There's a telling omission in "Cecil B. DeMented," John Waters' newest movie.
In the film, the title character, an obsessed guerrilla filmmaker, leads a merry band of cinema terrorists who have the names of their favorite directors tattooed on various parts of their bodies.
Homage is paid -- on backs, necks, arms and thighs -- to such outlaw visionaries as Hershel Gordon, Sam Peckinpah, Sam Fuller and Kenneth Anger. But one name is missing: John Waters.
"Where I got the idea was a fan in Ohio, who asked me to autograph her back," Waters admitted recently. "So I signed the girl's back and she came back and had had it tattooed on. I just saw her again."
This neatly sums up the significance of John Waters, whose films have been uneven over the 30 years of his career but whose impact has never been in doubt. His movies can be confoundingly crude, awkward, forced, even amateurish. But when was the last time you saw the names Truffaut or Bergman etched across someone's vertebrae?
I've come late to an appreciation of Waters. I was too young to see early efforts like "Mondo Trasho," "Multiple Maniacs" and "Pink Flamingos," and when you see movies like that as a grown-up you're simply reminded that you're too old to enjoy being shocked. My tastes run toward a good, blood-letting satire, but Waters has always aimed for the not-quite-jugular. His send-ups -- of suburbia, middle-class values, nuclear families, the art world -- lack that crucial dollop of spite to qualify as lethal weapons. He has too much love in his heart to be an assassin.
Which is why, in the final analysis, I can honestly say that I love his films, even if I don't like all of them. (If pressed, I'd choose "Hairspray" and "Pecker" as favorites.) Waters' oeuvre stands as the record of an artist who has steadfastly maintained his distinctive sensibility for 30 years and done so not only with integrity but also with shrewd business acumen. Not one of his films, not even "Mondo Trasho," his 1969 feature debut, has lost money. That's an amazing achievement for anyone, let alone a director who for two decades cast a 300-pound transvestite as his leading lady.
The contradiction of John Waters -- that he's not a great filmmaker but is still an important one -- is well illustrated by "Cecil B. DeMented," in which Stephen Dorff stars as the guerrilla director who kidnaps a big Hollywood star (Melanie Griffith) and forces her to make his cinema verite celluloid manifesto. ("Cecil B. DeMented" will have its Baltimore premiere at the Senator Theatre Wednesday and opens at the Charles Aug. 11.)
It's vintage Waters, rollicking with awkward, childlike glee, as if the Weather Underground, Dogma 95 and Mickey Rooney got together and put on a show. "Cecil B." engenders the same mixed feelings as many Waters films inspire -- as disarming as the campy humor and crude acting style are, they also come across as disingenuously naive -- but it also perfectly conveys why, with Waters, technique isn't the point.
Here is a director who has steadfastly inhabited the margins, while brilliantly playing off the mainstream, and in doing so found a dedicated audience by creating a highly personal body of work. As the spiritual godfather of the latest crop of cinema outlaws -- now toting digital video cameras instead of borrowed 16 mm equipment -- Waters is easily as influential as the tattoo-heroes in "Cecil B."
It's the fact of him, rather than his individual films, for which I and so many cinephiles I know are grateful. After a director has reached 50, the expectation is that he will now settle graciously into his serious, Scandinavian period, when he eschews the childish things of his past (sex, drugs, wee-wee, poo-poo) and make his "Interiors." But Waters has steadfastly refused to grow up. His biggest fans are still kids in their 20s who flock to his screenings, book signings and lectures. And there's the core group of followers who haven't missed a Waters movie since watching his earliest efforts in Baltimore church basements in the 1960s.
Love or hate his films -- and those are the reactions most of them elicit -- but the very fact that his films are strong enough to be loved or hated testifies to the strength of his vision.
"With my movies I don't think it has anything to do with age," Waters says of his fans. "It's about their sense of humor more than their age or race or sexual preference. I think most [of my fans] have a sense of humor about themselves and a certain hatred of authority, which I've always had."
Waters' love for the deviant, dispossessed and dangerous infuses his writing, his speaking, his art collection, even the decoration of his tastefully appointed home. However, while it's tempting to see Cecil B. -- a wild-eyed cinema purist who detests all the cheap sentiment, overproduced commercialism and hyper-marketed trash that Hollywood stands for -- as his alter-ego, Waters insists that he doesn't share Cecil's righteous rage. He has profited too well by skirting Hollywood's periphery. And let's face it, when the Farrelly brothers are making it their business to set the bar on tasteless humor ever lower, what once outraged Waters' critics now looks downright quaint.
"I don't have great anger about Hollywood," Waters says. "I mean, my films are better sold in the independent world, they know how to market them better. But I can't be a hypocrite. I bought this house because of 'Cry Baby,' a Hollywood movie, certainly not with the profits from 'Pink Flamingos.' "
Waters is even quick to debunk the persona of uncompromising artist that has made him a hero to generations of young filmmakers. Even though Cecil rails against a system that compulsively test-markets and tracks movies like so much product on the supermarket shelves, Waters happily works within the system that he's skewering. "I've never had final cut in my contract, ever," he says, referring to a clause guaranteeing the director final say in what his movie will look like when it's released. "[But] I can negotiate my way to getting the film out the way I want it."
Finally, that's all Waters -- or any director -- owes his audience: to make the films he wants to make, with some modicum of honesty and integrity, in a reasonable amount of time for reasonable amounts of money, thereby affording himself the opportunity to make more films he wants to make.
The rest of us are free to take him or leave him. I'll continue to do both, remaining grateful that there is room in the world for John Waters, even if I don't have his name tattooed on my back.