directed by Trey Parker
If John Waters circa 1979 made a Walt Disney movie, the result would look a lot like South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut.
That’s no idle comparison: One of the most striking things about this freakish, fire-breathing big-screen version of the Comedy Central cartoon series is what a large number of Disney elements it appropriates and gleefully soils. Especially the musical sequences, of which I counted 12. They riff on tried-and-true Disney musical formulas, from the expositional opening number modeled on Beauty and the Beast to the syrupy power ballad in the middle of the movie, belted by a misunderstood
character who’s yearning to transcend limitations and succeed in an unfamiliar world. What’s scary is that the bulk of the songs—cowritten by Parker and composer Marc Shaiman—are actually more fun and musically interesting than the songs
in the last few Disney movies. There are other differences: South Park‘s opening song is performed not by a bookish heroine in a charming French hamlet, a la Beauty, but a runty, foulmouthed kid trying to survive in a “redneck, white trash town” in Colorado, and the character who sings the obligatory yearning power ballad is not a love-starved little mermaid, but Satan, Prince of Darkness. What’s even scarier is that both these numbers are touching.
This unexpected collision of qualities—profanity, satire, innocence and yearning—is what makes South Park watchable even when it’s bullying and gross. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are sick puppies, but they’re still puppies—corrupted innocents who still remember how good innocence felt. You can tell they love Disney movies, just as they love Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang, the obvious inspiration for the round-headed, hyperverbal South Park kids. Parker and Stone love
these two primary sources, even though they know the messages of self-improvement, tolerance, sacrifice and optimism encoded in their story lines are sentimental claptrap.
But although the animators mock these qualities in ways both subtle (the mob mentality of the townspeople, who will rampage at the drop of a hat) and obvious (the foulmouthed tykes), mockery isn’t all there is to South Park. There’s also a peculiar quality of longing. Kid heroes Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny secretly wish their world of sex, violence, obscenity and psychedelic chaos were decent and safe, as in Peanuts—or at least romantic and morally comprehensible, as in Disney.
The fact that life isn’t that way makes the South Park characters a little sad sometimes—even the parents, who cuss and fart, drink and fornicate, betray and kill, but remain softhearted, happy-go-lucky dreamers. Parker and Stone have their cake and eat it, too, vivisecting pop culture cliches even as they put them to work. It’s perverse, repulsive and insane but also endearing, like somebody stuck his arm up Mickey Mouse’s rectum, turned him inside out yet still made him talk like Mickey; the mouse is still cute even though he’s wearing his organs on the outside, and you’re not sure whether to applaud or throw up.
The plot of the movie is a feature-length riff on an episode from the show, in which the meddling mom of sensitive Jewish kid Kyle leads a mob of angry parents to New York to protest the airing of a show called The Adventures of Terrence & Philip,
about a pair of idiotic best pals who do nothing but fart in one another’s faces and cackle with delight. That episode, like the cartoon-within-a-cartoon Terrence & Philip, was Parker and Stone’s bonehead-obvious way of taking shots at family-values types who claimed pop culture items like South Park were corrupting kids. The animators wrote off their detractors as a bunch of hypocritical moralist fanatics, and showed them climbing into catapults, launching themselves against the glass skyscraper housing the cable network that aired Terrence & Philip and splattering like ripe tomatoes. The image was
grossly unfair and hilarious for that very reason—like one of those Terry Gilliam cut-paper cartoons from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
In the movie, Parker and Stone push their potty-mouthed outlaw status several steps further, making what is, in essence, a feature-length critique of their critics. It’s vicious and unfair, ultimately tiresome but sometimes very funny, and has the most overtly self-reflexive narrative I’ve seen in a major American release since The Player. (It also looks great on the big screen, where the blocky images acquire an iconic force.) Kyle and his pals sneak into the new Terrence & Philip Movie, which for some inexplicable reason is R-rated (just like the South Park movie), receive a first-rate tutorial in profanity and leave the theater cussing like George Carlin fixing a tire in the rain. Parents, politicians and school authorities are horrified by their language, which leads to a wrongheaded crusade not just against tv stars Terrence and Philip, who are captured by the
military and promptly scheduled for execution, but also against the nation of Canada, which produced Terrence & Philip and therefore must pay in blood for corrupting America’s kids. So the President makes Kyle’s mom the secretary of defense, and the U.S. declares war against Canada. And Satan, who is watching the whole mess from down in hell, decides the outbreak of a war based on adult hypocrisy and ignorance is the perfect cover for him to take over human civilization.
For a while, at least, it seems like Parker and Stone are making arguments of unexpected clarity and force. Namely:
1. Though South Park is about kids, we never intended it to be for kids. That’s why the show airs late at night and the movie is rated R.
2. Don’t tell us we’re being disingenuous because kids are going to be instinctively attracted to anything that’s a cartoon, especially if it contains adult subject matter. That’s a stupid argument that says more about how animation has been unfairly ghettoized as a kids’ genre than it does about our alleged intentions.
3. Crusaders who get outraged over offensive content in popular culture are wasting their time and everyone else’s. The real enemies of children are war, famine, disease, ignorance and other vast social forces, not a cartoon.
4. If kids get access to South Park anyway—or to South Park merchandise—it is not the fault of the people who created South Park, since they took reasonable precautions to make sure people know it’s not for kids. Such access is the fault of parents who don’t know what their kids are up to, and perhaps inattentive and amoral shopkeepers, movie theater managers, etc.
Not that any of this stuff detracts from the comedy. South Park is about crude jokes first, visual wit second, pop culture satire third, and any anti-bluenose agenda is a distant fourth. Still, it’s weird to be sitting there in the dark, formulating perfectly valid objections to South Park‘s freedom-of-expression arguments, then having the film itself answer those objections a split second after I think of them. It’s like Parker and Stone are making a movie and an argument at the
same time. That’s unnerving; I like it even though the arguments are presented in such over-the-top terms (I don’t know anyone who dislikes South Park enough to execute the people who created it) that the whole agenda, if you can call it that, eventually turns to mush.
The movie itself becomes wearying as well. At the screening I attended, even people who seemed to be enjoying themselves kept looking at their watches. Perhaps this kind of cartoon, with its blunt language, gross images and primitive-on-purpose animation, is so intense that even hardcore fans can only take so much of it.
I should also say that although I consider myself tough to shock, there were five or six gags in South Park that were so offensive and unnecessary—and so poorly thought out in terms of who might be offended and whether it’s worth alienating those people just to get a laugh—that they took me out of the movie. For every gag that’s rude and politically incorrect in a good way—like the U.S. military’s decision to staff the doomed first wave of its Canadian invasion with black soldiers, a marvelous sendup of institutional racism—there are many other gags that are whiteboy snotty and nothing more. (The film’s cavalier misuse of Big Gay Al—a flaming liberator so well-regarded by so many in the gay community that he often shows up as a float in pride marches—is especially regrettable.)
I cut Parker and Stone more slack than I’m willing to give most filmmakers, though. Unlike, say, the creators of the forthcoming teen gross-fest American Pie—which I’ll pick apart in detail next week—the South Park creators aren’t being vulgar because vulgar is hot right now. They’re being vulgar for authentic creative reasons, because this is the only possible way to achieve the effects they’re after. Their vulgarity is the real deal; like the vulgarity of Carlin, Ralph Bakshi and R. Crumb, it comes from a bona fide artistic impulse, not just a commercial imperative. Which is why it’s both inevitable and forgivable that Parker and Stone would often say and show things that are hurtful for no good reason: It’s the cost of doing this kind of business. When your strategy is to open your id and see what flies out, some innocent people are going to get hit.
Whenever the show’s hyperbolic crassness threatens to make me tune out—e.g., the first appearance of Mr. Hanky, the Christmas Poo, whom I will not describe in detail because somebody out there might be eating—Parker and Stone’s tireless audacity and showmanship keep me coming back. That and the fact that for all its dadaesque weirdness and brute scatology, South Park is the truest emotional representation of modern childhood I’ve ever seen. Without denying their essential sweetness and decency, the show captures the way little boys really talk to each other when skittish parents aren’t around—the cursing, the barely understood sexual terms, the racial, religious and homophobic slurs tossed off as freely as adjectives. The show is hip to how contemporary kids can be soiled by the cultural cesspool they’re swimming in without truly being contaminated. In that sense, there is more wit, invention and crackpot truth in the worst five minutes of Parker and Stone’s cartoon than in professional man-child Adam Sandler’s entire career.
An American Love Story
directed by Jennifer Fox
After watching the first hour of An American Love Story, Jennifer Fox’s epic documentary about an interracial couple and their children, I thought I’d seen an original and touching film about that rarely seen film subject: the happy family. I also thought that I’d seen all I needed to see. Yet there were nine more hours of it, eight of which were made available for preview by critics. (The series plays in discrete three-hour blocs through next Tuesday at Film Forum.) I watched them all, and though I liked all or part of the other episodes, I was keenly aware that they were, point of fact, episodes, and that An American Love Story is, point of fact, television and not a movie, conceived for airing on PBS later this year.
It’s not a bad thing, being television. Believe me: I happen to write about tv as well, and I wouldn’t devote so much time, effort and thought to that job if I shared Godfrey Cheshire and Armond White’s opinion that tv is inherently bankrupt and that its evil corrupting influence has been destroying American cinema for decades. That’s a 60s attitude, as retro-charming in its own way as a wide-lapeled shirt, but it can’t be taken seriously by anyone who knows both media. If anything, tv has flourished by assuming duties that movie studios no longer care to assume—by taking over the clockwork farce, social drama and clever genre narrative that blockbuster- and kid-obsessed cinema has abandoned. For that matter, in any given month, the best of tv, network and cable gives a truer representation of American life than almost any American movie playing in theaters, and is likely to have been made with a lot more wit and craft. Name a film that presents a funnier, truer picture of both modern criminality and suburban life than HBO’s The Sopranos. You can’t do it, because only tv permits that specific kind of greatness.
But I digress. My point is that a low-key, fly-on-the-wall documentary like An American Love Story not only was made for television, but is television. (“Aha,” you say, “but South Park is tv, too.” True enough. But even on the small screen, it was always boldly visual, even cinematic, and if any genre travels well between the two media, it’s animation.) I say that not only
because it was shot on video—for budget reasons, almost all documentaries are these days; it comes with the territory—but also because its use of long takes, ambient noise and repeated visuals and dialogue make it ideally suited for home
viewing, over the course of days or weeks.
Fox tells the story of the Sims family from Flushing, Queens. The father, Bill Sims, an African-American blues musician, met his white wife, Karen, in 1967 and has been married ever since, through good times and bad. Yet the trouble caused by their differing skin tones continues to resonate after all this time, affecting everything from how people look at them on the street to how their mixed-race daughters, 20-year-old Cicily and 12-year-old Chaney, are treated by society. The first episode, which concerns itself mostly with introducing the family, is absorbing; the second episode less so. The third episode, about Cicily’s
trip to Nigeria with a college group, was shot mostly by her and has a raw immediacy that’s a welcome change of pace. Program four, Cicily’s reunion and a family get-together, is likable if a bit static, and the rest of the series mostly repeats information we’ve heard before using different words and pictures. There’s some drama and emotion along the way, but not quite enough, in my mind, to justify eight or nine hours in one of Film Forum’s keester-killing chairs.
Of course, if you’re watching it on tv, it’s mesmerizing, like a real-life version of The Truman Show, or a less lurid, more philosophical update of the 1970s PBS series An American Family. You don’t so much watch Fox’s series as absorb it, eventually becoming attuned to minuscule changes in the family members’ facial expressions and moods. It’s like moving into a strange family’s house and living there for a while: You start figuring things out—what buttons not to push, where the bodies are buried. As much as I liked it, though, I still think there’s too much of it, and I can’t imagine anyone seeing more than two episodes in the theater. It’s like listening to a chamber orchestra in a racquetball court. It makes no sense.
Yippee-ki-yay: Hey, everyone, you can stop praying now: It’s official. Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer are making another movie together. According to Variety, it will be an epic about Pearl Harbor; how’s that for a stretch?
My sources in Hollywood tell me that a script is already floating around and there’s a part in it for good ol’ Bruce Willis, the asteroid-shattering macho man from Bay’s nuanced sci-fi masterwork Armageddon. I can’t wait for the scene where our hero
impales Emperor Hirohito on a wrought-iron fence and snarls, “I got yer hara-kiri right here, bitch.” Broooooce!
Sweet music: Most movies these days tell a straightforward story poorly; the filmmakers are like talented but lazy musicians playing “Chopsticks” and missing half the notes. In comparison, The Red Violin, directed by François Girard and cowritten with Don McKellar, is so ambitious and so fully conceived that it can restore your faith in the idea of movies as both entertainment and popular art. It’s a symphony in five movements, each interlocked with architectural precision, each of which comments upon and furthers a common theme while also standing alone as a satisfying story. Even when it fails—and it sometimes does fail—you’re always grateful for the filmmakers’ concentration, their sweep and their ability to surprise you with a well-timed cut, a symbolically appropriate image or a piece of information, long-withheld, that is suddenly revealed, snapping a whole story line into place.
The elaborate narrative superstructure—classical and romantic where the filmmakers’ previous collaboration, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould was disorienting and cubist—isn’t the film’s only source of pleasure. The smart images and pleasing reversals are in the service of a couple of important themes. One is that classical music isn’t an art form that belongs only to the West, or to the rich; it is community property, a shared expression of human potential that can resonate with anyone
in any nation in any century, as seen by the images of poor and rich alike playing the violin, and especially the sequence set in Communist China, where love of Western music can result in public rebuke or worse. Equally important is the notion of music as siren song that absorbs and transforms those who play it.
Beneath the shameless melodrama and mystical hoo-hah about curses, this is what The Red Violin is ultimately about: the exquisite curse of being a musician, which can wreck your marriage, your health and your hands, ruin your day job and consume your every waking thought even as it makes you ridiculously happy. The one thing all the film’s characters have in common is that they love to play and will do anything to keep doing it. When Samuel Jackson’s violin-assessor character and his partner in restoration work, a techie played by McKellar, probe the red violin with fiber-optic cameras and listen to the vibrations of its wooden skin with state-of-the-art sound monitors, the images have an eerie, almost supernatural charge. It is as if we’re seeing two men try to quantify desire—to pick apart a sweet curse as one might diagram a sentence, transform it into a dry mathematical theorem, explain and justify what makes artists fiddle while the world burns.