwarranted, given what gets by in movies like American Pie.



Jeremy Heilman