Tuesday, December 15, 2009



The Writers

Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Pam Brady; based on the television series created by Parker and Stone; song lyrics by Parker and Marc Shaiman

Why It’s Here

In every truly great film, there’s always that one moment, that one scene or line or image, where it clicks into your brain that this is no average piece of Hollywood product, that what you’re watching is one for the time capsule. In Casablanca, it’s the “La Marseillaise” scene, the moment when Rick begins his transformation from tragic hero to re-engaged idealist. In It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s the dinner-table conversation between George Bailey and his father, maybe the greatest scene of adult child-parent relationship I’ve ever seen in a film. And in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, the moment Saddam Hussein whipped out his cock and started waving it at Satan, the jury was no longer out, and I accepted that I was in the presence of a modern comedy classic.

To be honest, prior to the release of this film in 1999, I was not the world’s biggest fan of Comedy Central’s deliberately slapdash-looking, cut-and-paste exercise in scatology and outrage (at the time of the film’s release, South Park had been on television since 1997, and it’s still going strong, having just wrapped up its thirteenth season). Though I recognized that there were the seeds of something wonderful in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s chronicles of the adventures of a quartet of foul-mouthed Colorado third-graders, it seemed that too often the show was willing to coast on the fact that the show’s heavy profanity and sexual dialogue was escaping from the lips of children animated to resemble a project from a kindergartner’s art table. There was too much reliance on toilet humor, sometimes literally (one of the most popular characters from the early seasons of the show was Mr. Hankey, a talking piece of poop who comes to South Park to teach the kids the true meaning of Christmas, leaving little shit smears wherever he goes all the while). Though I often would laugh watching the program, I always had the feeling that this was a show that was going to burn out quickly, that once the novelty value of X-rated construction-paper cartoon characters wore off, there wouldn’t be much left to compel people to keep watching. But then came South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, and the critical response was surprisingly, overwhelmingly positive, much more so than for the TV show itself. Many of the reviews I remember reading described the film in tones similar to those I detected seven years later in the kudos for the even more rapturously received Borat movie. Critics weren’t just laughing at this film. They were marveling at its subversive narrative, the way it took people’s primary objections to the television show and transformed them into a biting social satire while still rubbing the audience’s noses in all the violence and blasphemy the show always trafficked in…only this time, the f-words WEREN’T beeped out. This wasn’t just a funny movie. This was a movie that was getting away with something. And that, regardless of my feelings about the show, sounded worth checking out.

From the day it first aired, South Park was attacked by parents’ groups, right-wing politicians and cultural watchdogs who expressed worry that the family-friendly look of the show would encourage kids to watch and repeat the “horrible” words that they heard. The series hit the airwaves at the height of one of those every-so-often cultural moments when the content of entertainment was being heavily analyzed for its effects on the minds of the youth. Just two months prior to the release of Bigger, Longer, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two deeply troubled teenagers from Littleton, Colorado (the hometown, incidentally, of South Park co-creator and Bigger, Longer co-writer Matt Stone), showed up at Columbine High School armed with a small arsenal and opened fire on their classmates, eventually killing twelve other students and then themselves. Though obviously the work of two grossly damaged young men, the shootings were blamed on everything from violent video games like Doom to the music of Marilyn Manson, and if the boys had been shouting profanities when they shot their classmates, it’s possible that South Park would have been held accountable for Columbine’s fourteen deaths as well. (Stone was later interviewed about the Columbine High massacre in Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning 2002 gun-culture documentary Bowling For Columbine.) Parker and Stone were clear-eyed enough to realize that when kids are far enough over the deep end to start gunning down classmates, there has to be more at work here than just the influence of some loud music or video games, and that in the face of such tragedies and violence, does it really matter whether a little kid made out of construction paper uses the f-word? From this seed of a concept, Parker and Stone, along with co-writer Pam Brady and lyricist Marc Shaiman, created one of the greatest American social satires ever made.

The world of South Park changes forever when Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman (along with Kyle’s adopted Canadian brother Ike) con their way into a screening of Terence and Philip: Asses of Fire, the new film starring a Canadian comedy duo whose entire act basically consists of them farting on each other. But in the movie, they’ve got a new four-letter trick up their sleeves, and from the first lines of Terence and Philip’s song “Uncle Fucka” (a screwloose sendup of the hoedown-style tunes of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma), the kids can’t stop themselves from spewing all the foul filth that they heard on the screen. (It really must be emphasized here that, in an era when The Simpsons represented as far as American mainstream animated comedy would go content-wise, the sight and sound of these kids using the f-word truly was a shock…and a delight.) The kids eventually get in trouble at school for their new vocabulary, but school counselor Mr. Mackey’s musical attempt to wean them off dirty words doesn’t take, and after another screening of the film, Kenny, who was brutally killed in the course of each early episode of the show, here dies by trying to light a fart on fire, just like Philip does in the movie. Upon learning about this, Sheila Brofslovski, Kyle’s crusading harridan of a mother (major kudos to the late Mary Kay Bergman for this ferocious comic voice performance), naturally sets her sights on the most logical party responsible for the corruption of the town’s youth and the death of Kenny: Canada, the home of Terence and Philip’s comedy. South Park’s crusade against Canadian smut eventually devolves into an honest-to-God shooting war, set to climax at a USO show which will feature as its main attraction the execution of the fart-happy comedians. But Kenny, trapped in hell with Satan and his oversexed asshole of a lover, Saddam Hussein (and this was eight years before the man’s actual execution), has learned that the death of Terence and Philip will be the seventh sign heralding the coming of the desolate one to Earth and a thousand years of darkness. So, as is often the case on the show, the kids have to be the voice of reason, uniting their fellow eight-year-olds as “La Resistance” to rescue Terence and Philip and prevent their parents, who have caused a war just to keep their kids from hearing the f-word, from destroying the world.

It is to Parker, Stone and Brady’s credit that, in writing Bigger, Longer, they were not content to merely make a feature-length episode of the TV show. They concocted a plot that depended on the freedom of the film format for its full impact, a story that they could not have told as well on television, and in doing so were able to make a clear, incisive statement not only about the excessive nature of the protests against their show’s content, but about the loss of perspective and misplaced priorities that rule the day when tragedy strikes children and parents look to anyone but themselves and the kids for a place to stick the blame. The war caused by Sheila Brofslovski’s protest against trash television is a hideous morass of carnage in which soldiers are gutted with chainsaws, black troops are lashed to tanks and planes as part of “Operation: Human Shield”, and even the Baldwin brothers and Conan O’Brien are casualties of war. Mrs. Brofslovski claims at all times that she is only on this mission to make the world better for her sons and all the children of America, but it’s telling that during a speech at a Canadian-stuff burning rally, Kyle’s every attempt to get his mother’s attention and tell her about the coming apocalypse is drowned out by Mrs. Brofslovski’s impassioned insistence that this intolerance and violence is all for the good of “the children”. Not only that, she is willing to vilify her own adopted son’s people to try to make his life better, a perfect example of “destroy the village in order to save it” thinking (we even see a newsreel in which Canadian citizens are herded into American internment camps…which would be hilarious if we didn’t remember that Americans actually did this to the Japanese during World War II). Mrs. Brofslovski, who is willing to see the whole world destroyed just so she can be right, is the mouthpiece for the script’s most direct statements of the writers’ theme of society’s misguided blame-placing in the face of tragedy. In the final line of the Oscar-nominated song “Blame Canada”, she leads her fellow South Park parents in singing, “We must blame them and cause a fuss / before somebody thinks of blaming us!” Later, in a speech at the USO show, she reminds us that we should “Remember what the MPAA says: horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words!” It would all seem completely ridiculous, if we didn’t actually live in a world where the same people who allow thousands of American soldiers to die in a war against a government being blamed for an attack they had nothing to do with, are the same people who blow their collective tops and try to bring down the entire medium of television because someone showed a partially naked breast for about three seconds. And all of this happened several years AFTER Bigger, Longer was released, which means that not only did the writers have a clear understanding of this cultural problem, but they also realized that it wasn’t likely to go away any time soon.

All of this sociopolitical analysis makes Bigger, Longer sound about as fun to watch as your average C-Span congressional session broadcast. But this is one of the funniest films of the last decade, as the writers, again taking full advantage of the loosened restraints of the film medium, push the movie to the screaming edge of the R rating at every possible turn. It’s not just the foul language, though it was honestly a treat, after three-odd seasons of bleeped obscenities, to hear some of the baroque profanities uttered by these kids unobstructed (Cartman at one point quotes a line from the Terence and Philip movie about a “testicle-shitting rectal wart”). This is the type of film where half the time you’re laughing with amusement, and half the time in shocked disbelief at what you just saw on the screen. This is a film where a pint-sized Terence and Philip fan wears a “Cockmaster” t-shirt to school. Where a giant talking clitoris dispenses sage advice in a voice like Glinda from The Wizard of Oz. Where a chain-smoking eight-year-old known as “The Mole”, one of the leaders of La Resistance, boasts of surviving his mother’s coat-hanger abortion attempt and curses God as a bitch and a faggot and worse. Where the kids, searching online for information about said clitoris, uncover a fetish website that features a video of Cartman’s mother getting shit on by German porn stars. Where Winona Ryder, performing at the USO show, dazzles the troops with what looks like a wholly inappropriate ping-pong ball trick. Where the denizens of hell who greet Kenny upon his arrival include not only expected subjects like Hitler and John Wayne Gacy, but Gandhi and, for no reason that I can figure out, George Burns. Brooke Shields is slapped, Bill Gates shot point-blank in the head, and did I mention that Saddam Hussein waves his dick around? The same dick we at one point hear him shoving into Satan’s rear end (accompanied by a loving, “Yeah, you like that, don’t you, bitch?”)? Top it off with the most profanities ever uttered in an animated film (399, according to Guinness, including 146 uses of the word “fuck”), and the facts are inescapable. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is every bit as foul and crude as its critics attested. And you know what? Nobody died as a result of that. I’ve seen the movie several times, and I am neither dead (except in the zombie sense), nor have I been compelled to kill others. Cartman was right all along: “Who cares? It doesn’t hurt anybody! Fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck!”

The writers do an excellent job of giving all four of the kids an important role to play in the story. Stan, desperate to win back the attention of his beloved Wendy Testaburger from a bright, politically active new kid, is the major driving force behind “La Resistance” and pushes the kids to new levels of commitment to the cause of freedom. He also embarks on the quest for “the clitoris”, which he believes will help him to win Wendy’s heart and which turns out to have great advice that motivates him to continue his quest to save Terence and Philip and the world. Kyle has to learn to stand up to his mother, who has terrified him his whole life and who is now ready to send the world into a thousand years of living hell, all the while claiming, as parents often do, she’s just doing it for his own good. Cartman, who is not surprisingly the most egregious profanity-slinger among the kids, is implanted with a conditioning chip that blasts him with an electrical shock every time he uses a four-letter word (the scientist who implanted the chip tests it out by getting him to say “horse-fucker” and “big floppy donkey dick”, much to his pain and anguish), a curse that turns into a blessing when the chip’s electrical discharge proves a potent weapon against the demons. And Kenny must not only return as a spirit to guide his friends toward the defeat of the evil that is to come, he also plays Dr. Phil to Satan in his checkered romance with the brutish, sex-crazed Saddam. (This aspect of the film, with Satan and Saddam portrayed as a dysfunctional gay couple, was one that received major criticism in the gay press, and to be fair, there’s no real reason Satan has to be seen during his big musical number on a gay cruise ship called the S.S. Manhandler…though I have to admit that I laugh every time I see him reading a book called Saddam is From Mars, Satan Is From Venus.) None of the main characters is short-changed in this story, and early-season fan favorites like Ike, puppet-wielding teacher Mr. Garrison ("All the Baldwins are dead?!?!"), and the inimitable Big Gay Al all get their moments to shine as well…none more so than Al, who almost walks off with the movie in a huge production number called “I’m Super”, complete with dancing waiters, water sports, and, of course, a long look at Big Gay Al’s little gay wang.

These songs, co-written by Parker and award-winning composer Shaiman, also elevate the movie into the realm of something truly memorable. I never would have imagined that a show scored to the wonky strains of Primus would have spawned a film with such richly melodic and memorable songs, but Bigger, Longer’s score, honored with awards by the Chicago, Los Angeles, and online film critics’ organizations, is chock-full of flat-out showstoppers from beginning to end. From the anthemic “Mountain Town”, which opens the film with a clever send-up of Beauty and the Beast’s curtain-raising “Belle” number, to Satan’s power-ballady “Up There” (he belts it out like a demonic hybrid of Michael Bolton and Mariah Carey), from Mr. Mackey’s buoyant anti-swearing number “It’s Easy, Mmmkay” (“Fuck is the worst word that we can say, fuck is the worst word that we can say / We shouldn’t say fuck, no we shouldn’t say fuck, fuck no!”) to the brilliant “La Resistance Medley”, a parody of a similar summing-up song from Les Miserables, Parker and Shaiman’s score is infused with a genuine love of the conventions of classic showtune writing, all the while using that style to their own slyly comedic purposes. These songs advance the story, build the characters, set our toes tapping and send us out of the theater humming…and they’re funny as hell on top of all that. It’s been almost ten years since I first saw the film, and I still know almost every word to every song in the picture. I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m gonna say it. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is the best movie musical since Beauty and the Beast, and one of the greatest of all time.

The only major objection to be raised against the film is one that’s almost out of its control, and that’s the dated nature of some of the jokes. Any film or television show that trades in satirical humor runs the risk of its jokes quickly becoming passé as the cultural figures and conventions that spawned them fade from the public memory, and Bigger, Longer is no exception. Sure, they can still get away with featuring Bill Clinton as a character in the film, but who these days is gonna get the gag when Saddam and Satan have a Skeet Ulrich poster over their bed? Who’s gonna truly appreciate the cultural impact of Canadian fighter pilots bombing the Baldwin brothers? To say nothing of the song “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”, a hymn to the gold-medal-winning American figure skater which, to be honest, was dated even in 1999.

But the film’s message of tolerance for freedom of speech, even in the face of those who would stifle your individuality and suppress your self “for your own good”, is a timeless one, perhaps even more timely now than it was then. It certainly did a world of good for Parker and Stone to share this story with the world. In the years following Bigger, Longer’s release, the television show itself has evolved from a potty-mouthed but inconsequential comedy to TV’s fiercest and most consistently biting satire, taking on everything from Scientology to the Terri Schiavo controversy to the Danish Muhammad-cartoon scare, and pushing the content envelope with episodes like “Scott Tenorman Must Die”, in which Cartman, to get revenge on an older kid who bilked him out of sixteen bucks, chops up the kid’s parents into chili and feeds it to him. I first saw South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut in the theater on the Fourth of July. And honestly, fireworks and barbecued hot dogs are nice, but I can’t think of many better ways to celebrate the freedoms that our founding fathers struggled to win for us than laughing along with a film that realizes that hearing a word, even a word that starts with f and ends with u-c-k (and that ain’t “firetruck”) is hardly the coming of the devil himself.

AWARD NOMINATIONS): Annie Award, Outstanding Achievement in Writing in an Animated Feature

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