Sick Waters Run Deep

Thank God for John Waters.
Box-office returns and market demographics have always driven Hollywood, yet residents of the self-deluding little colony still call themselves artists and make a grand show of patting themselves on the back on those exceedingly rare occasions when their handiwork offers more than just escapist entertainment for thirteen-year-old males. To make matters worse, the Academy Awards's being dominated by Schindler's List and Philadelphia confirms that Tinseltown has succumbed to the dreaded PC virus. Political correctness is a creeping, devious malaise, a plague that, like AIDS, has infected a disproportionate number of creative types (calling studio executives creative may be a stretch, but it's fair to say they like to think of themselves that way).

The time is ripe for a new hero, a man (that's right, a man, dammit!) from outside the nepotistic Southern California enclave who cares not one whit about power lunches, mineral water, or product licensing. A man whose indifference toward his colleagues' opinion renders him immune to their corrupting influence. A man with a vision all his own and the stubborn irascibility to stand by it when the temptation to sell out and collect the big paycheck must be nearly overwhelming.

Enter the bard of Baltimore. John Waters not only doesn't finance his films by prominently featuring name-brand products in exchange for endorsement money, his renown is such that many companies refused to allow him to use their products in his caustic, campy latest release, Serial Mom, for free. How many other filmmakers can make that statement? In spite of the fact that Waters's two previous films, 1988's Hairspray and 1990's Cry-Baby, reached a wider audience than any of the pencil-thin-mustachioed director's first nine, you couldn't call them mainstream. They were tamer than expected, a tad less anarchic and excessive, and a lot less gross. But they were still unmistakably John Waters films.

Serial Mom reconfirms Waters as a true American original, a maverick auteur with a singular vision as distinctive and non-Hollywood as that of any American director this side of Robert Altman. In fact, in its willingness to peel back the layers of hypocrisy shrouding middle-class values, to probe beneath the slick bourgeois veneer and zero in on the barely repressed inner demons and the skeletons in the closets of the color-coordinated, trim-lawned, aluminum-sided, two-car-garaged homesteads, Serial Mom skewers sleepy stateside suburban values as expertly in its own way as Altman's Short Cuts. But where Altman's target was Southern California, which is almost cheating because it is such obviously fertile ground for satire, Waters trains his sights squarely on middle America. The results are devastating.

Waters has been grosser (the legendary shot of Divine gagging on a bite of fresh dog shit in 1972's Pink Flamingos, filmed in one long take so that there could be no doubts as to the authenticity of the cuisine, is still his high/low point) but he's never been funnier. It doesn't hurt any that Kathleen Turner, who plays Beverly Sutphin, the homicidal homemaker of the title, displays a flair for camp. Turner, the first real star to grace a Waters picture as well as his first leading lady since Divine's death, takes the venomous housewife from The War of the Roses, redirects her hostilities from her doting husband to anyone who disparages her family, and adds a healthy dose of dementia. One minute she's behaving like a Cleaver (June), the next minute she's wielding one (meat).

The plot is about as simple as they come. The Sutphins -- Beverly and husband Eugene, a prosperous dentist, share a lovely home in an idyllic upper-middle-class neighborhood with their two teenagers, flirtatious daughter Misty and gore-movie aficionado Chip A appear to be living the American dream. Beverly is the perfect Stepford mom. When Chip says "shit" at the breakfast table, mama chastises, "You know how I hate the brown word." She keeps the household running like a well-oiled machine, but there's something vaguely unsettling about the way she relishes tracking down and swatting a fly that has invaded her kitchen, or savors a particularly repulsive scene from a video her son is watching. As it turns out, Mrs. Sutphin has quite a mean streak. Little things set her off -- chewing gum, not wearing seat belts, refusing to recycle, failing to rewind videotapes. And when someone puts down a member of her family, Beverly Sutphin gets really mad, and the corpses start piling up.

Mrs. Sutphin becomes the avenging angel of political correctness (as well as the device by which Waters sends it up), and her capture and trial give the director a chance to take aim at the media and the cult of tabloid journalism, where the more heinous and sensational the crime, the more quickly and enthusiastically the agents and producers try to sew up the TV rights. Waters, a director who has played his share of scenes for maximum shock value, is the perfect man to explore the whole sick phenomenon. In an era when serial killers become instant celebrities, who better to mine the irony for both comedy and insight than the filmmaker who was once arrested for "conspiracy to commit indecent exposure" while making a movie called Mondo Trasho?

It's the perfect marriage of man and material. Like Spain's Pedro Almod centsvar, Waters is an auteur with a willingness A no, a compulsion A to pick the scab, to peek behind the curtain, to stare at the gory accident, to challenge the hallowed institution, to ask the tasteless question. And to make us laugh at what he sees, albeit nervously. We need him.

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