Has John Waters "mellowed"? At 58, American cinema's cheeriest purveyor of depravity could be simply coasting on the reputation of his great '70s vomitorium classics (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living) and his film festival-hopping, raconteur charm, and indeed the chorus of criticism around A Dirty Shame, his latest comedy, suggests that Waters has, for all his efforts to remain shocking, finally gone irrelevantly marshmallow. Nonsense. Wearing its NC-17 rating like a badge of honor, A Dirty Shame is if anything the director's most frontal attack on good taste since his days directing burly he-muse Divine on how to snack on dog shit and get raped by mechanical lobsters. No fashionable nihilism for him -- Waters continues to make so-called fifth lovable and, ultimately, human.
Kicking off with a cheeky Sirkian camera movement surveilling a peaceful Baltimore neighborhood, Waters soon zeroes in on testy hausfrau Tracy Ullman, busy with her morning schedule of warding off her frustrated husband (Chris Isaak) and keeping her exhibitionist daughter (Selma Blair, adorned with mammoth, CGI-generated mammaries as "Ursula Udders") locked up. On the way to the store, a conk on the head suddenly unspools all the whoriness Ullman has kept clogged within, and her inner horny self bursts out to play. Soon, the eager beaver is prowling dumpsters for skankwear, demanding rug-munching in buses and, in an early showstopper, leading a retirement home musical sequence to its climax with a party trick involving a water bottle and Ullman's hungry "runaway vagina."
It's only a matter of time before she joins the city's equally concussion-liberated fetishist community, playing carnal apostle to randy Johnny Knoxville's sex-machine Jesus. Pitted against them are the Prozac-toting "neuters," presided over by Ullman's bellicose ma (Suzanne Shepherd) and all the town's folks preaching for the "end of tolerance." It's the pervs versus the prudes all over again, though it's really no contest -- Waters sides with his merry humpers from frame one. And why shouldn't he? In the movie, the removal of the society-imposed sexual filter (and the sense of shame and guilt cuffed to it) is nothing less than the first step toward a democracy of pleasure. Waters tosses in an encyclopedia of fetishes (everything from tickling and diaper-wearing to dirt-licking and chubby "bears"), but the outlaw libido here is far less important as lascivious shock-value than as vessels of personal expression for the characters.
Therein lies Waters' humanism -- the wholeness of the people in his films is inseparable from their desires, their genitals and fluids, no matter how "dirty" they may seem. A Dirty Shame is like Todd Solondz's odiously prurient Happiness reworked with humor and compassion, Waters expansive and celebratory and where Solondz is reductive and derisive. The narrative has links to the arc used by George Romero in his living dead movies and, even more interestingly, to David Cronenberg's early comic horrorfest Shivers, where the unbridled release of sexuality led to similar (albeit more ambiguous) societal breakdown. In the place of horror, the picture imbues a practically religious fervor into the characters' newfound skankiness, with halos sneaked in around their heated noggins. Blossoms bloom as Knoxville dry-humps a tree stump, just as he later cures a blind man and breathes life into a crushed squirrel -- to Waters, ever the Catholic prankster, taboo-shattering goes beyond fun and into enlivening transcendence.
Randy messiah or not, however, A Dirty Shame is not only Waters' most offensive movie in years, but also his funniest. The stream of visual gags flows nonstop, from humping vegetation to naughty words flashed subliminally across the screen to David Hasselhoff shaming himself in a cameo, and even if they get overworked (like the twacks perpetually sending the characters writhing), the unholy zest brought by the game ensemble cast remains infectious. (Ullman, though not as sublimely unhinged as Kathleen Turner's murderous Mrs. Cleaver in Serial Mom, is certainly an improvement over Melanie Griffith in Waters' previous Cecil B. Demented.) Comic abandon bleeds right into ecstatic transgression, so that the finale's ejaculation blast into the camera lenses serves as both pie in the face and gleefully literal climax for the movie's subversive stroking. Jean Genet would have applauded, probably while laughing his ass off.
A Dirty Shame provides the perfect context to bid adieu to Russ Meyer (1922-2004) -- what are Selma Blair's bomber diver-sized knockers if not a wink to the maestro of mountainous tits? His métier may have been the humping grounds of drive-in nudies, but Meyer's dynamic stylistics (with emphasis on editing that made his images bump and grind) and fondness for uninhibited satire raised him above other '60s sleazemeisters and into the keenest (and funniest) appreciator of all-American vulgarity since Frank Tashlin. Andrew Sarris tagged him porndom's Méliès (with Joseph Sarno as its Lumière), while B. Ruby Rich hailed him as the first feminist American director. I salute Russ Meyer for blending lechery with humor in such classic blasts as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Mondo Topless, Vixen! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. God rest his smutty soul.