Stop preaching, John

Imagine you were having a conversation with Cecil B. DeMented, the movie (not the character featured in the movie, but the movie itself).

"The studio system is crap."

"Why is it crap?"

"It's crap because it's crap."

"Right. But what makes it crap?"

"The sheer crappiness of it all."

"I'm just not following your argument."

"Arguments are crap."

"Can you say anything other than crap?"

"Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap..."

John Waters may be a master of low brow film moments, but he falls painfully short in the category of insightful commentary. Admittedly, many films fall short that way, but it appears certain that commentary is what Waters is really trying to do here - and that's the very definition of failure.

Consider the opening credits - a sequence of still frames of theater marquees with the names of the cast and crew digitally rendered into the spaces where film titles would go - this is at once clever, but also simply boring after the first few theaters. Perhaps there is some sort of deconstructionist approach being used here - more likely it's just low budget filmmaking. Then we move into a sequence leading up to a movie premiere in Baltimore (where else?). There is a conspiracy afoot, and each character involved makes a point of speaking pointed code phrases into walkie talkies. Again, the pure repetition merely serves to annoy us.

Our conspiracy turns out to be a kidnapping by a group of extreme young filmmakers. At their lair, each member of the crew introduces themselves, showing off a tattoo of a well-respected (by Waters himself, at least) director, many from the past, but a few moderns like David Lynch, Spike Lee, and Almodovar are included. This process goes on interminably, each character (and there's quite a few of them) trying to act cool and extreme and half of them going through a stilted process of showing the tattoo. Ten minutes in and we've been hit over the head at least three times with what the movie insists we know. Form reigns supreme over content here, at the expense of any depth of character whatsoever. It would be more exciting to read an essay on the topic, because there would be some kind of honesty to it.

Did I just say "honesty"? (Or type it, you know what I mean) I guess my point is that when the message is more important than the story, the feeling of manipulation increases exponentially. Nearly all movies manipulate you one way or another. It's a matter of making the characters properly motivated for the storyline that makes it possible to let the manipulation slide - a form of suspension of disbelief. By prioritizing story and character so far behind the message, Waters is insulting an audience, not matter how sympathetic they might be.

There's some good quotes - "We believe technique to be nothing more than failed style", "We are the ultimate bad review", "I'm ashamed of my heterosexuality" ... but quotes do not make a movie.

The ending even doesn't hold up the movie's own standards, imposing its own self-censorship in the guise of a schlocky filmmaking. In a way, the whole movie is a kind of schlock, but even from that perspective it's at cross purposes to itself. It's true this movie is best enjoyed as schlock - just don't expect much more than that.

The problem with Cecil B. DeMented is not just that it's a bad movie. For a film that comments so much on the bad movies of the studio system, we are owed something better than a bad independent movie - it undercuts the entire argument the film is trying to make. It's not an unworthy message. It's just told in a very poor manner.

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