Waters' Choice Is Interesting Because It's Waters' Choice

2004 Maryland Film Festival

Special Pullout Guide

May 06, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Tomorrow at 8 p.m., John Waters is showing the undeniably artful Austrian slice-of-misery, Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days (2002), as part of his annual presentation at the Maryland Film Festival -- a yearly invitation to test Waters' unique sensibility and sample his runaway wit. But I really hope it's just a run-through for him to record a special-edition DVD commentary track in the satiric manner of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I'm always engaged less by Waters' favorite movies than by his affection for them. Waters' recent choices (last year's was Irreversible) resemble avant-garde versions of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit -- we get the victims (often sexually abused females) without the law and order.

Even the DVD press release, desperate to portray Dog Days as engaging, calls it "a continuation of Seidl's humorous and often sullen look at human relations" (italics mine). Director Seidl shot the film with mostly nonprofessional actors in gated Austrian communities over the course of three summers, only when the thermometer topped 98.6 degrees. Visually he does achieve what the New York Times called a fusion of "Francis Bacon and David Hockney," with ravaged flesh posed against sun-drenched backgrounds (the sun seems to bake into the characters' homes even after the Austrian blinds clink down over the windows and glass doors). Dramatically, it's a sunburned freak show.

Ever since I condemned Fargo as anti-Minnesotan only to have native Minnesotans defend it down to the last "you betcha," I've been wary of labeling any movie unfair to a region unfamiliar to me. And the Austrians who've weighed in on the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) have split down the middle on this picture. "ifaz of Austria" says, "Somewhere the porn industry has to do its business, somewhere unreported domestic violence has to take place, somewhere hopes have to shatter. I sure do know such people." Even his recommendation, though, sounds more like a warning: "If you want to see a movie without any funny scenes ... go watch this movie." "Dr. Rock of Innsbruck" counters by calling the film "a truly awful experience" and goes on to say "anyone who sees this movie will think that Austrians are a miserable, pathetic bunch. ... The viewer is confronted with depictions of sex orgies, violence against women and handicapped people, madness and degradation. ... This is pseudo-social criticism with a sledgehammer. And it looks down on people in a disgustingly condescending way."

Of course, those who go tomorrow night will have the benefit of Waters' presence.

But I agree with "Dr. Rock." All director Seidl achieves is a sort of anti-Oktoberfest -- an Augustfest that serves glare and whine to the audience via a 100 percent alienated (and uninteresting) dramatis personae.

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