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'Dirty': The Day The Earth Moved

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2004; Page C01

John Waters may not be a great filmmaker, but he's usually onto something, and "A Dirty Shame" is onto something big. It's about the moment it all changed.

Remember? No, you don't, and you can't for the life of you figure out how then turned into now, and why the now is so different from the then. Neither can I.

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In the then, the fact that 7-Eleven carried Playboy, with its innocuous pneumatic nudes, was scandalous, bikinis were banned on television, and the movies had only occasionally admitted a peek at the female breast. Of course, everyone had sex, but no one was really allowed to enjoy it, much less discuss it. There was, to be sure, prostitution, porn and certain forms of perversity, but they were all city phenomenon, limited to urban tenderloins aggressively patrolled by the cops who'd chase any under-agers away.

Then you slept late one Saturday or went fishing or maybe you just blinked and it all changed. Every strip mall had a mom-'n'-pop vid parlor and every vid parlor had a little XXX section with saloon doors where you could throw down a buck and go home with a tape that showed you things that only debauched Ottoman emperors or Indian maharajas or a rock star named Mick had seen theretofore. The taboos of the body vanished, other taboos vaporized almost as quickly, and the new sex was wanton, pornographic, degrading -- it was dirty and that was what was so good about it. Meanwhile, the concept of "perversity" became chic and soon passed beyond chic into banality and then invisibility.

The moment of transformation interests Waters, even if he addresses it in parochial Baltimore terms: how the orgasm conquered Harford Road, sometime in the late '70s.

It helps, I suppose, if you know what Harford Road is. There being no true equivalent in the Washington area, let me explain: It's a band of Maryland roadway that runs on a northeastern slant out of Baltimore toward and into what is called up there "The County" (most people don't even realize that Baltimore and Baltimore County are different political entities, one a gritty city, the other largely a suburb). Anyone who's been there will recognize the place: Harford Road isn't hardscrabble or desperate, a zombieville fraught with crime. But it's a tough place. It's blue-collar America, where in quiet neighborhoods behind the strip malls, small homes sit within 10 feet of each other, well-tended, usually with a lot of pickup trucks in the driveways. The men work in the steel mills or as cops or firefighters or in retail; the women still have their hair done elaborately then shellacked to a kind of plastic permanence; everybody is Catholic, everybody works like hell, everybody goes downy ocean in August and everybody swallows their G's and elongates their A's. It's a place full of gun stores (three in two miles of Harford Road) and gas stations and American Legion Posts and O's and Ravens fanatics and deer hunters and wrestling fans who all think the Sun has become a commie conspiracy and vote Democratic except when they back a Bob Ehrlich. It's everywhere the literati, the cognitive elite, the ironic, the damn NPR subscribers wouldn't visit if you paid them!

As Waters tells it, the residents of Harford Road wake up one day and find themselves in the new, orgasmic America and wonder what the hell happened. And, as he has it, they never saw it coming and they didn't have a chance to stop it, and, here's the surprise: He finds it kind of sad.

He tells it as a cartoon, of course, as per his sleaze-o-ramic style. Everything is crudely exaggerated, turned toward maximum outrage, the jokes in dubious taste, the plot developments clunky. It's pure, unfiltered Waters. He follows, primarily, the Stickles family, of the Pinewood Park and Pay convenience store, which Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), owns, and which the family serves obediently as it is the bedrock of its prosperity.

Change, of course, comes from underneath, not on top; it seems that the Stickleses' daughter Caprice (Selma Blair) has sex problems: She's an exhibitionist, has had her breasts artificially inflated to the size of missile nose cones and under the nom de burly-que "Ursula Udders" has been dancing topless at a biker bar. Now under house arrest, she has to stay locked in her bedroom.

So Sylvia (Tracey Ullman), Caprice's mom, is angry. She's so angry she stomps around in a rage, and her rage dries her sexual instincts totally, frustrating nice guy hubby Vaughn (Chris Isaak). She's the old America: perpetually frustrated, hard-working, a shameful secret locked in her attic. And her rage, which Waters chronicles almost clinically, is debilitating. It leads her into a traffic accident, and she gets a bump on the noggin. When she wakes up, her libido has been unpenned and suddenly, she's gotta have it . . . and after "it" she's gotta have "that" and then "this," then another thing, then still another thing and why not that thing that nobody talks about and, say, what about some things there aren't even names for? Her mentor in this journey to karmic satisfaction is Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), the tow-truck driver and secret leader of a cult of Harford Road sexaholics.

The knock on the head/sexual liberation equation is probably the lamest, corniest, least well-worked-out ingredient in Waters's evocation of a society gone mad overnight on sex issues. And lord, the stress it puts on Waters's poor if game cast, who must go from uptight sexual repression to craven sexual need in the blink of an eye or at least the whacking of the skull. Ullman isn't alone in this, but she's the most heroic; she does things on film that not even Chloe Sevigny tried in "The Brown Bunny."

But it's also true that the clunk on the head stuff is only one of the many inventions in the film that don't quite work, and Waters still isn't very slick and never brings a sense of polished smoothness to his work. He really hasn't advanced much technically beyond the "Pink Flamingos" days of the early '70s, which is, of course, why so many adore him; he hasn't let slick technique take over as has Hollywood, and he retains his radical sensibility and his willingness to go where others haven't.

What he gets right is the sense of a society suddenly overwhelmed by sexual possibility, sexual choice, sexual imagery, sexual freedom and what the cost of that liberty is. Of course, Harford Road immediately decamps into opposing forces, the Neuters (led by Big Ethel), who want to stay uptight and dried up, and the, er, Sex People (I don't know what else to call them), who want everything now and more of it than yesterday, please. The result is a community orgy, a kind of meltdown of social contract, which is the ultimate destination of the sexual-freedom argument, and Waters doesn't flinch from that.

When he's not introducing mainstream audiences to perversions most of us didn't know existed or encouraging Tracey Ullman into performing the most astonishing Hokey Pokey ever filmed, Waters seems to be lamenting the fact that those are the only choices: all or nothing, Puritanism or debauchery. He wonders if poor old Harford Road will ever be the same, and seems almost sad that maybe it won't. Maybe it was a dirty shame, after all.

"A Dirty Shame" (89 minutes at Loews Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5, Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema and National Amusements Fairfax Corner Cinema) is rated NC-17 for sexual activ . . ., oh, uh, sexual innuen . . ., oh, hell, for sex!

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