In May of 2019, John Waters penned a piece for The Paris Review, entitled “Somehow I Became Respectable”, in which the filmmaker, author, and all-around renaissance man, began by asking “What the hell happened?” “I don’t know how – the last film I directed got some terrible reviews and was rated NC-17. Six people in my personal phone book have been sentenced to life in prison. I did an art piece called Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot, which is composed of close-ups from porn films, yet a museum now has it in their permanent collection and nobody got mad.”(1) Setting aside Waters’ other achievements and focusing solely on film, Waters has certainly had one of the most peculiar careers in American film. After establishing himself as perhaps the most vital and provocative American underground filmmaker of the ’70s with the infamies of Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos (1972).
By the time the 1990s rolled around, Waters, for all intents and purposes, had “made it”. Strange as it may seem in the current superhero dominated vacuum, Polyester (1981) was indeed a studio backed film and the later success of Hairspray (1988) officially made Waters’ name known to mainstream audiences. Fast-forward to the mid-90’s where so-called “maverick” independent cinema was all the rage and Waters, a true maverick from the days where showing one of his films could land him in jail, was now able to land a headliner like Kathleen Turner for Serial Mom (1994). Waters reached that level with his integrity intact, never compromising himself along the way with the barbed and subversive wit of films like Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977) just as prominent in a later film like Serial Mom.
Much like the “alternative” obsessed popular musical landscape of the ’90s, the rise in indie filmmaking throughout that decade meant that for a time certain underground or outsider artists began to mingle with the mainstream and in some cases, even became the mainstream themselves. It would seem that this merging, clashing, whatever label can be put on it, of the mainstream and underground at the time was on Waters’ mind as the idea is quite prominent in two of his later and still underrated works, Pecker (1998) and Cecil B. Demented (2000), the former being one of Waters’ slightly more subdued, yet poignant efforts that stand as an explicit love letter to his hometown of Baltimore. Obsessed with photography, Baltimore native Pecker (Edward Furlong) spends most of his hours taking pictures of anything and everybody to the amusement and encouragement of some and the annoyance of others. After seeing one of his photos on display in the sub shop where he works, Rorey Wheeler (Lili Taylor), a high-end New York art dealer becomes enamored with Pecker’s work. After a successful exhibit in New York City, Pecker becomes the latest sensation in the art world, though his overnight success eventually causes strife between Pecker and his girlfriend, totalitarian laundromat owner Shelley (Christina Ricci), as well as his close-knit Baltimore community. Described by Waters as his “nice” film, Pecker feels the most community-minded of Waters films, even more so than Desperate Living (1977) in its depiction of family and community. Unlike some of the families featured in Waters’ prior films, like the Davenport’s of Female Trouble or the Fishpaw’s of Polyester, Pecker’s family has more in common with the Sutphin’s of Serial Mom, save for the homicidal matriarch. Like Serial Mom, in his own warped way, Waters’ depiction of a family in Pecker is downright wholesome.
Waters has often stated that his films are never mean-spirited because he only makes fun of the things he likes, telling The Brooklyn Rail in 2004 “I never hate what I make in my work. My movies are never mean, even the most fucked up ones. They’re not mean-spirited. And that’s because I only make fun of things I like. And I think that’s a good way to be.”(2) That certainly rings true throughout both Pecker and Cecil B. Demented. While always witty and spot-on, Waters’ portrayal of the art and photography worlds in Pecker is never outright villainous or callous as opposed to some of the more antagonistic personalities found in Waters’ older films. If anything, the higher up’s of the art world are portrayed as mere lovable buffoons, blinded and beholden to trends, but lovable nonetheless. Waters ultimately resolving the underground/outsider vs. mainstream art dichotomy in a moment of solidarity, each celebrating the quirks of the other. Waters does give the underdog the final edge, having the New York crowd come to Baltimore for Pecker’s homecoming show, Waters, once again giving his beloved city a variety of memorable residents that includes longtime Dreamlanders Mink Stoke, Patrica Hearst, and Mary Vivian Pearce. It is difficult not to see a little of Waters himself in the Pecker character. As Ricci’s Shelly pleads with Pecker to not “become an asshole” and let his surprise success get to his head, but the celebratory finale of Pecker had done nothing of the sort. Pecker’s loyalty to Baltimore, his friends, and his family ultimately mirroring Waters’ loyalty to his city and his equally loyal team of Dreamlanders.
In 2004, Waters, who by then had long branched out into other forms of art and media, found himself at the center of the New York art world with a retrospective at Manhattan’s New Museum of Contemporary Art. In the aforementioned Brooklyn Rail piece, Waters, a self-proclaimed “irony peddler”, spoke of the elitism of irony in late 20th and early 21st century and its detrimental effects on provocative art. Waters claimed “That’s what Pecker was about, basically. And at the end of the movie, Pecker toasts to the end of irony. I remember after 9/11, all the papers said, “This is the end of irony,” and I said, “Wait a minute, I had that line before 9/11!” Although I’m completely guilty. I mean, I’d say what I sell is irony. That is my business-irony… Irony is what contemporary art is based on almost.”(3) When Waters went before the MPAA with Pecker, perhaps the biggest irony of all was that the film was granted an R-rating, but the board demanded that Waters change the title. Waters response was to rattle off a list of titles that contained similar phallic connotations like “Free Willy” or “Shaft”. Waters also gave an impassioned speech to the board, asking “What angry child ever carved the word “pecker” in his desk?” and stating unequivocally “No sexist men say “Suck my pecker” to a woman!” Perhaps it says a lot about how “respectable” Waters had become by 1998 if the lone problem the MPAA had with Pecker is the title, though Waters was still in no hurry to fully “go Hollywood”, pointing his satirical target directly in Hollywood’s direction with the follow-up to Pecker, Cecil B. Demented.
Indie friendly as the 90’s film ecology may have been, the decade was also one of a rapid transition in virtually every entertainment medium. The changes throughout the film industry were especially drastic, and the aforementioned film ecology that gave life to a film like Pecker already began to look very different a mere two years later. Writing for Flavorwire in 2014, Jason Bailey detailed the financing woes filmmakers like Waters alongside others like David Lynch, Stephen Soderbergh, and Susan Siedelman, whose films tended to fall somewhere in between “low” and “high” budget range, began to suffer as the new millennium dawned stating:
“Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when Waters and Lynch were doing their most commercially successful work, it was possible to finance — either independently or via or the studio system — mid-budget films (anywhere from $5 million to $60 million) with an adult sensibility. But slowly, quietly, over roughly the decade and a half since the turn of the century, the paradigm shifted. Studios began to make fewer films, betting big on would-be blockbusters, operating under the assumption that large investments equal large returns. Movies that don’t fit into that box (thoughtful dramas, dark comedies, oddball thrillers, experimental efforts) were relegated to the indies, where freedom is greater, but resources are far more limited.”(4)
Arriving just as the paradigm referenced by Bailey was just beginning to shift, Cecil B. Demented becomes a rather fascinating film with over 20 years of hindsight. Even more so for two additional reasons, the first being that the idea for the film came to Waters before Pecker, and it’s impossible not to think of how the film would have turned out had Waters made it during the height of the 90’s indie mania. The second being the very concept of “indie” filmmaking itself in the late 90’s/early 2000s after the studios quickly caught on to the indie buzz with the acquisitions of Miramax and New Line by the likes of Disney and Ted Turner. Yet given the oncoming changing tide of film financing and distribution, like so many other times in his career, Waters timing was quite pertinent with Cecil B. Demented. Once again putting a major emphasis on his home city of Baltimore, like having the New York art crowd congregate to the city in Pecker, Waters has Hollywood come to Baltimore in Cecil B. Demented for the premiere of the latest film starring egotistical A-list Hollywood actress Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) in an attempt at luring more film production to the city. During the ceremony, Honey is kidnapped in an elaborate scheme orchestrated by underground filmmaker Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff) and his troupe of “kamikaze filmmaking” terrorists, collectively known as the “SprocketHoles”. Hell-bent on directing his magnum opus and bringing down mainstream Hollywood cinema, Demented and the SprocketHoles commence shooting with the captive Honey as the lead, causing bedlam with Cecil’s scenarios becoming more deadly and Honey becoming more willing, eventually making the ultimate pledge, declaring herself “Demented forever”.
A more explicit example than Pecker of Waters making fun of something he loves, Cecil B. Demented is certainly a love letter to all things cinema. Waters highlights several of his own cinematic heroes via the personalities of the various SprocketHoles, each getting tattoos of a certain legendary auteur, the likes of which include Otto Preminger, David Lynch, Pedro Almodóvar, Kenneth Anger, Sam Peckinpah, and HG Lewis just to name a few. Waters also shamelessly shouts his love for genre film in having adult and low-budget action film theater patrons aid the SprocketHoles in their fight against the Hollywood machine in two hilarious moments. Compared to the more subdued Pecker, Cecil. B Demented has the energy and anarchistic spirit of a younger Waters and as much as Waters celebrates film, his jabs do seem to have a bit more of the classic “fuck you” Waters attitude as well. Just having an actress like Melanie Griffith delivering dialogue like “I fucking hate Forrest Gump!” and “Family is just a dirty word for censorship”, no matter how satirical, does seem in itself like a successful subversive act on Waters part. At the same time, however, Waters doesn’t exactly let the underground off, Cecil being the ultimate auteurist prone to delusions of utmost grandeur. Waters was also letting off steam with the film in calling out not just the industry, but peripheral annoyances related to film as well. In yet another one of his astonishing moments of foresight, given the insufferable politicization of everything and evolution of online forums and social media, Waters spoke to Indiewire at the time of the film’s release saying:
“In the movie, they attack verbally almost everything that gets on my nerves about going to the movies. So going to the movies is political, and how you watch them is political, and why you like them is political, and how they are distributed is political, and in this movie, even the guy in the delivery truck has an opinion, he says, “Eh, he’ll never get distribution.” So everybody seems to know about the movie business now.”(5)
Waters addressed how the Hollywood studio system had essentially co-opted the independents saying in the same Indiewire interview “The studio system and the independents are almost the same now. There is very little difference. Unless your movie costs less than $1 million and you’ve raised the money yourself through a limited partnership, which is what I used to do, it isn’t too different.”(6) Waters was quite specific in making this point even addressing the marketing for the film, also telling Indiewire “The Canal Plus people and the press release kept calling the movie ‘Cecil’s independent film,’ and I kept crossing it out saying no, no, no, no, no, it’s not independent, it’s underground or outlaw. He would hate independent film equally as much, and I’m not saying I do.”(7) If Waters was off the mark about one thing, perhaps his outlook on the film climate looking ahead of Cecil B. Demented was a bit too optimistic. Waters concluded the Indiewire piece by saying “The general climate is pretty good now, I think. They’re ready for anything. Certainly not when I was making “Pink Flamingos.” Now they are.”(8) When Waters followed up Cecil B. Demented with A Dirty Shame (2004) the treatment of the film was exactly the same as its title. Given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, infamous for being a death sentence as far as domestic box office receipts are concerned, the response to the film frightening potential backers so much that A Dirty Shame remains Waters’ last film to date. Not that Waters has lamented his lack of feature film opportunities or rested on his laurels in the time since. In fact, the opposite is true with Waters remaining one of America’s most invaluable cultural observers with his numerous books and speaking endeavors. Though many have hoped that in the streaming age Waters might finally find an investor for the long-teased Fruitcake. Time will tell. Waters’ predictions for where film was heading in the 21st century might not have been exact. However, time has revealed both Pecker and Cecil B. Demented to be the work of a master satirist, both very much of his time and simultaneously light years ahead of it.
1. Waters, John. “Somehow I Became Respectable”. The Paris Review. May 21, 2019. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/05/21/somehow-i-became-respectable/
2-3. Stillman, Nick. John Waters. The Brooklyn Rail. February, 2004. https://brooklynrail.org/2004/02/art/john
4. Bailey, Jason. How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA. Flavorwire. December 9, 2014. https://www.flavorwire.com/492985/how-the-death-of-mid-budget-cinema-left-a-generation-of-iconic-filmmakers-mia
5-8. Kaufman, Anthony. Interview: John Water, Demented Forever. Indiewire. August 9, 2000. https://www.indiewire.com/2000/08/interview-john-waters-demented-forever-81477/