Monday, July 13, 2009

"South Park": Older, Wiser, and Better Than Ever

by James Hansen

Released 10 summers ago this year, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut is likely less seen today than the show, whether with continually great new seasons on Comedy Central and/or syndication there or elsewhere. But, as a rabid fan of the show since it began in 1997, watching the movie again recently was a revelatory experience. South Park may very well be the crowning comedy of the 1990s and not because its a great comedy that also happens to be a brilliant musical, but because it now stands as a marker for what South Park has come to represent in the fabric of American culture.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut is fucking sweet (to borrow Kyle’s reaction to seeing Terrence and Phillip’s Asses of Fire) from the genius opening number “Mountain Town” to the end. Even for audience unfamiliar with the show, “Mountain Town” cleverly does exactly what opening numbers of classic musicals are supposed to do. Meet each character, get a sense of who they are, and introduce what the catalysts for the rest of the work are. No built-in fan base needed. Trey Parker displays impeccable command of the movie musical narrative with genuinely smart numbers in both in script and score, something lacking in movie musicals since the 60s and certainly unmatched in the overstated “return of The Musical” post-Chicago where an original movie musical has yet to be successfully produced. Not enough has been said about how great Parker is with music, as most of what remembered are the shocking lyrics, but the music, in conception and execution, is just outstanding.

Great as all of this is, the genuine praise was all said (more or less) upon the film’s critically successful release in 1999. So – to borrow a question Cartman poses to Mr. Mackey after being sent to the principal’s office for politely asking Mr. Garrison if he would like to suck his balls – what’s the big fuckin’ deal, bitch? Or, in more polite terms, why is this movie still critically relevant to talk about, apart from its genuine hilarity? Or, to reflect more personally, why am I choosing to suddenly write on this ten year old movie and throwing around adjectives like revelatory? Truth is, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut is better today than ever before. This is not because South Park has aged well, gained relevance since the second Iraq War, or sustained itself as a biting television program ever since (although all of those things are true). What makes South Park: BLU even more exceptional today is the ability to see how Parker was complexly appropriating its own expanding position within the cultural landscape as a primary dialogic facet of the movie – something that no other movie based on a TV show has ever done.

All of this starts with Canada. Or, at least, with South Park’s favorite flappy-headed Canadians Terrence and Phillip. T&P have always been an underrated part of the South Park universe, as they have always represented an astutely calculated mirror image of parental reaction to South Park (“nothing but fart jokes and toilet humor”). Similarly, America’s red-headed stepchild ideology towards Canada over the course of the show bluntly points the finger elsewhere for the town of South Park’s constantly collapsing midwestern morality. While Terrence and Philip are the apotheosis of South Park’s worldview in the minds of parents, Canada, as a whole, is the laughable, yet undeniable force of wrong in the world that disguises itself in a hockey mask and infiltrates the previously established system of values. What parents just don’t understand, naturally, is that the problems may be closer to home than they wish. As “Blame Canada” signifies, Celine Dion and Ann Murray may take the hit from Sheila Broflovski and the Mothers Against Canada, but they are actually fueling the very war they are attempting to fight.

Parker’s choice to have T&P head-hunted by American parents, incidentally for T&P’s first movie and not for their similarly dirty TV show, is another brilliant move that reflects South Park’s own position at the moment of the film’s release. Cinema becomes the marker for mainstream culture rather than television so, accurate or not, South Park simultaneously promotes and challenges its own status as an evolving animated show, a form thought by many parents to be merely for kids (who, incidentally, are the only characters who are ever seen watching T&P), coming into the mainstream, by way of the production of a movie. Alongside this rather complicated idiom, South Park is also questioning its ability to have a positive or negative impact on the politics of childhood protection and self-destructive censorship. Parker's astute assessment, recognizing what South Park was at the moment of its release and forseeing what it would become, makes South Park: BLU the most fascinating work in the South Park canon.

Alas, the chaos eventually subsides and things again become super when South Park: BLU accepts and returns to its initial form – Cartman’s filthy fucking mouth, previously taken away by the V-chip, T&P back alive and working, after being briefly defeated at a hefty price, and Kenny staying dead, despite having the chance to be alive again. South Park: BLU achieves its timeless success by skewering everything that crosses its path while staying sharply focused on extensively evaluating the most important target: itself.

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Brandon Colvin said...

Agreed, agreed, agreed.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the most important and influential comedic minds of my lifetime. By far.

I've seen this film probably 20 times, and every episode of SOUTH PARK at least twice. Honestly, I wish they would make another feature.

James Hansen said...

Glad to know we're definitely in agreement on this. I'm not sure if everyone out there does...I definitely ran into some people during college who were in line with Sheila Broflovski on what South Park was, but I think they clearly hadn't been watching the show. Maybe the Simpsons already did it, but I'll take South Park any day. I would love to see another feature - its about time for one - but I actually heard Parker is working on a Broadway musical... AWESOME.

j.white said...

Preaching to the choir here.

There are many, many, MANY things I love about South Park, but the things I love the most are Parker/Stone's ability to perfectly capture and mock big budget action cheese and the music. Probably why I liked TEAM AMERICA so much.

Haven't watched this movie in a while. I think it's time to pop it in the DVD player. You know, I'm generally not a fan of musicals because I actually think most musical numbers take you out of the story, but this is one of few movies where I actually enjoy the music more and find the story and the music to be in a good balance.

Anonymous said...

So though its 10th anniversary was a year ago (I didn't read this until now), I just wanted to say how much I like the article. What makes South Park so important still is its...well...arrogance. Putting itself out there as, basically, a conglomeration of inside jokes. The characters make fun of each other like the world is their proverbial locker room. All the while, the creators almost dare people NOT to watch. They make a career out of taking risks--something Hollywood, certainly, rarely does. Will this risk hurt box office returns? Will this risk offend the demographic in Little Rock? Will this risk hurt my political chances of an Oscar nom? Etc, etc, etc. South Park: BLU stands as the quintessential example of innovative filmmaking.

The popular story, of course, is that the MPAA sent back the first cut to the studio, telling them to take out sware words or face an NC-17 rating. Stone & Parker, or so the story goes, added if to send out a big ole "fuck you" to the establishment. They got their 'R' rating, naturally.

Don't fuck with these boys is alls I have to say.
_ryan louis_