John Waters @ 75: A Dirty Shame

This article originally appeared on The Film Experience

Team Experience has been celebrating John Waters for his 75th birthday.

I like to think John Waters had enough of what people have been expecting from him.  Following a slightly more conventionally commercial run of films with Hairspray onward, Waters returned to his sex-addled farcical roots with 2004’s A Dirty Shame.  I love the idea of a fan of Cry-Baby showing up to this film expecting something along the same lines, only to be presented with something much closer to Desperate Living.

A Dirty Shame follows the residents of Hartford Road as either “neuters”, a group of puritanical sex haters, or “perverts”, a group of sex addicts with unique fetishes brought on by accidental concussions…

Tracey Ullman plays Sylvia Stickles, a prominent member of the neuters, until a traffic incident initiates Sylvia into the perverts as a cunnilingus power bottom.

The entirety of the plot and what happens on screen is so profoundly silly, that it would be easy to miss the point Waters is trying to make.  Following Sylvia’s turn to perversion, the neuters are led by Sylvia’s mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd).  She leads rallies to stop the perversion and maintain their neuter way of life.  Her own satisfaction is never considered, just the halting of other’s satisfaction, even though it harms no one and is always consensual.  Signs at these rallies include “I Hate Sex,” “We Love Virginity” and “Down with Diversity.”

Waters isn’t promoting odd sexuality, but condemning the people and religious institutions that want to stifle sexual desires for no reason other than control.  During the big rally at Big Ethel’s store, she rails against perversion while the attendees make purchase after purchase.  The message is clear: the efforts to stop people are Capitalistic and not morality-based.  Eventually, all members of the town end up concussed and perverted, and everyone seems really happy.  The sexuality at no point titillates, but instead is more of a fascination at the variety.

The absolute commitment of Waters’ ensemble has to be commended.  From Ullman’s go-for-broke broad comedy, to Selma Blair’s gargantuan fake breasts and every incredulous line reading from Shepherd, Waters’ actors are all-in for whatever is thrown at them.  James Ransome portrays Dingy Dave, who loves dirt so much he licks tires, drinks water from flower vases and eats an entire ashtray of discarded cigarettes.  When you sign on to a John Waters movie, you know what you are getting into.

The film was notable at the time for its NC-17 rating, which limited the amount of theaters willing to show it.  Hindsight being what it is, the sexual content in the film is fairly tame.  There are a few full-frontal nudity shots, but it’s all so ridiculous that you can’t take it seriously.  Among films that have kept that rating, A Dirty Shame is one of the few screwball comedies.  Most NC-17-rated films feature horrendous violence or dark sexual content.  Waters’ film is nothing but fun sexual hijinks and the joy people can feel from it.

Though not my favorite Waters movie, if he never makes another film, I can stand by A Dirty Shame as a film that carries on his legacy of pioneering sexual frankness to go along with the deeper political and societal commentary.

Come back to our screens, John Waters!

More from our 75th birthday celebration…
Pink Flamingos (1972) by Nathaniel Rogers
Female Trouble (1974) by Jason Adams
Desperate Living (1977) by Camila Henriques
Polyester (1981) by Eric Blume
Hairspray (1988) by Cláudio Alves
Pecker (1998) by Daniel Walber

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