Triumph of the Swill

Triumph of the Swill

Triumph of the Swill

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July 9 1999 9:30 PM

Triumph of the Swill

South Park kicks puritanical ass; American Pie hits below the belt.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

Directed by Trey Parker
Paramount Pictures

American Pie
Directed by Paul Weitz
Universal Pictures

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(Warning: This review contains profanity and unwholesome ideas. Parental discretion is strongly advised.)

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If you haven't seen South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, then what are you waiting for, you shit-sucking uncle-fucker? Do you want to miss this generation's Duck Soup (1933)? True, Duck Soup didn't resort to bunches of four-letter words--OK, cannonades of four-letter words--for shock value. But the value of shock was cheaper back then. Nowadays, an artist has to haul out the big guns. At an early juncture, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone must have decided there'd be no point in doing a South Park film if they couldn't make Mel Brooks choke and John Waters soil himself. You can taste their glee in hitting their marks--hitting them and annihilating them. This isn't just the most riotously inventive movie of the year, it's the raunch anthem of the age.

Parker and Stone (and screenplay collaborator Pam Brady) have concocted nothing less than an 80-minute Swiftian epic--a ribald, hyperbolic satire of the notion that movies "warp our fragile little minds." Inspired, no doubt, by the reception to South Park on television and to its ancestor Mike Judge's Beavis and Butt-head, the film depicts nations going to war, thousands being gorily slaughtered, and characters journeying to heaven and hell. But the basic premise remains deliriously simple. The four third-grade protagonists--Stan, Kyle the Jew, fat Cartman, and mush-mouthed sacrificial lamb Kenny--sing a Rodgers and Hammerstein-style ode to their "peaceful, redneck, podunk" wintry mountain town (where denizens step over the homeless on their way to church services), and then bluff their way into an R-rated Canadian cartoon called Asses of Fire. That picture stars a crudely drawn, Beavis and Butt-head-type duo called Terrance and Phillip, who entertain each other by spewing four-letter words and passing gas in each other's faces. "I wanna be just like Terrance and Phillip," announces Cartman, who shows off his new vocabulary at the pond on which his peers idyllically ice skate. Impressed, the rest of South Park's youth rushes off to see what the fuss is about--or, in Canada-speak, aboot.

The upshot is pandemonium. By the time Asses of Fire has been trimmed by the MPAA to a permissible one minute, the children of America are cursing authority figures and a militant countermovement--MAC, or Mothers Against Canada, led by Kyle's Ethel Merman-ish mom--has marked Terrance and Phillip for execution and driven the United States to war against its neighbor to the north. Kyle's mother could be speaking for the MPAA--which forced last-minute cuts in this "uncut" feature for the sake of an R rating--when she intones, "Horrific, deplorable violence is OK as long as people don't say any naughty words."

For all the film's obscenities, its primary influence is musical comedy. It could have been dreamed up at a summer drama camp with a liberal gay element. South Park abounds in screamingly campy parodies, from the opening ensemble to Terrance and Phillip's peppy rap duet "Shut Your Fucking Face, Uncle-Fucker" to the principal's exhortation to substitute "bum," "poo," and the phlegmatic "M'kay" for, respectively, "ass," "shit," and "fuck" while leading a Busby Berkeley-ish dance line. Children of all nations and races sing that Kyle's mom is a big, fat, stupid bitch. When the film shifts to hell, the muscle-bound Satan does a soulful, Meat Loaf-style schlock-rock ballad on his longing for a better world--in this case embodied by a ship of half-naked sailor types lolling about a pool. Poor Michael Bolton-ish Satan is the only character with complex emotions; he is disconsolate over his empty affair with the recently arrived Saddam Hussein, who only wants to fuck him in the ass and take over the world and who is blithely uninterested in the big red devil's feelings. Maybe a third of the movie's gags are expressly gay or else trade on such expressions as "ass-ramming uncle-fucker," but the overall effect is the opposite of homophobic. In the climax, an army of soldiers watches a USO show in which a character called Big Gay Al dresses up as Uncle Sam and sings that he's feeling "thuper." The military is rapt.

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South Park: Bigger, Longer &Uncut is hardly PC, but it's still a piece of joyous left-wing propaganda. The allied forces of "morality," it says, are far more dangerous than the most "immoral" language. The filmmakers even subvert the far right on Biblical grounds: It's the repressive Mothers Against Canada who usher in the apocalypse. (Actually, it's a fat, overbearing Jewish mother who ushers in the apocalypse--a scenario that gave me pause but which on reflection seems more plausible than others I've heard.) The movie reminds us, once again, how topsy-turvy this puritanical culture really is. It was Albert Brooks who pointed out--when his great Lost in America (1985) received a restricted rating from the MPAA for its use of "fuck" in a "sexual context"--that if a character says "I want to fuck you over this desk," the picture will get an R rating, but if he says, "I want to fuck you over with this desk," it will get a PG-13. What the fuck, we must ask, are children being protected from?

You say that South Park is crude? Crass, maybe, but rarely crude. It's not even, as some have complained, visually crude. Yes, the animation in, say, Tarzan is more intricate, but Disney employs vast armies of animators, each going at his or her minute task like an Egyptian slave at the pyramids. How primitive. In South Park, the round-headed cutouts in their parkas who hop along in front of flat backdrops have more impact: Parker and company have boiled their movement down to the essential gesture. The look is never monotonous: The frames are Dadaist quilts into which real photos are sewn--and the fact that that's Saddam Hussein's head and not a drawing makes his pipsqueak voice and cries of "Let's fuck!" even more hilariously fatwah-worthy. And it's the kindergarten straightforwardness of the images that makes the obscenities so delectable: The "shits" and "fucks" rush out of these characters' mouths at hyperspeed, always a beat faster than you expect. (The puke rushes out faster, too.)

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is my The Phantom Menace--the film that returns me to a righteous (in this case, righteously filthy) adolescence. I've seen it twice (the second time was even better) and plan on another visit. I won't bring my daughter, though. It's important that she sneak in on her own.

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I doubt that I'll see American Pie a second time because the gags aren't as intricate as the ones in South Park, and the whole thing is rather obvious. But the movie, directed by Paul Weitz from a first-time script by Adam Herz, made me and a lot of other adolescents-at-heart shriek with embarrassment. This one's crude--and funny. The long-heralded teen-sex comedy has already been dubbed Porky's 2000, but it's worth remembering that Porky's (1981) was a piece of sexist junk, and that both American Pie and the vastly superior There's Something About Mary (1998) dramatize adolescent sexual panic in ways that seem more likely to relieve than to perpetuate it.

The gimmick is that the male leads (the amiable Chris Klein from Election, Jason Biggs, Thomas Ian Nicholas, and Eddie Kaye Thomas) make a pact that they will lose their virginity before graduation, three weeks hence. ("No longer will our penises remain flaccid and unused: We will get laid.") Subsequent jokes are grounded, predictably, in their sundry sexual humiliations; easy stuff, but concentrated and layered so that they add up to a vision of adolescence as a hormone-wracked purgatory. The masochistic element takes the edge off the picture's implicit misogyny. American Pie strives to out-gross-out its predecessors and does so handily. I don't envy next year's teen-sex filmmaker the challenge of topping the pie scene or the cloudy glass of beer bit. I wish a sequence that involves a girl stripping and masturbating in Biggs' bedroom while he and his buddies ogle her on the Internet weren't so poorly staged and acted. (The girl is so much like a fourth-rate porn actress that the audience assumes she was hired to help the boy become a man--but the punch line never comes.) The movie recovers and then some when that sexy "dork" Alyson Hannigan (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) shows up to chatter about her band camp experiences. You'll never look at a flute the same way again.

The only truly inspired segments of American Pie feature the amazing Eugene Levy as Biggs' dad, who's always walking in on the kid in the middle of some creative bout of wanking. Flustered but suffused with good-natured liberal heartiness, Levy initiates a series of "father-son" talks that are among the most excruciating ever filmed. Yes, our parents had many of the same sexual traumas we did but, no, we don't want to hear about them in detail. That's the ultimate gross-out.