Sex crazed!

Tracey Ullman, Chris Isaak and Selma Blair (fitted with watermelon-size prosthetic bazoongas) play hyper-horny suburbanites in "A Dirty Shame," John Waters' latest naughty, naughty offering.

Published September 24, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

There's an HBO show, which virtually no one else I know has ever seen (or admitted to seeing), called "Real Sex," which gives viewers a glimpse into the lives of regular people as they pursue that peculiar pursuit of happiness known as sex: Typical segments might feature a company that makes eerily realistic (and very expensive) sex dolls, or a summer sex camp populated by perfectly nice people who save up their money and vacation time so they can gather in some national park once a year and mix it up with other sex-loving couples.

"Real Sex" isn't particularly sexy -- for one thing, these are "real" bodies we're talking about, of all ages, shapes and sizes. But "Real Sex" is an exceedingly cheerful show, not because I particularly want to watch a naked old codger in a cowboy hat sidling up to a chain-mail-clad dowager in the Ran-D-Ranch chow line, but because I find their lack of embarrassment wonderful. Groups of concerned parents tell us sex is everywhere in the media, which is true if you believe that buff midriffs in a music video necessarily equal sex. But "Real Sex" reminds us that the really interesting stuff still goes on behind closed doors. It's doing its part to keep sex dirty.

And you can say the same for John Waters' terrible and terrific "A Dirty Shame," in which Tracey Ullman, as frazzled small-town convenience-store clerk Sylvia Stickles, gets conked on the head and turns into a sex maniac. Like many, if not most, of Waters' movies, "A Dirty Shame" has no discernible sense of rhythm or pacing, features loads of hammy acting, and just doesn't know how to resolve itself. But with big Hollywood movies getting glossier and more mechanical, and indie movies increasingly mistaking drabness for seriousness, we need Waters' sub-B-movie aesthetic more now than ever.

Waters is generally characterized as an exploitation filmmaker, a gleeful button-pusher who'll do anything for shock value. But even though "A Dirty Shame" offers a bottomless rain barrel of euphemisms for cunnilingus ("sneezing in the cabbage"; "going below 14th Street") and features several instances of full-frontal nudity (male and female), Waters' outrageousness is no longer the most outrageous thing about him. In fact, his most perverse characteristic is his relentless innocence.

Waters may acknowledge the existence of Internet porn, but skin mags and stag reels are where his heart really lies. He doesn't want to bring sex into the open; he wants to make sure it continues to be filthy and infinitely exploitable, for future generations to enjoy. He's the Johnny Appleseed of smut. If I ran the country, I'd put his face on a cereal box.

The reality is that the people who run the country, or at least the MPAA ratings board, believe Waters is a danger to society rather than a credit to it, which is why they've swaddled "A Dirty Shame" in a protective NC-17 bunting. No matter: It just means that Waters has done a true patriotic turn by giving kids something to sneak into, which probably suits him fine.

"A Dirty Shame" is set in a blue-collar Baltimore suburb that suddenly, inexplicably, goes sex-crazed. Actually, many of its denizens have been sex-crazed for a long, long time -- it's just that its more normal inhabitants, like Sylvia and her husband, Vaughn (Chris Isaak), have just been tuning all that erotomania out. As desperately normal as they are, their daughter, Caprice (Selma Blair), is something of a problem: With her enormous bazoongas (Blair wears prosthetics the size of watermelons -- an unintentional but fitting tribute to the recently deceased Russ Meyer) and her, ahem, outgoing personality, Caprice has gotten into so much trouble that Sylvia and Vaughn have been forced to lock her in the garage.

But then, Sylvia suffers that fateful clunk on the head, and awakens to discover that her long-dormant libido is desperate for the wild thing. Out of nowhere steps the charismatically Elvis-y greaser Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville, of "Jackass"), a seductive sex fiend who enfolds Sylvia in his flock of willing disciples -- which already contains many of the seemingly normal townsfolk, including a police officer whose kink is infantilization (his fave get-up is a lacy christening gown).

Ray-Ray's goal is to discover the one sex act that has never been done before, which will elevate him and all his followers to a higher plane. Meanwhile, the townspeople who haven't fallen under Ray-Ray's spell -- the "neuters," led by Sylvia's mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), and local busybody Marge (played by beloved Waters vet Mink Stole) -- try to put a stop to sexual tolerance, which they believe has gone too far.

While it may seem as if Waters is making a statement about society's increasing efforts to limit our sexual freedoms, I don't think he's particularly interested in anything so dull. As always, Waters cares less about the plot than he does about decorating it with gags (most significantly, a scene in which Sylvia visits a nursing home and performs a hootchie-cootchie dance with a water bottle clenched in her, as the movie tastefully refers to it, cooter).

Waters uses this celebration of licentiousness as an excuse to rustle around in his beloved William Castle Bag o' Tricks (TM), and he pulls out some good ones. He finds plenty of pockets (perhaps ultimately too many) in which to stuff old "dirty" black-and-white film clips: a leering devil pawing nubile naked cuties, for example, or a row of robust, topless damsels doing healthful exercises. Over certain key images, he flashes subliminal messages spelled out in shadowy block letters separated by emphatic dashes ("W-H-O-R-E," "H-O-R-N-Y," and, most delectably, over the boyishly innocent face of Isaak, "E-R-E-C-T"). For the soundtrack, he's dug up real-life oddities from the '50s and '60s, songs with lyrics like, "I've got hot nuts, 10 cents a bag!" (My personal favorite, the Treniers' 1952 "Poon-Tang!" is curiously absent, but you can't have everything.)

"A Dirty Shame" works itself into a cartoonishly erotic frenzy in which squirrels court and spark lasciviously, and even the town's tree trunks seem to have human orifices nestled in their crooks and crannies, just waiting to be taken advantage of. The movie isn't about our need to fight repressive society -- its view is that repressive society is merely a nuisance that must be dealt with. It has always been with us, and it will never go away, but in the end, the overactive imagination triumphs over boring old farts every time.

In the world of "A Dirty Shame," even the trees are willing participants in our sexual fantasies. And how is anyone going to restrict or legislate that?

"A Dirty Shame" is a mess -- I'd give it a 3 out of 10 on the craftsmanship meter. But it also represents a spirit of old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness and resourcefulness that even the far right should admire: The movie gets to where it needs to go by good, honest humping. What could be more American than that? In these troubled times, "A Dirty Shame" is just the movie the nation needs. It's good clean fun for unrepentantly dirty minds.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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John Waters