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Waters' latest: sex by pseudonym
A Dirty Shame is a tale of marauding sex addicts who wage a pitched battle against the morally upright citizens of Harford Road. It's also a celebration of sexual rapaciousness, sexual perversity, sexual obsessions ... in fact, just about everything sexual, except the sex act itself (which, despite the film's NC-17 rating, is never actually shown).
To director John Waters, it's just like the old days on York Road, back at Baltimore's Rex Theatre, a longtime XXX stalwart of the local sexploitation scene .
"When I was growing up," Waters says, "I was going to the foreign art films, I was going to the independent movies, but I also went to the Rex. All these things were kind of a big influence on me."
Over the phone, Waters even pretends to get teary-eyed at the memories. "I used to sit down with Ronald Freedman, the owner of the Rex, and he'd pull out this old scrapbook of Rex memorabilia. It just made me so nostalgic!"
On Friday, A Dirty Shame, the newest film from Baltimore's favorite black sheep, opened for an extended run at the Senator, a full week before it opens nationwide.
Starring Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Chris Isaak and Selma Blair, the film follows the exploits of Sylvia Sickles, a typical Harford Road housewife (apologies in advance to any woman living on Harford Road who would prefer not to be included in such company) who's living a fairly typical sex life.
Things change, however, when she suffers a concussion in the course of an automobile accident and is tended to by Ray-Ray, a tow-truck driver. He also happens to be the leader of a planned takeover of Harford Road by the sexually obsessed - which Sylvia wholeheartedly joins.
(Sorry, we can't go into details of what Sylvia does, just as we can't provide details of the dozens of fetishes Waters highlights in his film - children could be reading this newspaper!)
"A joyous film"
"To me, it was a joyous film," says the director, who filmed A Dirty Shame last fall in a roughly six-block area of the Harford Road corridor, bounded by Coldspring Lane to the south and Northern Parkway to the north. "I just thought to myself, 'What would perk up a dull day on Harford Road?' "
Although the film would eventually earn an NC-17 rating (for "pervasive sexual content"), Waters swears he envisioned no worse than an R. Toward that end, he concentrated on coming up with euphemisms for the sex act, phrases that in and of themselves mean nothing, except what the movie audience brings to them. Thus, you have characters coyly suggesting it's time to go "sneezing in the cabbage."
"I thought up new words that weren't the words Lenny Bruce went to jail for," says Waters. "I used words that I thought would really confuse the censors, because they really didn't know what some of them meant. By the fact that the trailer was approved for PG audiences, when she says in it, 'I feel like yodeling in the canyon' - they didn't know what that meant, obviously."
His actors, several of whom made it to town for the movie's U.S. premiere at the Senator Tuesday, had nothing but praise for Waters, his work and skills as a director. While he may not be everyone's idea of an auteur, Waters certainly has developed a loyal following throughout the artistic community.
"I would do anything, I don't even need to see a script," said Knoxville, who takes great pride in the film's NC-17 rating.
"To be in his film, especially a naughty, NC-17 John Waters film, what else could a girl want?" Knoxville asked.
Added Blair, "I was in for anything John Waters was doing. I was game."
Not that Waters was everything they expected. Both actors said they were surprised at how tight a ship he ran while shooting the film.
"I thought it would be more seat-of-your-pants," said Knoxville. "But whatever's on the script is what you see on the screen."
"Yeah, if you don't put the period in the right place, he knows it," said Blair, noting that occasionally, as she said her lines, she could see Waters mouthing them along with her.
Surprisingly, the director, who grew up attending Catholic Sunday school at a Towson church, says he can sympathize with those who feel victimized in the movie, the fed-up, righteous moralists (referred to as neuters) who vocally protest the loose morals surrounding them. A Dirty Shame builds to a climactic confrontation between the neuters (lead by Sylvia's mom, Big Ethel, played by Suzanne Shepherd of The Sopranos) and the sex addicts, with the soul of Harford Road up for grabs.
"Sometimes I wonder which side I'm on," Waters says, offering as proof his original suggestion for the movie's posters: "Can tolerance go too far?"
"I'm a little bit of Big Ethel sometimes on this," he admits. "Both sides of the question are made fun of in this movie."
John Waters, displaying a little bit of the prude? Nice to see the old boy can still surprise us.