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A Dirty Shame

John Waters, the self proclaimed Prince of Puke, has indeed returned after a four year hiatus following his ode to cinema, Cecil B. Demented. His latest endeavor is yet another send-up of Douglas Sirk-style domesticity turned perversely on its ear. The focus this time out is on the Baltimore suburb Harford Road, an ultra-conservative community that has an issue with sexual tolerance.

As with most Waters vehicles, A Dirty Shame intends to shock, excite, and most of all push the limits in all directions. In this aim it does succeed; however it also manages to accomplish something in the process. Though Waters has denounced any desire to produce work that could be labeled “socially redeeming” in the past, the message here, although convoluted, is somewhat resonate.

Sylvia Stickles (Tracie Ullman) lives up to her surname, as she is indeed a stickler. She’s a working class mother who manages to fix breakfast for her family before ushering herself off to work her shift at the Pinewood Park and Pay, a small gas station style convenience mart owned by Sylvia’s mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd).

When we first meet Sylvia, she is too busy “makin’ scrapple” to act on her husband Vaughn’s (Chris Isaak) sexual appetite. This leads Vaughn to sneak off to the bathroom with a copy of “Sex-Addict” magazine to take matters into his own hands, as it were. This sets up the entire dynamic for the rest of the film: desire, repression, subversion, release. Though it sounds simplistic, it really applies to so many levels.

We learn that Sylvia's daughter Caprice (Selma Blair) is on house arrest for excessive violations of indecent exposure laws. Kept locked in her room, Caprice is "protected" from her subversive lifestyle as an erotic dancer in a roadhouse tittie bar. She prefers the name Ursula Udders, and it would probably help to mention that she has inhumanly enhanced breasts as well.

The Stickles hide their shame. Their new neighbors from Washington D.C., the Doggets, are aware of Caprice’s woes and they get a good laugh when Ursula’s number one fan, Fat F#ck Frank, shows up with hopes of spying Ursula’s, well, Udders.

“Texture, that’s what I call it” Wendell Doggett explains as Frank insists on seeing Ursula. Ashamed of the whole ordeal, Sylvia hops in the car and heads to work, leaving her husband and co-worker behind to walk alone. On her way to work, Sylvia crosses the paths of several of her neighbors, each perceived to be a little odd, a touch unfamiliar, and a bit frightening in some cases. Most notably is the Bear Family, busy moving in down the street.

The Bears are the three big, hairy, burly men moving boxes into their new home in the trailer. They growl and paw at Sylvia as she drives by, giving us the illusion that they are performing some sort of lewd cat-call in her direction. She, of course, is horrified. However, the Bear Family is not full of testosterone-blinded chauvinists, but are instead a triumvirate of humble and friendly gay sex addicts, unafraid of ridicule for their lifestyle.

Perception is key in both the film and in the Harford Road community. Waters doesn’t trouble himself with a bothersome grey area. Instead he paints in broad strokes here. Characters are either sexually conservative or sexually addicted, and they can be toggled between these two states with an accidental concussion brought on by a simple bump on the head.

This is, of course, exactly what happens to the ultra traditional and sexually repressed Sylvia on her way to work, turning her into a sexual monster of sorts. Waters uses bold labels superimposed over characters as they switch sides, ranging from “W-H-O-R-E” to “E-R-E-C-T.”

These transformation sequences are punctuated with footage from varied sources featuring horned devils, nude males and females, and Santa Claus, just to name a few.

Sylvia’s descent into sexual deviance and perversion of traditional sexual practices provides the bulk of the staple gags and gross out traits one would expect from Waters, but as always the participants are all very normal, non-hollywood types, mirroring the people we pass on the street every day. Waters crams each frame full of sexual reference, turning the mise-en-scène into an orgiastic explosion of sexual deviance and freedom as he bullets through deviances spanning from the scatological to infantilism to fetishes with filth. Yes, literally dirt.

Is it ironic that a full service station worker named Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) is able to resuscitate a dead squirrel, has a group of twelve sexually liberated followers, and announces that he is “here to service you?” No. He is Waters’ sexual savior, poking fun at the religious right by offering them a glimpse of their direct antithesis, the carnally indulgent.

Those opposing the recent swarm of sex addicts are led by Marge (Waters regular Mink Stole) and call themselves “Neuters.” They claim that tolerance “went too far.” It is also important to note that the Neuters are the ones provoking repressive efforts, inciting the masses to revolt, and have no qualms about selling them the tools needed to rebel in the process.

Those conservatives, always making a buck off of everyone else’s turmoil...

In the end, A Dirty Shame suffers from its own muddied structure, as do many Waters vehicles. The barebones plot only serves the purpose of delivering gag after gag. However, this doesn’t hinder Waters’ goal. The film is intended to call issues of sexual repression into question and make audiences laugh in the process.

The real dirty shame is that many may not get the joke.


Mario Anima

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