In December of 2014, Jason Bailey of Flavorwire wrote a fascinating piece entitled “How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA” going into great detail about how the changes in the film industry zeitgeist over the years has resulted in many directors whose films usually fall in-between what is considered “low budget” by Hollywood standards and the mega-budgeted blockbusters which dominate the current cinematic landscape have gotten lost in the shuffle. The article quotes several filmmakers and one of the directors profiled was John Waters. Its hard to believe, and more than a bit depressing that its been 11 years since Waters has directed a film. Waters has hardly been reclusive though, embarking on spoken word performance tours, publishing the books Role Models and Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America which detailed Waters’ cross-country hitch-hiking journey from Baltimore to San Francisco, and more recently conducting fascinating live on stage interviews with the likes of David Cronenberg and Isabelle Huppert. Waters’ last film to date, 2004’s A Dirty Shame could very well be seen as a “back to his roots” film so to speak. Certainly Waters’ most gleefully vulgar film since the 70’s, A Dirty Shame is also one of his most brilliant, filled with Waters’ typical spot-on social satire as well as featuring some of the filthiest, fall on the floor hilarious comedic bits in Waters’ entire oeuvre.
The Harford Row area of Baltimore is comprised of two distinct groups, “neuters” who are disgusted by anything remotely sexual and on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, sex addicts. Repulsed by her husbands advances and keeping her abnormally large breasted exhibitionist daughter who goes by the name “Ursula Udders” locked in her room, Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) is perhaps the most defiant neuter until an accidental blow to the head results in a concussion and Sylvia, like all other concussion sufferers on Harford Row, is now a sex addict. Under the guidance of Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), the leader of the sex addicts, Sylvia learns that she is the 12th apostle, destined to think of a never before heard of sex act, although Sylvia’s mother becomes determined to save her daughter from a world of perversion which leads to complete mayhem with the sex addicts determined to take over Harford Row.
Just as Serial Mom (1994) was released in the early days of Court TV where constant trial coverage in real time was a relatively new thing and the line between criminal and celebrity became even more blurry, A Dirty Shame is yet again another instance of Waters’ perfect timing when it comes to satire. Looking back at the American political climate of 2004 when the film was released during the Bush administration with issues such as gay marriage being of the most contentious issues of the day, A Dirty Shame couldn’t have been more on the money. Waters’ masterfully lampoons the tendency of society as a whole to view and judge individuals based solely on their sexuality and also gives the views of both the extreme right and left regarding sex a proper skewering. To the right, those with more liberal views towards sex are nothing more than oversexed perverts out to corrupt society while the left considers those on the more conservative side of the sociopolitical arena repressive religious zealots out to condemn sexual freedom. As exaggerated as the film is, Waters’ observation isn’t at all inaccurate. Water’s brilliantly avoids any instances of pretentiousness in his commentary given the over the top nature of the films humor which, as always with Waters is absurd, risqué and hysterical, made even funnier by some of the ridiculous fetishes on display, the soundtrack comprised of dirty gimmick songs and the gusto performances of Ullman, Knoxville and an especially hilarious appearance by longtime Dreamlander Patty Hearst.
Perhaps the perfect timing of A Dirty Shame ended up working against it. For starters it was given the NC-17 rating by MPAA which is of course often referred to as a kiss of death by many filmmakers as it severely limits a films audience which results in fewer ticket sales in the few theatres it might actually stand a chance playing in. There’s also the issue of advertisements with some television stations refusing to air TV spots for NC-17 rated films and also the fact that certain retail stores won’t stock NC-17 films which forced Waters to cut the film and release two different versions on DVD with the cut version being hilariously labeled the “neuter version”. In Kirby Dick’s fascinating documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) which exposes the inner workings of the MPAA, Waters is interviewed describing his issues with the super secretive organization regarding A Dirty Shame. When Waters asked for specifics regarding what the ratings board took issue with, their response was at some point during the film they simply stopped taking notes. Apparently a lot of the jokes went over the heads of most critics too as the film earned Waters some of his harshest reviews. Topical when it was first released, A Dirty Shame is still plenty potent, and proof that Waters' voice is sorely missed and one contemporary cinema still needs to hear.