Notes From Underground
Asked several years ago how he gets along with his dyed-in-the-wool Republican parents, John Waters grinned his famous lupine grin and said, Anyone in his 40s whos still fighting with his parents is a big jerk. Couldnt agree more, but though Waters is waxing downright avuncular of late -- while promoting Pecker at the London Film Festival in 1998, he told an ecstatic audience he was ready to pass the baton to a younger generation he prayed would turn out more gonzo than his own -- hes still cheerfully smashing the bourgeoisie in his movies. He gets away with it because of his unswervingly affable tone; because the aging boomer moviegoers who are his most devoted fans no longer have any option but to laugh, however nervously, at themselves; because some of his earliest followers are now studio executives; and because Waters, in his adorably twisted way, has always had the hots for Hollywood. This is the man, after all, who subscribed to Variety when he was 12.
As cozy as he is with the industry today, Waters still couldnt make a proper Hollywood film, thank God, if his life depended on it. (When hes tried, as in Serial Mom, its come off flat and overproduced.) His new film, Cecil B. DeMented (a sobriquet bestowed on him, and which he joyfully embraced, in a magazine headline), is at once a look to the future and a return to his past, a yippie happening in which the outrageously marginal take on the crushingly straight and -- after their fashion -- win.
The target this time is Hollywood itself, which Im sure Waters distributor, Artisan Entertainment, took serenely in stride, not least because the movie focuses on a band of weird youths (a demographic at which Artisan has aggressively hurled itself ever since The Blair Witch Project) bent on laying waste to the family films they see as the last word in sellout cinema. Casting is everything in a John Waters film, and, as always, the director has managed to talk a diva of a certain age into making a complete spectacle of herself and giving every appearance of loving it. His latest willing victim is Melanie Griffith, who plays Honey Whitlock, an A-list movie star on the cusp of has-been who, while throwing hissy fits at a Baltimore benefit premiere of her new film, is kidnapped by the Sprocket Holes, a gang of film-fanatic ruffians boasting the usual roster of wackos (dope fiend, porn star, closeted heterosexual and so forth), and forced to star in the underground movie that their wigged-out leader, the Cecil B. DeMented of the title (played by Stephen Dorff, our Ewan McGregor for better and worse), is confident will launch the cinema revolution.
Of course, she gets to like it, and, of course, this is the Patricia Hearst story with a twist ending. (Hearst, like a lot of erstwhile dames notorious, is a longtime pal of Waters and has a bit part as the suburban matron she is these days. She can afford to be a good sport -- its alleged would-be car-bomber Sara-Jane Olson, not she, who may be facing time.) Its also the John Waters story, for this tattered band of filmmakers can lay claim to about as much technical skill as the raucous, brawling street theater that passed itself off as moviemaking in Waters early oeuvre. DeMented is a lot lighter on rage and gross-out, which is okay by me, but it means that Waters will pay the usual price for aging gracefully. His potshots at Hollywood -- the movie theater that the Sprockets take over is playing the directors cut of Patch Adams -- are as stingless as they are good-natured. More pointed, and perhaps more personal, is the sly rap on the knuckles Waters visits on the far reaches of independent film, where a low budget is all too often worn as a badge of victimized genius by people with more passion than talent. And yet, Waters is on their side -- as he is, finally, on the side of every freaky outsider. Cecil B. DeMented is neither Waters funniest film nor, by a long chalk, his most radical. But it is, as promised, a passing of the torch and an article of suitably perverse faith in the next generation of nutso cineastes -- not to mention the descendants of Abbie Hoffman, doing their cheeky stuff around the convention centers of Philadelphia and L.A.
In 1943, while Berlin was going down in flames under ferocious Allied bombardment, a young frau and Reich-decorated mother of four named Lilly Wust fell into a passionate affair with Felice Schragenheim, a woman who, as Lilly later discovered, was not only lesbian, and Jewish, but active in the Berlin underground that smuggled Jews, homosexuals and other vulnerables out of the country. Fifty years later, Wust, now in her 80s and still living in Berlin, told her remarkable story to the Austrian writer Erica Fischer.
Aimee and Jaguar (after the names the two women used in their breathlessly florid love letters), a sophisticated and beautiful feature debut from German television director Max Farberbock, based on Fischers best-selling book about the affair, is much more than a TV movie about how a Nazi met a Jew and changed her mind about der Fuhrer. Its about the conditions that made this unlikely liaison -- between two women with nothing in common except their unstoppably erotic natures -- possible and, finally, untenable. Lord knows what the real Lilly Wust made of the film, in which shes portrayed (by Juliane Kohler, who has the porcelain looks and feverish animation of a young Mia Farrow) as a gorgeous bubblehead who, even when transformed by love, continues to make stupid, well-meaning blunders for which those she loves pay dearly, and which cost her her peace of mind. Such is Kohlers shrewdly calibrated performance that we quickly begin to appreciate what might have made this flibbertigibbet attractive to the far more formidable Felice, whos played with white-hot intensity by Maria Schrader. Felice, an urbane beauty with burning black eyes and a saucy flappers bob, is no angel. A heartbreaker who lives in a perpetual present, shes the kind of woman who would look for a knifes edge to walk even if she werent living on one already: skimming off information for the Underground at the Nazi newspaper where she works by day, romping nights in a lesbian subculture that first shocks then delights the naive Lilly, whose dalliances hitherto have confirmed rather than flouted her bourgeois marriage to a boorish army officer.
As Farberbock tells it, Felices world is less a deviant escape from Berlin life proper than a mirror to its desperate eros, the last thrill-seeking gasp -- a pathetic ghost of the cocky prewar sensuality evoked in Cabaret -- of a city fiddling while it burns. This Berlin sustains itself on a nervous energy fueled by the knowledge that theres no tomorrow for anyone, let alone Lilly and Felice, who, after the latter has come clean about who she is to the one person left on Earth she feels safe with, plunge for a while into a gossamer idyll, as if unaware that in that benighted place, at that foul time, for a while is all there is. Nothing to eat, but [we dance] the rumba, says an elderly neighbor who dances a night away with the two women. Thats culture.
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