C is for Cecil B. Demented

Cecil B. Demented: 2000, dir. John Waters. Seen July 21, 2007 on DVD (part of the ABC Project).
While everyone else in America was watching the movie adaptation of the Broadway adaptation of the John Waters film Hairspray last weekend, we decided to watch some unadulterated Waters. I rented Pecker awhile ago and enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and hoped that Cecil B. Demented would be the same way. It’s not as good a movie as Pecker — in fact, it’s not really a very good movie at all. But it made me laugh, and it was so much different than the cookie-cutter movies I’ve been watching in theaters that I’m willing to overlook its flaws.
I didn’t know anything about this movie going into it except that my editor at Cinematical Indie has frequently quoted one of its lines, “Power to the people who punish bad cinema!” From that and the title, I expected the movie to be about movies, but I didn’t even know it starred Melanie Griffith. I am still wondering how Waters convinced Griffith to take this role — we may have to watch the commentary track later today to try to find out. (The commentary track on Pecker was excellent.) I didn’t realize the actress had the type of sense of humor to play a self-mocking character like this. Her character Honey Whitlock starts the movie as a petulant, mean-spirited star … who is kidnapped by a ground of rebellious teenage filmmakers (led by the title character) who want to use her in their “new cinema.”
The teenage filmmakers are all unusual characters that fit right in with the John Waters universe. Everyone has a tattoo of a filmmaker’s name on his or herself (my only carp: what, no female directors? Couldn’t someone have had Ida Lupino or Penelope Spheeris tattooed on herself?). The tattoos range from William Castle to Pedro Almodovar to Herschell Gordon Lewis, so you know these are not your average teens. The group includes a drug addict gone to extremes, a Satan worshipper (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), an ex-porn star who specialized in anal scenes, and a hairdresser who hates being straight. The plot reminds one, in an amusing way, of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and this being a John Waters film, naturally Hearst herself shows up in a role as the mom of one of the teenagers.
Cecil B. Demented has a lot of in-jokes for film buffs; the coded messages for the kidnapping are lines like “Hey, hey, MPAA, how many movies did you censor today?” When the filmmakers run into trouble, they run into specialty movie theaters where the audiences help them out. The teens are determined to eradicate multiplexes and the kinds of movies that play there; they attack a theater that is showing Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut, face a crowd full of angry moms at a theater that refuses to show R or unrated films, and sabotage a Maryland Film Commission luncheon full of Hollywood execs. I liked the opening credits, which showed the marquees of what I assume were a number of Baltimore-area theaters, over a song that spoofed overwrought cliched movie music.
Cecil B. Demented is a fun movie for people who like to see movies in theaters, especially older theaters — it was a treat to see all of the theaters in the movie, including the drive-in. It’s not a great movie — the plot doesn’t make much sense, some of the acting is flat, and the teen characters’ quirks sometimes become tiresome (Gyllenhaal’s Satanic devotions get old fast, although I did like her makeup). Summertime is the perfect time to see this movie, because if you have been watching nothing but multiplex fare, especially summer blockbusters, this movie does prove its point: the latest “tentpole” film seems bland, dull, and annoyingly predictable compared to the glorious chaos of Cecil B. Demented.