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Baltimore Ravin' 

Bad boy of cinema returns with a vengeance

Beer commercials and Lara Croft video game simulations to the contrary, there's no getting around the fact that the United States is a country that's puritanical to the core. When the general populace can become outraged over the brief glimpse of a nipple on Super Bowl Sunday, or would consider a blowjob in the Oral Office -- excuse me, Oval Office -- worthy of microscopic dissection and countless front page splashes, it's clear that a nation's priorities are slightly out of whack. Yet this puritanism wouldn't be nearly as annoying if it wasn't constantly escorted by a migraine-inducing strain of hypocrisy. Never mind that the TV commercials that aired around Janet's bare breast -- one involving the humiliation of a beautiful woman who's the victim of potent horse flatulence, the other centering on a monkey sexually hitting on another hottie -- were far more offensive than that bouncing boob. And never mind that an intern blowing up a President isn't nearly as horrific as a President blowing up innocent women and children (and, lest we forget, US soldiers) purely for personal gain. In America, sex doesn't sell as much as it's obtained on consignment, worn down through overuse, and then returned by the two-faced consumer as a defective product.

Throughout his career, John Waters has denounced this sort of moral duplicity, and I wish I could state that his new movie, A Dirty Shame, qualifies as the ultimate word on the subject. Certainly, the film is unlike anything else we're likely to see in 2004 (and probably 2005 through 2008 as well), and Waters' abilities as a raconteur of raunch clearly haven't abandoned him. But if there's ever been an example of preaching to the choir, this is it: Diehard Waters fans and a few curious stragglers will check it out, but it's unimaginable that a movie as flagrantly outrageous as this one will connect on any wider scale.

If nothing else, A Dirty Shame will thrill admirers of Waters' earliest pictures, those underground efforts concocted by Baltimore's bad boy of cinema before he gained a modicum of respectability with the likes of 1988's Hairspray and 1990's underrated Cry-Baby. This is clearly old-school Waters, invoking the controversies of the past: 1970's Multiple Maniacs, which included a scene in which a character known as the Puke Eater plied his trade, or 1972's Pink Flamingos, featuring that infamous shot of transvestite Divine munching down on doggy doo. There's nothing in A Dirty Shame that quite equals those moments of historic bad taste, but Waters includes enough perversions to more than justify the film's NC-17 rating.

Comedian Tracey Ullman, as game as ever, handles the lead role of Sylvia Stickles, a dowdy Baltimore resident unencumbered by any sexual urges whatsoever. She has no time for her frustrated husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak), a mild-mannered guy resigned to jerking off on the toilet, and no patience for her daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), a lascivious stripper whose gargantuan fake breasts enable her to perform under the moniker Ursula Udders; instead, Sylvia spends most of her time working at the local convenience store with her close-minded mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd).

After suffering a concussion during a car accident, Sylvia's entire outlook changes: Guided by tow-truck driver Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville), a "sexual healer" who recognizes Sylvia's potential as his twelfth disciple, the formerly repressed homebody is overcome by strong sexual urges and will do anything to satisfy her "runaway vagina." Yet once Sylvia and her fellow sex addicts -- whose members include a redneck named Fat Fuck Frank and a businesswoman played by Patricia Hearst -- allow their decadent ways to splash over onto the streets of their once-quiet neighborhood, it's up to Big Ethel and her friend Marge the Neuter (Waters regular Mink Stole) to rally the law-abiding citizens, brandish signs that state "Say No To Tolerance," and speak out in hastily organized community meetings.

A Dirty Shame takes no prisoners in its assault on good taste, and the result is often as hilarious as it is disgusting. Sylvia's sensual gyrations while dancing the "Hokey Pokey" at a senior citizens' rest home instantly ranks as one of Waters' most memorably depraved set pieces, and I laughed out loud when someone mistakes Big Ethel for a "trannie." Indeed, the first two-thirds are packed with so many moments of incendiary humor that it's a shame the movie largely collapses during the final stretch, with Waters obviously having no clue how to wrap this up in a satisfying manner. The director becomes so desperate to continue the offenses that he even drags in an instantly recognizable celebrity for a last-minute cameo appearance as himself...loudly using an airplane lavatory.

As a filmmaker, Waters' technique sometimes borders on the inept, but he exhibits a certain deftness with the use of the vintage footage he intersperses throughout his movie. These old newsreels suggest that Waters got a great deal from the folks at the Something Weird DVD company -- shots of nudist colony denizens, a leering buffoon in a devil outfit -- and the faux-subliminal messages that occasionally flash across the screen (W-H-O-R-E, P-E-N-E-T-R-A-T-E) are a nice touch.

Waters' own philosophy is neatly summarized by Ray-Ray, who asserts that everyone should be allowed to enjoy their sexual proclivities (or perversities, as the case may be) as long as they're consensual and don't hurt anybody. It's a message that's always worth hearing, and one wishes that Waters would have expressed it in a movie less antagonistic than this one. But it's hard to convince outsiders to wander into the fold when the sexual turn-ons of some of the characters involve vomiting on each other as an act of foreplay, or defecating in public places just to see other people's reactions (in this last example, I would argue that it's a hurtful habit, at least to those of us with sensitive nostrils). Waters' reputation is, first and foremost, as a shock artist, and it's always nice to see him shake up the stodgy status quo. But in this instance, a smidgen of prudence might have been an effective weapon in the war against prudery.

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