A Dirty Shame

(John Waters, USA, 2004)


2005 was a good year for sex addiction at the movies. Through a bizarre coincidence, two films released in the same week in Australia, Dylan Kidd’s P.S. (2005) and John Waters’ A Dirty Shame, feature sex addicts.

But where in the quietly dramatic P.S. sex addiction is a pathology suffered by one individual, in A Dirty Shame a multitude of such addicts form what the Surrealist poets of yesteryear called an ‘army of lovers’. And when these hyper-stimulated crazies launch themselves upon suburbia, their ‘home invasion’ evokes an even sunnier version of the zombie revolution staged recently in Land of the Dead (2005).

No one could make a more light-hearted – even innocent – film about sex addiction than Waters. This raucous, messy movie manages to be relentlessly outrageous without offending anybody. This is partly because his characters – such as Caprice (Selma Blair) with her massive, surgically enhanced breasts – never even begin to become real people; they are pure types, pop culture quotations ready to be gleefully defaced (David Hasselhoff and Patricia Hearst line up for bit parts). It is also because Waters’ splatter-gun technique of satire mocks every possible belief system and lifestyle, from the dullest to the most experimental.

Waters always needs a straight, normative world to off-set his vision of polymorphous perversity – and it is usually his home town of Baltimore, made over as a pure Peyton Place site of ’50s-style repression. But, these days, even Waters has to admit that the suburbs are a pretty kinky place, and that sexual chaos is only a heartbeat (or a Hokey Pokey) away.

This is certainly the message of love brought by Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), leading his team of sex addicts in the search for those special beings who will one day help unlock the secret of a "new kind of orgasm". (The ending has a curious affinity with Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud [2005].)

In this parodic religious story of the Chosen Ones and the rituals of initiation they must undergo, it is Caprice’s mother, Sylvia (Tracey Ullman, criminally underused in movies), who travels the biggest journey: from frumpy housewife to ‘cunnilingus bottom’ (there are literally hundreds of colourful euphemisms for this sex act offered in the film’s dialogue). Sylvia’s husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak), has a harder time accepting this transformation – as is evident from his doomed attempts to reconvert family members to the straight-and-narrow with some heavy-duty spiritual brainwashing.

Undoubtedly the cleverest aspect of A Dirty Shame is its concentration of the silliest, most lurid fetishes that Waters can devise. The fact that there is so little ‘normal’ copulation in the film sneakily diverts us from ever wondering about the possible emotional consequences, for people like Sylvia and Vaughn, of all this sexual madness.

If you are in the right mood for this film, it is a hoot from start to finish. Waters proudly holds on to the amateurish filmmaking manner he first cultivated in the underground era of Pink Flamingos (1972). He throws in gags that make little sense (like the revelation of Caprice’s secret love for ballet) or plot twists with scant logic (the head-butting ecstasy business), and his command of storytelling structure and rhythm is akin to an automobile pile-up on a busy intersection.

But so what? It feels like Waters’ testament work, and as such can only inspire our gob-smacked admiration.

© Adrian Martin August 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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