Of several summer film releases tackling themes of sexual expression and repression, this review judges A Dirty Shame the daftest, as well as the most radical.
Bad Taste and Good Sense by Tom Jennings
For nearly forty years John Waters has exposed the damaging hypocrisy of respectable sexual morality, using aesthetic and narrative shock tactics to provoke disgust, fascination and outrage – in the process demonstrating how close psychologically these responses are. Long before radio jock Howard Stern, Jerry Springer and sundry other media gross-out specialists paved the way for ‘reality’ TV, Waters (the ‘Pope of Trash’) tested the limits of acceptability with a series of extravagantly awful undergound cult classics.1 Hairspray (1988) then initiated a cycle of films which increasingly subsumed rampant sexual excess under more explicitly critical and progressive aims2 – in effect, ironically echoing the social suppression of dangerous libido he made his reputation attacking, while travestying his own biography in the process. And although mainstream success and talk-show celebrity status certainly coincided with a blunting of the early edginess and impact, A Dirty Shame rediscovers some of Waters’ original Queer aesthetics and trademark tastelessness. Mixing in deeper social, cultural and political insights, it is both profoundly silly and genuinely innovative.
Prudish shop assistant Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) refuses husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak) sex – bemoaning the moral degeneration of their working class Baltimore neighbourhood (a location Waters always returns to), and locking erotomaniac daughter Caprice (Selma Blair with enormous prosthetic breasts) in her room to stop her stripping as ‘Ursula Udders’ in local bars. However, Sylvia becomes uncontrollably randy after a tail-ending en route to work when awoken from concussion by breakdown mechanic and sexual evangelist Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville). He proclaims that her liberated libido will usher in the ‘resurrsextion’ and ‘day of carnal rapture’ to win the war of the freedom-loving perverts against the sex-hating fascistic neuters. Her frenzied and public search for pleasure antagonises her mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd) into leading a burgeoning campaign for the ‘end of tolerance’. Sylvia encounters other locals emerging from their closets after also hitting their heads, revealing a cornucopia of unlikely and obscure fetishisms that inexorably cross-fertilise and proliferate, overwhelming the decency brigade and climaxing in communal headbanging orgiastic bliss.
A riotous rollercoaster of affectionate naffness, slapstick, pastiche and kitsch complete with pathetic dialogue, ham acting, dodgy plotting, goofy design and editing, and even-handed comic stupidity, A Dirty Shame is often hilarious (if you can recapture your scatological adolescence). It also insidiously introduces several arguments subverting conventional wisdom about sex, society and politics (which most critics predictably missed). So, while clearly favouring sexual indulgence over oppressive restriction,3 Waters locates moral degeneracy in both extremes as childish self-absorption precluding negotiation and coexistence – but where each depends on the other for its coherence. Smug liberal clichés are thus avoided – exemplified in the city slicker yuppies who advocate cultural diversity in theory but leave town unable to handle the messy ramifications in practice.4 And when older neuters make comments like “I’m viagravated and I’m not gonna take it any more!” and “It wasn’t this bad in the 60s!” the film’s surreally retro Baltimore comes into focus as a contemporary USA where the puritans are presently winning politically and in the culture wars.
But this is no ordinary blue-collar America. There is no portrayal of sex-related work, abuse, exploitation, media or policing – neither prostitution nor patriarchy nor pornography, and precious little in the way of actual physical sexual relations either. It is actually rather chaste and almost childlike in its innocence. There is plenty of rhetorical posturing, though, and what makes A Dirty Shame scandalous is what it says, how, where and by whom this talk is conducted, and the use made of it by various vested interests. Paradoxically, in retreating from recognisable realism, the film scores by flirting with the dominant modern discourses rendering sex so problematic – revelations of original sin and ecstasy; the obsession with sexual identity as the core of human personality and society; and the consequent institutionalisation, control and commodification of sexual expression. In the realm of individual privatised consumption, sexual energy thus provides the means to divide, discipline and profit, whereas in uncontrollable vulgar public display it exposes and threatens power and prompts moral panic.
Waters’ finely-tuned cultural class-consciousness replaces the fashionable intellectual niceties of twentieth century sexology with contemporary working class lives dominated by drudgery, misery and no expectation of fulfilment. Sexual desire is here embodied in conjunction with exhaustion, frustration and resentment, so that carving out space for pleasure is a serious and difficult matter. Its achievement is often thus wild, reckless and even destructive – but far from the relaxed decadence of upmarket erotic gourmets. Further, given that the strategic security-blanket of respectability is heavily reinforced by religion and the state, sexual license is highly inconvenient to all sides of the status quo, and thus always under threat. But the perverts simply present a mirror image to those who deny their own dirtiness. Both attempt to impose religious regimentation on unruly diversity – recalling Michel Foucault’s insight that injunctions to rationalise and classify sex extend biopolitical government of the body by imposing shame and neurosis on physical intimacy, and thus wrecking autonomous ethical practice.5
Fortunately A Dirty Shame offers escape from this intransigent dilemma. Generally mistaken as merely the crowning glory of its freak show, the ‘headbanging’ hypothesis simultaneously evokes the parent’s impatience with squabbling children and skilfully answers both apologists for censorship and apostles of sexual liberation. If the biographical origins of sexual preference lie in the rich texture of personal responses to random events, then conflictual diversity is simply inevitable. Attempts to analyse, normalise, legislate for and reform personality as rigid individual certainty necessarily fail to do justice to this differentiation while violating its subjects (‘fixation’, indeed). Meanwhile the inherent inseparability of physical, emotional and psychological sensation in the complexity of felt experience weaves together fantasies and relationships with intensities of pleasure and pain. Subsequent patterns of arousal and behaviour yield ongoing social performances of self that sediment the most salient recurring tendencies into the structure of identity while always remaining subject to change. Of course, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that shape and change one’s course are more or less traumatic and susceptible to conscious understanding, and may or may not be associated with the sinister motives, misplaced love or carelessness of others. That’s life. The trick is dealing with it without wishing away the unwanted complications – and this neither neuters nor perverts will be inclined to be capable of.
1. such as Mondo Trash (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970) and the breakthrough Pink Flamingos (1972) – all featuring 20-stone gender-bender Divine (in the latter film eating a real dog turd on screen).
2. In Hairspray Ricky Lake’s white-trash teenage dance enthusiast urges grass-roots racial integration; in Cry Baby (1990) Johnny Depp plays havoc with stereotypical masculinity; Serial Mom (1992) has Kathleen Turner detonating the nuclear family; Pecker (1998) recuperates Edward Furlong’s naïve photographer into artworld pretension; and Cecil B Demented (2000) both applauds and ridicules avant-garde attacks on popular cinema.
3. arguing against the film’s US NC-17 rating, he asked: “Is it that bad if dirty dancing broke out in an old folks’ home?” – referring to a scene where Ullman flexes to pick up a bottle without using her hands.
4. see also J. Hoberman’s interesting comparison of A Dirty Shame with the “earnestly middlebrow” biopic Kinsey (dir. Bill Condon) in ‘Back At The Raunch’ (Sight & Sound, December 2004, pp.24-27). The documentary Inside Deep Throat (dirs. Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato) also fails to transcend the corruption/liberation dead-end dialectic left over from sixties counterculture, feminism and ‘porno chic’ (see Linda Ruth Williams, ‘Anatomy of a Skin Flick’, Sight & Sound, June 2005, pp24-26.
5. as explored in The History of Sexuality, Volumes 1-3 (Penguin, 1979, 1987, 1988).
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 19, October 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: