Tonight Lynn and I saw A Dirty Shame, John Waters' latest. It is an absolutely filthy film, done in an exuberantly juvenile style with no regard for taste or propriety or anything decent whatsoever. This should come as no surprise to anyone, of course, seeing as how it's a -- hello -- John Waters movie. Even so, there was some dude behind us making prudish gasps every thirty seconds or so, while we were howling in laughter. In a nutshell, the film stars Tracey Ullman as a prudish Baltimore housewife who suffers a head injury, thereby becoming a sex addict. Turns out apparently in this film's universe, sex addicts are created by accidental concussions and your particular kink, of course, is ironically based on your previous hangup or the situation that gave you said head injury. It's a kinda cute premise, but what really works is throwing in Johnny Knoxville, who ably proves that he can A: play actual film roles and B: play a raging Sex God. I was very impressed by his, er, body of work.
The film really is a laundry list of sexual fetishes, though it foregoes the "obvious" for some more, well, obscure terms (Roman showers, anyone? Don't Google if you don't get it.) Waters also leaves out the illegal -- no kids, animals, or dead people, so California can rest easy. Unfortunately the film drags through the middle, even with Patty Hearst showing up in a Sex Addicts Anonymous twelve-step program (and the spoof of the twelve-step program is simultaneously hilarious and eye-rollingly blah, given Waters' RAR RELIGION IS SILLY WATCH ME BE SACRELIGIOUS tendency) but the end of the film, straight from a zombie movie only the zombies are sex addicts and the normal people are termed "neuters", is pretty hilarious.
While its message about letting one's freak flag fly is clear, Waters actually commits the venial sin of Getting Too Preachy near the end, again with the whole anti-religion thing and his love for trying to shock and out-trash everybody. He also loves to be really clever with symbolism and background images, which is great, but again, near the end, he decides to make it easy for us and bring all the clever things out from the background so they can do their thing right in front of everyone. So it's not enough to have suggestive-looking knotholes in the trees of the neighborhood, no, near the film's climax (literally and figuratively, of course) the knotholes begin to quiver and pulsate and all sorts of nasty things. There's also a hefty amount of trashy stock footage used whenever anyone gets klonked on the head, which gets tiresome after the fifth or sixth go-round.
But it's fun to find as much symbolism and imagery as you can find in the film, from suggestive foliage to background images (Selma Blair's gigantic-breasted character at one point delivers a monologue in a convenience store behind a sign reading "cheesecake" -- and I saw "Cry Baby" candy at the cash register.) It's also real fun, for John Waters fans, to count the "regulars" who show up -- from Mink Stole and Patty Hearst to Alan Wendl and Mary Vivian Pearce and the lady who played Memama in Pecker (Lynn and I both went "FULL OF GRACE! FULL OF GRACE!" when she appeared.) Even Ricki Lake shows up in a cameo, and that was cute.
All in all, though, it's pure schlock, pure trash, pure John Waters, and as such incredibly entertaining if you're into that sort of thing. I realize not everybody will be. Me, I had a blast, even if I felt kind of dirty afterwards. So I went to a church afterwards. Go fig.
My weekly DVD haul was Around The World in 80 Days. Not the limp remake that came out earlier this year, I'm talkin the original 1956 film version produced by Mike Todd and won a buncha awards and is real fun to watch. And much like A Dirty Shame, a great deal of fun is watching for familiar faces in little parts. Todd actually invented the "cameo appearance" in this film, which allowed him to woo big-name stars into taking tiny little parts for very little money. The size of the role wasn't important, he argued, the fact that it would surprise the audience was.
So Frank Sinatra wasn't just a lowly barroom piano player in one scene, no, his appearance was meant to be a surprise. Special surprise, folks, keep your eyes peeled for Frank Sinatra! He plays the entire scene with his back to the camera until the final shot when he turns around and -- pow! -- there he is in all his glory. Noel Coward's character isn't meant to be anything deep -- he's an employment agent who assigns Passepartout the job as valet for proper Englishman and adventurer Phileas Fogg -- but it doesn't matter, because we're not watching an employment agent, we're watching Noel Coward (whose scene involves him dressing down Sir John Gielgud, who plays Fogg's previous valet.) Marlene Dietrich and Red Skelton and George Raft show up in the aforementioned saloon scene. Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold have a beautiful little scene as ladies betting on Fogg. Buster Keaton, in a speaking role, gets to be a train conductor, which tickled me to no end and Joe E. Brown, whose work you've probably never seen but I wish you could, has a few nice lines as a folksy yet laconic Western railway agent.
The story? Oh, it's decidedly second-rate, really, even when blessed by the screenwriting genius of S.J. Perelman. Most of my qualms are with the structure. It's a sin that the entire subplot involving Fogg being suspected of bank robbery is 'resolved' in 30 seconds near the end to no satisfactory conclusion whatsoever. That's unfair, as the goddamn Scotland Yard agent has been trailing Fogg and Passepartout for oh, ONLY THE ENTIRE GODDAMN MOVIE. In the end it only serves as a device to detain Fogg just enough so that the tension of the inevitable Race Against Time climax makes the finish all the more satisfying. The problems with the story are easily forgotten, though, when you're playing Spot The Cameo.
Additionally, it's really not Fogg's movie at all, it's Passepartout's, as we watch a great deal of the action from his perspective, but that's more an observation than a quibble since the Spanish comic Cantinflas turns in a beautiful performance as the valet. He does his own bullfighting stunts and shows unexpected grace and agility in the oddest of moments. Watch his graceful pennyfarthing ride through the streets of London, or his agonizingly famished stroll through a busy Yokohama market after being stranded in Japan with no money. He plays like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx, only with lines in an endearing Spanish accent.
We also get a lot of reaction shots from Passepartout as we go through the various exotic locales, and the film only drags when it's pretending to be an extended travelogue. This is only natural, as the film was shot in Mike Todd's own special wide-screen Todd AO process, which he devised as a way to duplicate the immense widescreen effects of Cinerama but only using one projector. As a result you'll notice a bit of a vertical curve on the outside edges of the screen while watching on DVD; it's an unfortunate side effect but one that's only prominent in certain shots with, say, lots of columns on the edge of the screen.
The end product, however, is a joy to watch because it's just so much damn fun, nitpicking and quibbles aside. The amount of "surprise appearances" is staggering, Niven is a true Englishman, the colonialism of the film is strong but endearingly bad, and my oh my doesn't Shirley Maclaine look simply beautiful in her Princess Aouda role. When she first started speaking I was sure I was watching a young Elizabeth Taylor, and I wasn't arguing with that at all.
Speaking of Taylor, she met up with Mike Todd while he was doing publicity for the film. They fell in love and were married for a little over a year, when Todd died in a tragic plane crash which also killed Art Cohn, the journalist who was taking up the last set of notes for Todd's biography. The tragedy not only sparked Taylor's love affair with Eddie Fisher (whom she turned to for solace, breaking up Fisher's marriage to Debbie Reynolds) but also gave us a prime piece of movie trivia -- Mike Todd's first and only feature film won him an Academy Award for Best Picture.
So it goes.