South Park directed by Trey Parker If John Waters circa 1979made 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-screenversion of the Comedy Central cartoon series is what a large number of Disneyelements 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 Beastto 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 unfamiliarworld. What's scary is that the bulk of the songs-cowritten by Parker and composerMarc Shaiman-are actually more fun and musically interesting than the songs in the last few Disney movies. There are other differences: South Park'sopening 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 obligatoryyearning power ballad is not a love-starved little mermaid, but Satan, Princeof Darkness. What's even scarier is that both these numbers are touching. This unexpected collisionof qualities-profanity, satire, innocence and yearning-is what makes SouthPark watchable even when it's bullying and gross. Creators Trey Parker andMatt Stone are sick puppies, but they're still puppies-corrupted innocents whostill remember how good innocence felt. You can tell they love Disney movies,just as they love Charles Schulz's Peanuts gang, the obvious inspirationfor 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 sentimentalclaptrap. But although the animatorsmock 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 qualityof longing. Kid heroes Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny secretly wish their worldof sex, violence, obscenity and psychedelic chaos were decent and safe, as inPeanuts-or at least romantic and morally comprehensible, as in Disney. The fact that life isn't that way makes the South Park characters a littlesad sometimes-even the parents, who cuss and fart, drink and fornicate, betrayand kill, but remain softhearted, happy-go-lucky dreamers. Parker and Stonehave their cake and eat it, too, vivisecting pop culture cliches even as theyput them to work. It's perverse, repulsive and insane but also endearing, likesomebody stuck his arm up Mickey Mouse's rectum, turned him inside out yet stillmade him talk like Mickey; the mouse is still cute even though he's wearinghis organs on the outside, and you're not sure whether to applaud or throw up. The plot of the movie isa feature-length riff on an episode from the show, in which the meddling momof sensitive Jewish kid Kyle leads a mob of angry parents to New York to protestthe 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 facesand cackle with delight. That episode, like the cartoon-within-a-cartoon Terrence& Philip, was Parker and Stone's bonehead-obvious way of taking shotsat family-values types who claimed pop culture items like South Parkwere corrupting kids. The animators wrote off their detractors as a bunch ofhypocritical moralist fanatics, and showed them climbing into catapults, launchingthemselves against the glass skyscraper housing the cable network that airedTerrence & Philip and splattering like ripe tomatoes. The image was grossly unfair and hilarious for that very reason-like one of those Terry Gilliamcut-paper cartoons from Monty Python's Flying Circus. In the movie, Parker andStone push their potty-mouthed outlaw status several steps further, making whatis, in essence, a feature-length critique of their critics. It's vicious andunfair, ultimately tiresome but sometimes very funny, and has the most overtlyself-reflexive narrative I've seen in a major American release since ThePlayer. (It also looks great on the big screen, where the blocky imagesacquire an iconic force.) Kyle and his pals sneak into the new Terrence &Philip Movie, which for some inexplicable reason is R-rated (just like theSouth Park movie), receive a first-rate tutorial in profanity and leavethe theater cussing like George Carlin fixing a tire in the rain. Parents, politiciansand school authorities are horrified by their language, which leads to a wrongheadedcrusade not just against tv stars Terrence and Philip, who are captured by the military and promptly scheduled for execution, but also against the nation ofCanada, which produced Terrence & Philip and therefore must pay inblood for corrupting America's kids. So the President makes Kyle's mom the secretaryof defense, and the U.S. declares war against Canada. And Satan, who is watchingthe whole mess from down in hell, decides the outbreak of a war based on adulthypocrisy and ignorance is the perfect cover for him to take over human civilization. For a while, at least, itseems like Parker and Stone are making arguments of unexpected clarity and force.Namely: 1. Though South Parkis about kids, we never intended it to be for kids. That's why theshow airs late at night and the movie is rated R. 2. Don't tell us we're beingdisingenuous because kids are going to be instinctively attracted to anythingthat's a cartoon, especially if it contains adult subject matter. That's a stupidargument that says more about how animation has been unfairly ghettoized asa kids' genre than it does about our alleged intentions. 3. Crusaders who get outragedover offensive content in popular culture are wasting their time and everyoneelse's. The real enemies of children are war, famine, disease, ignorance andother vast social forces, not a cartoon. 4. If kids get access toSouth Park anyway-or to South Park merchandise-it is not the faultof the people who created South Park, since they took reasonable precautionsto make sure people know it's not for kids. Such access is the fault of parentswho don't know what their kids are up to, and perhaps inattentive and amoralshopkeepers, movie theater managers, etc. Not that any of this stuffdetracts from the comedy. South Park is about crude jokes first, visualwit second, pop culture satire third, and any anti-bluenose agenda is a distantfourth. Still, it's weird to be sitting there in the dark, formulating perfectlyvalid objections to South Park's freedom-of-expression arguments, thenhaving the film itself answer those objections a split second after I thinkof 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 presentedin such over-the-top terms (I don't know anyone who dislikes South Parkenough to execute the people who created it) that the whole agenda, if you cancall it that, eventually turns to mush. The movie itself becomeswearying as well. At the screening I attended, even people who seemed to beenjoying themselves kept looking at their watches. Perhaps this kind of cartoon,with its blunt language, gross images and primitive-on-purpose animation, isso intense that even hardcore fans can only take so much of it. I should also say that althoughI consider myself tough to shock, there were five or six gags in South Parkthat were so offensive and unnecessary-and so poorly thought out in terms ofwho might be offended and whether it's worth alienating those people just toget a laugh-that they took me out of the movie. For every gag that's rude andpolitically incorrect in a good way-like the U.S. military's decision to staffthe doomed first wave of its Canadian invasion with black soldiers, a marveloussendup of institutional racism-there are many other gags that are whiteboy snottyand nothing more. (The film's cavalier misuse of Big Gay Al-a flaming liberatorso well-regarded by so many in the gay community that he often shows up as afloat in pride marches-is especially regrettable.) I cut Parker and Stone moreslack than I'm willing to give most filmmakers, though. Unlike, say, the creatorsof the forthcoming teen gross-fest American Pie-which I'll pick apartin detail next week-the South Park creators aren't being vulgar becausevulgar 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 Bakshiand R. Crumb, it comes from a bona fide artistic impulse, not just a commercialimperative. Which is why it's both inevitable and forgivable that Parker andStone would often say and show things that are hurtful for no good reason: It'sthe cost of doing this kind of business. When your strategy is to open yourid and see what flies out, some innocent people are going to get hit. Whenever the show's hyperboliccrassness 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 theremight be eating-Parker and Stone's tireless audacity and showmanship keep mecoming back. That and the fact that for all its dadaesque weirdness and brutescatology, South Park is the truest emotional representation of modernchildhood I've ever seen. Without denying their essential sweetness and decency,the show captures the way little boys really talk to each other when skittishparents aren't around-the cursing, the barely understood sexual terms, the racial,religious and homophobic slurs tossed off as freely as adjectives. The showis hip to how contemporary kids can be soiled by the cultural cesspool they'reswimming 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'scartoon than in professional man-child Adam Sandler's entire career. An American Love Story directed by Jennifer Fox [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="259" caption="(photo courtesy of Current, http://www.current.org)"][/caption] After watching the firsthour of An American Love Story, Jennifer Fox's epic documentary about an interracialcouple and their children, I thought I'd seen an original and touching filmabout that rarely seen film subject: the happy family. I also thought that I'dseen all I needed to see. Yet there were nine more hours of it, eight of whichwere made available for preview by critics. (The series plays in discrete three-hourblocs through next Tuesday at Film Forum.) I watched them all, and though Iliked 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, beingtelevision. Believe me: I happen to write about tv as well, and I wouldn't devoteso much time, effort and thought to that job if I shared Godfrey Cheshire andArmond White's opinion that tv is inherently bankrupt and that its evil corruptinginfluence 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 takenseriously by anyone who knows both media. If anything, tv has flourished byassuming duties that movie studios no longer care to assume-by taking over theclockwork farce, social drama and clever genre narrative that blockbuster- andkid-obsessed cinema has abandoned. For that matter, in any given month, thebest of tv, network and cable gives a truer representation of American lifethan almost any American movie playing in theaters, and is likely to have beenmade with a lot more wit and craft. Name a film that presents a funnier, truerpicture 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 AmericanLove Story not only was made for television, but is television. ("Aha,"you say, "but South Park is tv, too." True enough. But evenon the small screen, it was always boldly visual, even cinematic, and if anygenre 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 arethese 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 tellsthe 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 hasbeen married ever since, through good times and bad. Yet the trouble causedby their differing skin tones continues to resonate after all this time, affectingeverything from how people look at them on the street to how their mixed-racedaughters, 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 immediacythat's a welcome change of pace. Program four, Cicily's reunion and a familyget-together, is likable if a bit static, and the rest of the series mostlyrepeats information we've heard before using different words and pictures. There'ssome drama and emotion along the way, but not quite enough, in my mind, to justifyeight 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 TheTruman Show, or a less lurid, more philosophical update of the 1970s PBSseries An American Family. You don't so much watch Fox's series as absorbit, eventually becoming attuned to minuscule changes in the family members'facial expressions and moods. It's like moving into a strange family's houseand living there for a while: You start figuring things out-what buttons notto push, where the bodies are buried. As much as I liked it, though, I stillthink there's too much of it, and I can't imagine anyone seeing more than twoepisodes in the theater. It's like listening to a chamber orchestra in a racquetballcourt. It makes no sense. Framed Yippee-ki-yay: Hey, everyone,you can stop praying now: It's official. Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer aremaking another movie together. According to Variety, it will be an epicabout Pearl Harbor; how's that for a stretch? My sources in Hollywoodtell me that a script is already floating around and there's a part in it forgood ol' Bruce Willis, the asteroid-shattering macho man from Bay's nuancedsci-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 yerhara-kiri right here, bitch." Broooooce! Sweet music: Most moviesthese days tell a straightforward story poorly; the filmmakers are like talentedbut lazy musicians playing "Chopsticks" and missing half the notes.In comparison, The Red Violin, directed by François Girard andcowritten with Don McKellar, is so ambitious and so fully conceived that itcan restore your faith in the idea of movies as both entertainment and popularart. It's a symphony in five movements, each interlocked with architecturalprecision, each of which comments upon and furthers a common theme while alsostanding alone as a satisfying story. Even when it fails-and it sometimes doesfail-you're always grateful for the filmmakers' concentration, their sweep andtheir ability to surprise you with a well-timed cut, a symbolically appropriateimage or a piece of information, long-withheld, that is suddenly revealed, snappinga whole story line into place. The elaborate narrativesuperstructure-classical and romantic where the filmmakers' previous collaboration,32 Short Films About Glenn Gould was disorienting and cubist-isn't thefilm's only source of pleasure. The smart images and pleasing reversals arein the service of a couple of important themes. One is that classical musicisn't an art form that belongs only to the West, or to the rich; it is communityproperty, 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 playingthe violin, and especially the sequence set in Communist China, where love ofWestern music can result in public rebuke or worse. Equally important is thenotion of music as siren song that absorbs and transforms those who play it. Beneath the shameless melodramaand mystical hoo-hah about curses, this is what The Red Violin is ultimatelyabout: 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 wakingthought even as it makes you ridiculously happy. The one thing all the film'scharacters have in common is that they love to play and will do anything tokeep doing it. When Samuel Jackson's violin-assessor character and his partnerin restoration work, a techie played by McKellar, probe the red violin withfiber-optic cameras and listen to the vibrations of its wooden skin with state-of-the-artsound monitors, the images have an eerie, almost supernatural charge.It isas ifwe're seeing two men try to quantify desire-to pick apart a sweet curseas one might diagram a sentence, transform it into a dry mathematical theorem,explain and justify what makes artists fiddle while the world burns.