Published July 1, 1999
The movie version of the scatological TV series, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, directed by Trey Parker from a script he co-wrote with Matt Stone and Pam Brady, is billed as satire, but it has no coherent satirical vision. In fact, it cannot even remember what, if anything, it is supposed to be satirical of. In theory, it is meant to satirize the bluenoses and prim, uptight types who complain about bad language and sexual jokes in the movies or on TV. Interestingly, its attitude to movie violence is more ambiguous. Its gang of foul-mouthed third-graders comes from suburban Colorado, like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the leader of the censorship movement says: “Remember what the MPAA says: ‘Horrific, deplorable violence is OK as long as nobody uses any naughty words.”
Actually, the MPAA is saying something rather different now, but as a satirical target this toothless watchdog of the public morals is in any case hardly worthy the attention of Messrs Parker et al. Nor is raising their moral banner high on behalf of the right of pre-pubescent children to hear and use obscene language likely to inspire anyone but an idiot to righteous outrage. So we are driven back on the assumption that the film is not really satirical at all, but rather what passes for satire among the post-moderns. That is to say, it looks around for anything at all which still has the power to shock or disgust — say, portraying eight year olds as sexually knowledgeable fountains of verbal filth — and throws it up on the screen in order to make its authors look clever and trendy and cutting-edge.
As in the TV series, Kenny is killed. Child deaths are still shocking but not too shocking in this case, as we know Kenny will return to be killed again next week. Then he goes to hell (his mother warned him this would happen when he went to the naughty movie, called Asses of Fire, instead of church), which is also sort of shocking, and finds there not only Hitler but such beloved figures as George Burns and Gandhi. Are you feeling shocked yet? Moreover, Satan is a buff guy playing the female role — as he complains about being underappreciated and only wanted for sex — in a gay relationship with Saddam Hussein. We find him reading a book called Saddam is from Mars, Satan is from Venus. He sings a plaintive pop ballad called “Up There” about his desire to live above ground. If that’s not shocking, what is?
In our celebrity-obsessed fin de siècle, one new answer to this eternal conundrum of the adolescent mind is the latest in lèse majesté. In South Park, for instance, the magic of animation and voice mimickry provides us with the unutterable thrill of watching the murders of Bill Gates and the Baldwin brothers and the suicide of Conan O’Brien. As the deaths of female stars are presumably not quite so funny as those of male stars, a simulacrum of Brooke Shields talks about farting while another of Winona Ryder performs unspeakable acts with ping pong balls. Or maybe not. Instead of “What would Jesus do?” the South Parkers ask, in song, “What would Brian Boitano do?” and this, all by itself, is meant to be screamingly funny.
Admittedly, there is some risk in this kind of thing. Some stars might even be offended, as they never are the likes of Conan O’Brien. But neither is anybody going to go broke or not get his next movie made by attacking Bill Gates or the Baldwin brothers or Brooke Shields. Winona Ryder may be just enough bigger as a star that the film pulls back after her supposed appearance to cry “Only kidding!” about the illusion of her obscene display. Another new pasture for foraging in by those in search of the shocking has been provided in recent years by political correctness. So, when someone complains to the teacher, Mr Garrison, that he is being “sexist” he replies: “I’m sorry children, but I just don’t trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn’t die.”
The problem is that you can’t be too politically incorrect, at least not in Hollywood. The bleeding joke is an old one and certified as being OK by feminists themselves. But other sorts of un-p.c. run the risk of sounding unfunny to the liberals who run Hollywood. As Good As It Gets had the same problem a couple of years ago and got round it by making its sexist, racist, homophobic curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold, played by Jack Nicholson, a convert to enlightenment in the end. South Park gets around it by judicious ambiguity and by making sure that its most walloping blows are reserved for the right targets.
Thus one character, when enjoined to be careful, replies by saying “Careful? Like my mother was when she stabbed me in the heart with a coat-hanger when I was still in the womb?” This might almost have been an outrage upon the pieties of “pro-choice” liberals but for the mention of the coat-hanger (Oh, OK; it’s only illegal abortions that are being slammed) and the fact that the speaker is also given a rant or two against God and religion. “God? He’s the biggest bitch of them all,” says the little boy, and we are presumably meant to split our sides with laughter. Later, when he is killed attempting to rescue two Canadian practitioners of potty humor from the electric chair, the same child cries: “Here I come, God! Here I come, you f****** rat!”
It’s a little hard for me to believe, innocent that I still (incredibly) am, that the laugh doesn’t die on even the most cynical of lips at this juncture. But then maybe that is just the point of such a film. Jaded by other sorts of “satirical” excitement, we are still capable of feeling a little frisson at being taken back and forth without warning across the division between the merely tasteless and the truly offensive. Those with reasonably strong stomachs and a moral outlook of robust relativism will find that they do not spend quite enough time with the latter to make them get up and leave, and they may actually enjoy the sort of strip-tease by which glimpses of it are revealed to them. The rest of us will want to give this piece of excrement a wide berth.