Fed up of the relentless onslaught of Hollywood junk? Watch Cecil B. Demented. Are you sick of the tired sequels and unforgiving escapades of another Avenger? And are you bored of the inevitable overkill of a year-on-year release pattern of Star Wars? Then you should watch Cecil B. Demented.
Cinema, as an escape, is integral to the experience. We’re voyeurs, peering into a world we love or hate; a world we fantasize or fear. John Waters is no stranger to the underground film scene: the midnight gross-out movie. In a season at the BFI, John Waters has his complete collection back on the big screen. We can smile to ourselves as his films act out those sinister and sordid thoughts that spoil our mind. The shotguns and pistols, forced in the faces of studios execs, as we question why on earth they green-lit a computer-game movie is utterly satisfying. Released in 2000, Cecil B. Demented is alarmingly relevant. The opening credits, mocking the multiplexes choice of films, show a billboard of Star Wars and Star Trek on repeat, while another send up laughs at a Scream 4 sequel. Scream 4 was released three years ago and, starting in December, Star Wars will be a repeated annual affair. Someone could see the future, and he was angry about it.
Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff) leads the ragtag group named the ‘Sprockets Holes’. A group of cinema-obsessed gun-toting bandits, they open the film with an extravagant kidnap of Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffiths). Nabbed from her latest premiere, and bundled into a limo, she represents everything they hate. They hide in the decrepit Hippodrome, the HQ for our band of rogues as they set out to make a film. Cecil directs and the team, all darting-eyes and jittery-movements, have a vision (a team that includes young actors including Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Mike” Shannon and Lawrence Gilliard, Jr). With tattoos of their inspirations stapled to their hearts and arms (“Otto Preminger”, “David Lynch” and “Spike Lee” adore their bodies – the latter two famously struggle to get financing for their films today), this is a film they intend to die for. Honey seems less enthusiastic.
This is John Waters via Tarantino, as he uses actors from his previous movies (Cotton from Pink Flamingos) and, akin to Natural Born Killers and True Romance, turns the movie-making venture into a pop-culture on-the-run story. Of course, Waters struggles to sometimes ensure the film is a smooth ride, often veering from one explosive number to the next, held together by spaced-out moments in the cutting room. But anyone who dreams of a cinema that challenges will gain satisfaction from seeing the events play out. A production of a Forrest Gump sequel, “Gump Again” is decimated with only old white men moaning about how they “can’t do this”, as the group gleefully do it. Even the throwaway context of a cinema screening the director’s cut of Patch Adams is a hilarious prospect unto itself.
But it is the championing of the underground that warms the cockles. A porno cinema supports the clan in one instance, turning the grim patrons into zombies. The late-night kung-fu showing elicits a less-enthusiastic martial-art imitation in the defence of Cecil’s group in another instance scene. These are audiences too and they shouldn’t be sold off to the highest bidder as the cinemas of cities are replaced by glossy malls – excluding the late-night viewer. Maybe. Maybe John Waters simply wants to play out a scenario to its extreme end, with the “celibate for celluloid” group climaxing on the stage of a drive-in to finish us all off before the credits. Because, like the obscene Pink Flamingos, it’s all a bit of fun. Birdman criticised the industry last year smartly, winning accolades and the Best Picture statuette. Cecil B. Demented doesn’t want critical acknowledgement – and nor does John Waters. He just knows that there is an audience who appreciate this type of playfully malicious tale. And, in the case of Cecil B. Demented, I’m one of them.
This post was originally published on Flickering Myth in Sepetember 2015