From 28 Days Later
to the Dawn of the Dead
remake to the current, agreeably funny lark Shaun of the Dead
, zombie movies are experiencing a bit of a renaissance. The latest howler from bard of bad taste John Waters, A Dirty Shame
, is also a zombie movie of sorts, although one that s pro-zombie. Instead of a bite leading to walking-dead status, Waters world is one in which accidental conks on the head lead the citizens of his beloved Baltimore to a condition Waters deems more
alive: turning them into unrepentant, uncontrollable sex fiends.
A Dirty Shame
is ostensibly set in the present, but with its flowery opening score and a peaceful tracking shot that descends from the trees onto a modest family home, it signifies the 1950s, coming across as a more amateurish but just as intentional homage to Douglas Sirk melodramas such as Far From Heaven
. This clash of setting and style might make Waters message a bit anachronistic: that by attacking stereotypical Eisenhower-era prudishness, Waters is setting up a strawman long since passed in our current sex-crazed culture.
The argument that Waters would probably make is that under the Bush administration with a Christian zealot attorney general known to anoint himself with Crisco, an FCC cracking down, and sexual panic spurring the thought of writing discrimination into
the Constitution some of the 50s-style cultural repression is making a comeback. This would make Waters deliciously naughty new movie as much an election-year special as Silver City
or Team America World Police
And yet, A Dirty Shame
is strangely purposeless. Or rather, the purpose is less confrontational than in Waters Pink Flamingos
days. A Dirty Shame
is ultimately less a cultural treatise than an excuse for Waters to revel, with middle-school glee and childlike wonder, in what he hopes is still prurient sexuality.
Indeed, as outrÇ as much of the material in A Dirty Shame
is, there s a cheerful innocence to it: Waters modern-day vision of sex mania ignores such developments as Internet porn and gonzo movies in favor of burlesque-style strip shows ( Those tasty titties! one show poster exclaims), stag magazines, and Page-esque grindhouse reels. In fact, Waters crams the film with such relics of cultural raunch: vintage black-and-white films of nubile nudies being chased by a man in a cheesy Satan costume and a soundtrack to die for. The cornucopia of filthy 50s records Waters deploys is heavy on Memphis rockabilly, with selections from Sonny Burgess, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, most prominently, Billy Lee Riley, whose Red Hot serves as the theme song for Selma Blair s biker-bar dance queen Ursula Udders, so named because of her criminally enhanced breasts.
There s a message to the use of all this lewd 50s culture, of course: Even in supposedly prudish times, the collective libido couldn t be kept in check. But one senses that Waters injects his movie with this stuff simply because he loves it, that A Dirty Shame
is a personal playground, and Waters doesn t much care if you want to join in.
Indeed, most viewers may be a little confused by an NC-17 sex film with only brief nudity and very little simulated intercourse. Waters earns his rating with what one character terms a Noah s ark of sexual perversion : an enthusiastic catalogue of sexual fetishes far outside the mainstream, resulting in a film populated by bears (a gay subculture of big, burly men), adult babies, dirt lovers, frottage fiends, and a cunnilingus bottom, along with even more transgressive types.
The Pied Piper of this group is Ray-Ray, a lascivious mechanic played by Johnny Knoxville. But the star is mild-mannered quickie-mart owner Sylvia Stickles, played to leering perfection by Tracey Ullman. Before suffering a serendipitous head injury, Sylvia is a sexless frump; afterward, she s turning a nursing-home Hokey Pokey session into something from an Amsterdam sex show.
Ullman s devilish eyes are the film s consistent joy. Otherwise, it all gets a bit repetitive. And the higher production values and cast of recognizable faces don t really mesh with Waters style; better the skuzzy homemade feel of Polyester
or Desperate Living
. But as an over-the-top, extremely cartoonish celebration of any and all things sexual, A Dirty Shame
is glorious in its own minor, slapdash way. If you re pervy enough to perk up at the idea of a movie that has the brightness of an MGM musical but is filled with flaming vaginas, smooching seniors, rush-hour hummers, voluminous sexual euphemisms ( yodeling in the canyon ), and trees boasting humanlike orifices, then perhaps you re ready to respond to A Dirty Shame
s harmlessly silly call-to-arms: Let s go sexin !
Bullying is a strange phenomenon, but stranger than the actual bullying is the useless cacophony of adult responses. Between parents, teachers, and principals, a bullied child can get conflicting solutions: Turn the other cheek. Stand up for yourself and hit back. Just ignore them, and they won t bother you anymore. Without the intervention of an adult, there is little a bullied kid can do to be less of a target. So, when kids these days find guns and take them to school and shoot a lot of people and then themselves, I am reminded of the humiliating and helpless days when the young killers didn t have any friends, when nobody in charge helped them, when they felt most alone in the world and I understand why it happens. Not condone, surely, but as a former bullied kid I understand the feelings that must go into so terrible an action and the small but vivid culture that produces such an event.
There are two bullies in Mean Creek, Jacob Estes directorial and screenwriting debut. One of them is a spoiled fat kid named George whom nobody likes. The other, Marty, is one of those seductively cool kids who is more grown up than the rest because he drives and he drinks beer, though deep down he s probably just as lonely as George.
One day, when George beats up Sam (Rory Culkin) for the umpteenth time, Sam s older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) decides that enough s enough. He and his buddies Clyde (Ryan Kelley) and Marty come up with a plan to get George back by tricking him to go down the river with them, get him to take all his clothes off during a game of Truth or Dare, and then to make him walk home naked. That ll teach him not to beat up on Sam, right?
About a third of the film is dedicated to this plan, with the boys conspiring on how cool it will be to pull this off, how it will happen, etc. The second third is the trip itself, a leisurely paddle down the river in an old, beat-up fishing boat, with George lured into the plot by everyone pretending that it s Sam s birthday, and George would be cool if he went along. And what (mostly) everyone discovers about George along the way is he s not so bad. He s just a lonely, troubled kid who wants friends, not unlike the rest of them. This discovery might be enough to avert the impending trouble, but Marty is the spiritual leader of this group and Marty wants to play the game. So, the last third of the film turns on Marty s wanting to get George and get him good. It should surprise nobody that George dies somehow, and we spend a lot of time with the kids as they try to figure out what to do.
There is an honesty and a rawness to Mean Creek that place it in the good company of Stand By Me and River s Edge, two other outstanding coming-of-age films in which dealing with a dead body somehow hastens the growing-up process. Estes debut is patient and sure of itself. And while there s not a lot of plot to fill the film s 99 minutes, there is enough atmosphere to satisfy the length. The small Oregon town where the events transpire seems somehow complicitous in George s death. Estes offers numerous shots of the river slowly drifting by with bugs and wildlife wafting in and out of view and lots of litter and junky cars and rotten industry. The children seem a product of a decaying town with no parents and, in fact, until the end, we really don t see any adults. The surroundings don t seem to permit the accident. They seem to demand it.
Anchoring Mean Creek like harrowing bookends are the notable and noble performances of its bullies, Josh Peck as George and Scott Mechlowicz s Marty. They exist on the opposite sides of cool and bully, but they are both monsters in a way and sad kids who could maybe straighten out with a little love and guidance. Both are brave performances: Peck s for allowing himself to be ridiculed for some of the things he clearly is, and Mechlowicz s for allowing his cool to get torn down in pitiable spades.
Mean Creek may have a tough time finding an audience. It s rated R, so all those kids who should see it can t, and what adult wants to relive all that, right? But for those who do see it, the reward is a scary but safe journey to a place we all remember and choose to forget. n