Morality Tales

Photo: Abbot Genser/Artisan Entertainment

John Waters, in his public appearances, does such a good job being “John Waters” that his movies often seem superfluous. He’s his own best creation. With his pencil-line mustache and pomade and campy non sequiturs, the lewd outrager from Baltimore has become the darling of college cinema societies and the film-festival circuit. Waters began his career as a pioneer in the now-burgeoning field of the gross-out movie, and some of that grossness, viewed again in films like Pink Flamingos, is still impressively icky. But you no longer go to Waters’s movies to be outraged or revolted. You go for the enjoyable spectacle of seeing the zero-budget yeccch-meister fit his frissons into the woozier reaches of mainstream moviemaking. It’s not as if Waters has sold out; the dream factory’s sobby soap-opera side, after all, has always been his clarion call. His new movie, Cecil B. DeMented, is ostensibly an attack on Hollywood, but Waters also wants it to be his version of that archetypal love/hate Hollywood movie Sunset Boulevard. For Waters, his “going Hollywood” is the ultimate joke, the ultimate subversion.

Waters is bothered by the fact that the studios turn out garbage – and that the garbage is machine-tooled. He likes his schlock to have some aroma. In Cecil B. DeMented, the eponymous Cecil (Stephen Dorff) is the manager of a restored Art Deco movie palace in Baltimore who, together with his clan of renegades calling themselves the Sprocket Holes, kidnaps Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), a movie queen with a diva-size ego who is in town for a benefit premiere of her new film. Cecil terrorizes her into service as the star of his guerrilla movie production Raving Beauty. The gonzo crew, including a sweet-tempered occultist (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a self-hating heterosexual hairdresser (Jack Noseworthy), and a porn star (Alicia Witt) who performs onscreen with a gerbil, take their cue from Cecil and shout slogans like “Power to the people who punish bad cinema!” They tattoo the names of outlaw directors on their arms: Spike Lee, Sam Peckinpah, David Lynch, Sam Fuller, William Castle. (Cecil’s choice is Otto Preminger, whose martinet ways would seem to be the prime reason for the adulation.) They disrupt the stuffed-shirt proceedings of the Maryland Film Commission, which is hosting lunch for a bunch of oyster-slurping dolts, and they wreck the filming of the sequel to Forrest Gump, starring Kevin Nealon in the title role. Eventually, Honey Whitlock comes around to the idea that her kidnapping is a good career move.

The plot device of a kidnappee falling in with her kidnappers is an old one, but Melanie Griffith, who is the Norma Desmond in this crackbrained Sunset Boulevard, gives it a fresh spin. Part gorgon, part den mother, Griffith accentuates her tinkly-voiced fogginess, her way of speaking her lines as if she had just been put into a dainty trance. Periodically she roars through the film’s mild mood with a movie-star snit. The film needs Griffith’s dippy modulations, because without her it’s mostly a brassy rant. Waters wants Cecil B. DeMented to be a goof, but even more than that, he wants to sock it to Hollywood. He really means it when he has his cultists revolutionizing to end bad cinema, but his own filmmaking skills are fairly skimpy, and so the satiric idea never explodes into something wonderful. (If the early Godard or De Palma had seized upon this idea, the resulting movie would have been a wingding.) Like Andy Warhol when he made movies, Waters preempts negative criticism by laying out his ineptitude in plain view. The amateurishness of the production isn’t just an antidote to Hollywood’s slickness; it’s also supposed to be more heartfelt, more real. In Cecil B. DeMented, Waters the camp hipster tries to finish off one kind of bad cinema and ends up replacing it with another kind. His.

Gimme Shelter, the 1970 maysles brothers-charlotte Zwerin documentary about the Rolling Stones at Altamont, has always been discussed in reverent tones as the classic cinematic death knell for the Love Generation. Seeing it again after many years – it’s being rereleased at Film Forum in a new 35-mm. print with surround sound and a few minutes of extra footage – I am more inclined to regard it as a not-so-classic chronicling of a public-relations nightmare parading as a morality play. The Stones, touring America in 1969, hired members of the Hell’s Angels to provide security during a free concert at Altamont Speedway six miles outside of San Francisco, and paid them in beer. About 300,000 fans showed up, and as some rushed the four-foot-high stage, they were brutalized by the Angels with weighted pool cues. An 18-year-old man, waving a gun, was stabbed to death by an Angel, and we see the murder replayed, in slow motion, in Gimme Shelter. (Two other concertgoers died in a hit-and-run, and another drowned in a puddle.) As the horror plays itself out, the cameras home in on the nighttime masses of freaked stoners as if it were the Island of Dr. Moreau.

It’s natural to regard this film as the anti-Woodstock, but the fatalism that surrounds it seems forced: Though we are riveted by the air of impending disaster, it’s a disaster that almost certainly could have been averted had preparations for the concert not been so criminally slipshod. The filmmakers lightly assess the culpability of the Stones; their lawyer for the event, Melvin Belli; and the Hell’s Angels, but one is still left with the impression that the tragedy was inevitable, beyond mortal control. To portray Altamont as the symbol for the closing-out of a generation is to confuse hubris and bad planning with divine retribution for all that “peace, love, and music” at Max Yasgur’s farm five months earlier.

There is one compelling reason to check out Gimme Shelter aside from wanting to wallow in nostalgic Flower Power martyrdom. It’s probably the best full-scale look at Mick Jagger that exists in the movies (not that there’s been much competition). In such films as Performance and Ned Kelly, Jagger’s impudence didn’t register, and even Godard, in Sympathy for the Devil, couldn’t tease out much of his charisma. Jagger tends to click off when he’s not cavorting onstage, and so the documentaries that catch him on the sly are often letdowns, including Robert Frank’s rarely seen Cocksucker Blues. Gimme Shelter can’t compare as a musical experience with Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, but it shows off Jagger in his pansexual prime, with his lewd Tina Turner performance moves and his florid Miss Clairol locks and cinched waist. Goading his audience – “You don’t want my trousers to fall down, do you?” – he’s a satyr in heat. He stirs up and brings out the rage in his fans’ idolatry, which is why he was precisely the wrong star to play to a dangerously stoned crowd and a phalanx of biker bruisers.

Morality Tales