Dirty Shame, A

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/11/05 19:44:56

"So much to say, so many problems saying it."
3 stars (Just Average)

John Waters’ “A Dirty Shame” may not be a great movie, but it is a great political statement. I find myself so won over with what this movie had to say that I do not seem to mind the many problems it had in saying them. It combines Waters’ legendary envelope-pushing with the Parker-Stone MPAA battles of “South Park” and “Team America,” resulting in a film that seems to exist merely to show just how insane the current movie rating system is.

Consider that the film was handed an NC-17 rating, despite the fact that there is no nudity (minus the occasional dream sequence footage of antique stag reels), no on-screen sex, nothing. The NC-17 was given merely because the movie dares to talk about sex - the language is strong and the subjects are frank, yes, but all we’re doing here is discussing, not showing, sex. And yet the MPAA felt this honest talk of fetishes, arousal, and, above all, the notion that consensual sexual activity, no matter how bizarre, is perfectly OK and deserves to be out in the open was so potentially offensive that it should land an adults-only rating, knowing full well that the NC-17 brand is a scarlet letter of sorts, with many theaters and video stores refusing to offer such a product, and with many media outlets refusing to advertise it.

Now consider that Waters has released “The Neuter Version” for an optional DVD release, for those stores unwilling to carry the original. This edited version fuzzes out every last inch of dream-sequence nudity (as well as one middle finger), then, through dubbing, replaces every last naughty curse word… and this edition, with no sex, no nudity, no language, gets an R rating.

This is pure insanity, and Waters knows it. His film exists to show us the hypocrisy of a system that does not work at all; in an age where the “f-word” is allowed to sneak into a PG-13 film (provided that it is given as a curse and not a verb), and where violence is widely acceptable in movies made for teens, here we have a film that is labeled shocking and taboo, just because it wants to discuss sex.

This double standard is nothing new (in a recent reading of Harold Schechter’s “Savage Pastimes,” I stumbled across an appropriate study of Gershon Legman’s 1949 “Love and Death: A Study In Censorship,” in which American culture can be boiled down to “death yes, sex no,” or, as Legman so bluntly put it, “no tits - blood”), but with the revival of puritanical beliefs and the right-wing movement of recent years, it’s timely once again. And Waters, that rabblerousing trash culture expert, is ready to strike.

His film stars Tracy Ullman as Sylvia Stickles, an unassuming convenience store clerk who, following a bonk on the head, becomes a sex addict, as it seems happens to anyone in this movie who lands a head injury. She’s led into a sexual awakening of sorts by Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), who’s either a Christ figure or the devil, depending. Ray-Ray has a crowd of “disciples” who openly share their fetishes, and his teachings range from the wise (“You’ll learn to accept anything sexual, as long as it’s safe, consensual, and doesn’t harm others”) to the juvenile (“Let’s go sexin’!”).

As Sylvia’s sexuality blossoms, her neighborhood begins something of a civil war. On one side, Ray-Ray’s deviants; on the other, a crowd of uptight hags led by Sylvia’s mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), who yearns to banish all things sexual from her street.

And here’s where the film begins to wobble… and by “wobble,” I mean “implode.” Most of Waters’ film consists of smart satire (his take on the ineffectiveness of 12-step programs is a keeper, while his script contains plenty of giddy memorable one-liners and oddball characters), but his screenplay slowly devolves, sliding slowly but surely off track. By the final half hour, we’re given too-obvious jokes (“No more tolerance!” the Big Ethel mob chants) and a series of events that seems to go against Ray-Ray’s teachings of making sure things are consensual: the deviants begin harassing everybody, resulting in a sex raid that’s too uncomfortable for what the film intends. (Despite being treated as heroes, there are several folks here who, by movie’s end, most certainly deserve to be arrested.)

It should be mentioned that Waters has always been less an expert filmmaker and more an expert provocateur. We do not remember John Waters movies for how they are made, but what they showed us while making them. So it comes as little surprise that his point - that we as a society are way too uptight about sexual activity - is far better than his execution. Yet this point shines through brightly enough that it wins out over the problematic screenplay and the hamfistedness manner in which the satire is shoved down out throats. Yes, this film is obvious and loud, and yes, Waters spends so much time celebrating his deviant heroes and lampooning his conservative villains that he seems to forget the middle ground where most of us live. But this is forgivable. “A Dirty Shame” is not a good movie, but it has a good message, and for that, it’s well worth seeing, if only once.

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