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October 6, 2004

New Waters flick gives bad taste a bad name

Hey, guess what? Sex can be boring.

No one should know this better than John Waters, the legendary shock auteur behind such pieces of filth as Pink Flamingoes and (my personal favorite) Serial Mom. Waters has cultivated a modest reputation as an interesting independent filmmaker, someone who can occasionally craft absorbing situations and characters while reveling in the lowest common denominator.

It's a dirty shame, then, that his latest work, A Dirty Shame, is such a failure. It's a flat-out bore, unable to generate more than a few pitiful chuckles as it limps to its disappointing conclusion.

Some critics have speculated that our mainstream culture has become so depraved that Waters no longer has the ability to shock us. I have little use for this argument. Which do you find more outrageous: Janet Jackson's baring her breast at the Super Bowl, or a nymphomaniac housewife picking up a water bottle with her vagina at an old folks' home? I thought so.

A Dirty Shame is the story of Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), the aforementioned housewife, who lives with her husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak), and her daughter, Caprice (Selma Blair), in small-town suburban Baltimore. Well, to be completely accurate, Caprice lives in a small room above their garage, because she has a pair of the most absurdly large breasts imaginable (there's no way even to measure the size), and performs under the porn name of Ursula Udders.

But it turns out that Caprice has a love for pornography because of an unfortunate maypole incident when she was twelve, when a concussion caused her to become a raging nymphomaniac. Sylvia is unable to sympathize with her daughter's insatiable sex drive until she too suffers a blow to the head, and suddenly wants to have sex with every man she meets.

OK, so it isn't Proust, but for a while A Dirty Shame succeeds in being good, dirty fun. Tracey Ullman does a convincing job portraying the liberation of a sexually repressed suburbanite, and some of Chris Isaak's reactions (as her alternately befuddled and aroused husband) are priceless. As for Selma Blair...well, if having to haul those massive prostheses on her chest every day during shooting isn't grounds for an Oscar nomination, I don't know what is.

It turns out, though, that there is such a thing as too much sex, not that the mother and daughter nymphomaniacs of A Dirty Shame ever figure that out. Frottage, felching, autoerotic asphyxiation—A Dirty Shame is a veritable encyclopedia of unconventional sexual proclivities. There's a reason this movie is rated NC-17: Even I learned some stuff. For example, before seeing the movie, I didn't know what a "Roman shower" was (And no, I'm not going to tell you).

The problem is that John Waters seems out of touch with how truly disturbing some of these sexual activities are. Now, I'm not talking about safe sex between two consensual adults; I'm from the "Lenny Bruce" school of thought there. "My concept?," the controversial comedian once explained, "You can't do anything with anybody's body to make it dirty to me. Six people, eight people, one person—you can only do one thing to make it dirty: kill it. Hiroshima was dirty."

No, I'm talking about Alan J. Wendl as Officer Alvin, a man who's obsessed with the concept of "infantilism"—that is, dressing up in baby clothes and having a sexual partner treat him as if he were incapable of thinking like an adult. I've read a little about this condition (thanks to Dan Savage and his wonderful "Savage Love" sex-advice column), and I know that it is not related to pedophilia. Having one sex partner treat the other like a baby may be kinky, but it is worlds removed from actually doing something inappropriate and illegal with an infant.

However, in one scene of A Dirty Shame, the various perverts have run amok, and Officer Alvin steps into a nursery where a little redheaded girl, probably about a year old, is sitting in a baby seat. Quietly, so that her preoccupied mother doesn't notice, Officer Alvin removes the girl from her play area and…my heart stopped. Was this character actually going to do something sexual with a little girl? That's not kinky, quirky, or unusual. That's just sick.

To Waters' credit, all Officer Alvin wanted to do was sit in the baby seat himself. Get it? He wanted to make "ga-ga, goo-goo" noises so the mother would come out and see how naughty he had been. Of course, when the mother actually saw him, she shrieked in horror. The audience was placated with a shot of the baby sitting on the sofa, completely unharmed.

Though this scene had an adequate pay-off—what was Waters thinking? The fact that I could believe—even for a minute—that one of these characters was going to molest a baby is just plain unacceptable. To borrow from Spiderman, with the ability to shock also comes great responsibility. The suggestion of pedophilia in this film may not have been as dirty as Hiroshima, but somehow I don't think Lenny Bruce would have approved either.

And it was all downhill from there. A Dirty Shame rapidly devolves into a series of lame jokes about achieving "the ultimate sex act," which turns out to be fairly pedestrian (people hit each other on the head to reach orgasm in a semi-conscious, semi-oblivious state). The end of the film involves Johnny Knoxville, as the film's ultimate "sex apostle," ascending into the sky, where he ejaculates from the top of his head. His semen splatters across the movie screen, where it drips and oozes for a few moments before Waters puts us out of our misery and rolls the credits.

You'll be appalled by this final display of tastelessness, the final sight gag in a film that begins as a pleasantly raunchy satire but quickly degenerates into a stale, sniggering middle-school sex joke. That is, if you haven't already left the theater in disgust.