A Dirty Shame

John Waters had never made a movie about sex before A Dirty Shame, and in a way, he still hasn’t. Waters’ great theme isn’t shock but obsession — the single-minded pursuit of something, whether fame or murder or filmmaking itself. In A Dirty Shame, half the citizens of a sedate Baltimore neighborhood are driven to indulge their sexual ids after suffering accidental concussions. It’s as if the knock on the head wiped their personalities of any inhibitions, and suddenly even the foliage takes on suggestive shapes. Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a prudish wife and mother, takes a whack on the noggin and turns into a nympho desperately seeking cunnilingus. Soon she’s drawn into a local cult of sex addicts, led by the guru-like Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), who seems to be kin to the character in Kinsey who’d tried everything at least once.

Some of this is rather like two David Cronenberg films smashed together — his feature debut Shivers, in which parasites rendered an elite community sexually insane, and 1996’s Crash, in which car-crash fetishists were guided by an outsider guru. Waters, of course, works his own side of the street. Like all his previous movies, A Dirty Shame is gloriously tacky, smitten with the aesthetics of bad taste (in his adoring hands, bad taste becomes good taste). We meet an impressive variety of fetishists — an adult baby, a trio of gay “bears,” a dirt fetishist, a wet-and-messy fetishist. (I did wonder why he didn’t get around to perhaps the most laughable of all fetishes — “furries,” who dress up like fuzzy animals and have sex.) All of these fixations, naturally, are real; Waters, who explored foot-stomping in Polyester and teabagging in Pecker, is no stranger to weird turn-ons. However wary he may be of some of these predilections, he presents them all nonjudgmentally; as long as consenting adults are involved and no one’s getting hurt, who is he to judge?

As usual, Waters doesn’t give us characters so much as collections of quirks. Sylvia’s daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), who strips under the name Ursula Udders, boasts the biggest set of breasts this side of Chesty Morgan. Sylvia’s forbidding mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd) runs the convenience store she and her husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak) work at; Big Ethel is the type of censorious prude Waters has clashed with time and again in his forty years of filmmaking. Waters regular Mink Stole turns up as another prude, a self-identified “neuter,” and it’s the sort of role she seems to specialize in when acting in her longtime friend’s later films — she’s often made up to look like exactly the sort of pinched-faced woman who would’ve despised Mink Stole in Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble. The freewheeling odyssey among perverts recalls Flamingos, still Waters’ most notorious work, though it has things on its mind other than shock.

Truly, the film could be about obsessive stamp collectors or model-railroad buffs, and except for the homegrown legion of decency that seeks to stamp out the libertines, it wouldn’t be much different. Waters is not really all that interested in sex; we certainly hear much more about it than we actually see. Pornographic in rhetoric but not in content, A Dirty Shame is like a month’s worth of Howard Stern radio shows given a John Waters spin. The fetishists in the film seem to enjoy talking about their turn-ons much more than actually carrying them out. And even towards the end, when everything falls apart and the streets are full of frisky bears and adult babies, the people seem to get off mostly because they’re scandalizing the prudes. The characters are driven by tunnel vision, not by their libidoes. Once they’ve been concussed, nothing exists in their world except whatever floats their boat.

Waters has made a resolutely unsexy sex comedy, but he hasn’t left out the comedy. The soundtrack is loaded with crackling old sex songs, from “Tony’s Got Hot Nuts” to “The Pussy Cat Song” — novelty singles from a time when you couldn’t say “fuck” and double entendres had to do the heavy lifting. Ray-Ray’s great mission in the movie is to find the one sex act nobody has committed yet, and it’s typical of Waters that the act, when finally discovered, owes more to slapstick than to porno. Waters also has perhaps his best lead since Divine in Tracey Ullman, that impish chameleon who gets far too little film work. Sylvia goes in and out of sex addiction, flipping from prude to nympho and back again, and Ullman, in her sweetly sane way, keeps us grounded in Sylvia’s insanity.

It was inevitable for Ullman and Waters to get together, since Waters did a famous guest shot on The Simpsons, which began life as a short toon on The Tracey Ullman Show. The movie has gotten burdened with a ludicrous NC-17 rating, which limits its distribution in theaters and video stores, and critics have been savage to it. It would be a dirty shame indeed if this collaboration between two giggly, like-minded back-of-the-classroom pranksters missed out on the wider audience it deserves.

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