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Movie Review: Cecil B. Demented

By Mike Everleth ⋅ August 11, 2000

Is there anything more lame than a movie about making movies? Well, yeah, writing about them.
However, movies about movies are like a cry for help from writer’s-blocked screenwriters, like they have no other interests in life so films are the only thing they can write about. It’s like that scene in THE PLAYER where Tim Robbins, who plays a soulless Hollywood executive, says at a lunch meeting with his fellow executives, “Hey, can’t we talk about something other than movies?” The entire table, including Tim, bursts into laughter because they all know they don’t know about anything else.

I did see a great movie about moviemaking this weekend. It was CONTEMPT, a 1963 flick by French film auteur Jean-Luc Godard and was about a French screenwriter who drives his wife into the arms of a sleazy American producer. The screenwriter character is actually an artsy-fartsy playwright who is whoring himself out to the producer who has hired him to add more sex and violence to a film adaptation of “The Odyssey” being directed by Fritz Lang (who plays himself in the movie). Lang is directing an art film. The producer (played by Jack Palance) wants something along the lines of GLADIATOR, to borrow a modern example.

This whole set-up is a metaphor for Godard’s own circumstances regarding the making of CONTEMPT. Godard was an accomplished avant-garde filmmaker and he wanted to see what it would be like making a big screen CinemaScope Hollywood feature. And just like Fritz Lang in the film, CONTEMPT’s producers forced Godard to add more sex to his artsy, intellectual film (adapted from the novel “A Ghost at Noon” by Alberto Moravia and described by Godard as “a nice vulgar one for a train journey”.). So, if you want to stare at Brigitte Bardot’s naked ass for endless scenes, this is the flick for you.

Godard was also obviously not entirely comfortable working in widescreen cinema for the first time. He places most of his actors and action directly in the center of the screen, with the amazing exception of a beautifully choreographed argument between husband and wife in their tiny apartment. And despite the centered-ness of much of the action, Godard was lucky to work with a brilliant cinematographer, Raoul Courtard. Actually, I’ve never heard of him before but based on this one film I have to classify him under “brilliant”. This was one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever had the please of looking at.

And that’s another thing, between watching CONTEMPT at the American Museum of the Moving Image and renting John Cassavetes’ THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (widescreen edition) this weekend I have to say that movies just don’t look the same anymore. There just aren’t the lush panoramic views of CONTEMPT or the cringe-inducing close-ups of CHINESE BOOKIE anymore. Most films these days are so plot oriented and driven, that the cinematography reflects that. It’s serviceable at best. I think Cecil B. Demented, the main character of John Waters’ new eponymous flick, would agree with me.

I was so excited to see CECIL B. DEMENTED, as I get for every new Waters release, that I didn’t even realize he was working in one of my most despised genres. However, Waters is such a one-joke filmmaker it almost doesn’t matter what he picks as his subject matter. After seeing DEMENTED, I want to ask him if he was conscious of rehashing scenarios from HAIRSPRAY and FEMALE TROUBLE or if I’m just making obscure connections because I’ve seen his films so many times.

But I’m not here to rag on John because I love him so much. I really thought CECIL was a great movie and I urge all of you reading this to see it. It’s the trashy, blatant, outrageous ugly stepchild of CONTEMPT. John is still truly the Prince of Puke and, as he was once nicknamed, Cecil B. Demented.

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