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The New Cult Canon: Wild Things

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"I'm an irony dealer. Irony is what I deal in from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep. I am weary of it, though. To me, irony is snobbery in a way. There's no irony in Bangladesh. What so-bad-it's-good if you're hungry?" —John Waters

The above quote was taken from an interview I did with John Waters eight years ago, and I think it's worth reflecting on as we head into Camp Month, which is loaded with the sorts of cinematic experiences that wouldn't play in Bangladesh. As readers of this site are keenly aware, we're irony dealers around here, too: Features like My Year Of Flops, Commentary Tracks Of The Damned, I Watched This On Purpose, Films That Time Forgot, and Ephemereview are all, to a large extent, about gleaning some sort of value from the teeming, stinky landfill of pop cultural trash. It's heroic work, really, to eke some redeeming entertainment out of, say, Snaps: The Ultimate Yo Mama Battle or the not one but two delusional commentary tracks on The Hottie And The Nottie DVD.


Yet as much fun as we have picking through all this endless flotsam for a living, I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling a trace of Waters' ambivalence about it sometimes. Enjoying something for being so-bad-it's-good takes a certain amount of arrogance, a sense that you're somehow above the work, able to chuckle knowingly over its failings. And as Waters suggests, there's a rank whiff of privilege to being an ironist, too, since you have to be pretty well-entrenched in pop culture to do it and having that much idle time for snark probably means you're not out on the streets, begging for change. More likely, your cloistered, middle-class upbringing has left you with an encyclopedic knowledge of Saved By The Bell and the need to find some productive outlet for it.

Still, there's another, more charitable way of looking at the ironic instinct. If you're engaged with pop culture to any degree, you know that the likes of Snaps: The Ultimate Yo Mama Battle and The Hottie And The Nottie are more the rule than the exception, and so you have to find clever ways of grappling with it. Irony is a defense against banality and pain; when Kevin Federline releases a rap album, we have to laugh to keep from crying. In his book Artists In The Audience, Greg Taylor talks about today's "vanguard" cultists and camp aficionados who find themselves pushed to the margins by commercial films, and who naturally push back with their own creativity. That's how a transcendently goofy piece of horror marginalia like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats gets processed into a Patton Oswalt routine or how German über-hack Uwe Boll nurtures a kind of anti-fanbase.


Camp life has its limits, though. One of the problems is that it can cripple your perception to such an extent that anything worthwhile has to pass through those ugly, plaque-filled layers of sarcasm and cynicism first. Worse yet, sometimes the films you might label so-bad-it's-good are actually in on the joke. And then there are cases that are so ambiguous that you have trouble figuring out whether they're so-bad-it's-good or so-good-it's-good, or whether it really matters in the end. Sussing out these distinctions is part of what motivated me to devote a month to modern camp, because I think what makes us laugh at—or with—these movies tells us something about who we are as moviegoers and the sometimes curious ways our pleasure is derived.

If you're one to lump John McNaughton's sleazy South Florida noir Wild Things into the so-bad-it's-good category, I'm afraid to say the joke is on you. Pitched somewhere between an old-fashioned, twisty crime melodrama and a straight-to-video erotic thriller, the film could not have existed before the current age of irony. Granted, it probably functions just fine for viewers looking for a little T&A; to go along with their double-crosses, but McNaughton (Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer) and screenwriter Stephen Peters are operating on another level, too. The whole movie is in quotation marks: It knows the genre inside and out—if you can look past the gratuity, the mechanics of the plotting are impeccable—but everything that's implicit in a classic noir has become shamelessly explicit here. So instead of Barbara Stanwyck descending a staircase wearing an anklet, there's the doe-eyed Denise Richards sopping wet in translucent white, making her intentions very, very clear.

"Fuck off" are the first words uttered in the script, and it sets the tone for a movie that makes a running joke out of the ugliness and greed of human nature. It's a film without heroes: Those who aren't already nakedly vicious and self-serving from the start are revealed later to be more duplicitous and evil than originally assumed. You have to go six names down the cast list to find someone with a conscience, and even she's not immune to temptation. As the opening shots of the Everglades none-too-delicately suggest, these characters occupy a moral swampland, with alligators snapping at their heels. But where another movie might have tsk-tsk-ed prudishly, McNaughton and Peters turn their corruption into gleefully sordid sport, letting fly with wet t-shirts, lipstick lesbians, a threesome, a catfight, and rampant double entendres. Wild Things is a movie that's sophisticated in its classlessness.

The opening scene piles a bunch of high school seniors into an auditorium for a guest lecture from a pair of vice detectives, played by Kevin Bacon and Daphne Rubin-Vega. They're there to discuss sex ("yay!") crimes ("boo!"), but the kids are so hung up on the "sex" part that they don't care about anything that follows. ("What is a sex crime?" Bacon asks. "Not getting any!" goes the response.) Any talk of date rape and sexual harassment falls on deaf ears: Everyone in this school and the snooty Blue Bay milieu has sex on the brain, but sex crimes are only of interest if they can be leveraged for personal gain. And that's where socialite Kelly Van Ryan (Richards) comes in. (Inserting the word "Van" before any last name is excellent shorthand for movie super-wealth. Just ask my cousin, Econoline Van Tobias.)


"So where's your hose, Mr. Lombardo?" Okay, so it's not quite, "You know how to whistle, don't you?," but then, Wild Things isn't going for class. Mr. Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is the handsome school guidance counselor that all the female students seem to eye, including Kelly, who isn't the type of girl that's used to taking "no" for an answer. Presumably spurned by Lombardo, Kelly accuses the teacher of raping her; when the detectives on the case (Bacon and Rubin-Vega) express doubts about Kelly's shaky performance, along comes another teenager, this one a trailer-trash girl played by Neve Campbell, telling a similar tale of Lombardo's sexploits. His life in the balance, Lombardo hires the city's oiliest personal injury lawyer, played by a scene-stealing Bill Murray, to represent him in what is clearly the trial of the century. Here's just a taste of the hilarious farce that ensues:


So much of what's good about Wild Things is encapsulated in that clip: Bill Murray in a neck brace, Theresa Russell (as Kelly's gardener-schtupping mom) snorting in outrage, Robert Wagner stepping up to the prosecutor's table, Richards hurling a water glass across the room, and just the general movie-movie artificiality of the whole proceeding. Courtroom scenes are generally so phony on film that it's always a good idea to make them as ludicrous as possible, and have every word of argument and testimony be inadmissible in a real-world court of law. (See also: Duck Soup.) Now if you hadn't picked up on the fevered, high-camp tone of Wild Things at this point, then there's really no hope for you. McNaughton, Peters, and most of the cast (especially Murray and Russell) are clearly having a ball amping up the melodrama to absurd proportions. I like to think of Wild Things as an adaptation of a novel Carl Hiaasen would be too embarrassed to write—colorfully silly and cartoonish in the Hiaasen mode yet more willing to go blue in the late-night cable sense.

And now to my favorite line in the film:


That line again: Russell, in full Joan Crawford voice, screaming, "My daughter does not get raped in Blue Bay!" The thing I love about that line is that it's three words too long. She's willing to concede that her daughter could feasibly get raped somewhere else, under different socioeconomic circumstances, but not in Blue Bay, where the Van Ryan family holds sway. For an imperious blueblood like Russell's character, it's an affront to her sense of entitlement, only slightly more severe than backed-up valet service or the caller who dares to interrupt her while she's riding the help. Social standing is a big issue in Wild Things, and it dictates everyone's actions: Mr. Lombardo, who has long tried to graduate from teacher's pay by hooking up with Blue Bay socialites; Campbell's sneering loner, who lives behind a local bait shop; and the Van Ryans, who simply do not get raped in Blue Bay, literally or figuratively.

Oh, and did I mention there are boobs in this movie? And Kevin Bacon's wang? And a threesome and a catfight and two hot young starlets of tomorrow going at it? (Or what seemed like hot young stars of tomorrow, anyway. Based on the clips I've seen of Denise Richards Colon It's Complicated on E!'s The Soup, she's not holding up so well.) It's grotesque the degree to which Wild Things satisfies every male juvenile fantasy it can dream up, and it's little wonder that the film became a runaway favorite on the video market, inspiring a sequel with none of the principals involved. The film's most notorious scene, a slapfight-turned-makeout-session between Richards and Campbell in a pool, is like something out of softcore pornography or the sketches on a middle-schooler's textbook cover.


After that scene, Wild Things runs out of audacious setpieces and settles into being a more ordinary thriller, albeit one with a breathtaking pile-up of double-crosses and triple-reverse-fakeout twists. (The closing credits sequence is pretty brilliant, though: A series of deleted scenes that plug up several gaps in the story.) The impression the film leaves—and one that another Camp Month titles, Showgirls, shares—is a deeply cynical view of mankind, marked by greed for more than just money, but for power, revenge, and an all-consuming, unquenchable desire for satisfaction that will never really come. "It's over," says Lombardo. "We won." Famous last words.


Coming Up:

Camp Month continues…

Next week: Road House

July 17: Manos: The Hands Of Fate vs. Troll 2

July 24: Showgirls

July 31 (back to business): Sexy Beast