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Dirty politics

By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 27, 2008

A short history of raunch: Swift kicks
Like so much else that has been misunderstood, distorted, and exploited in our culture, the tradition of politically charged offensive humor goes back at least to the 1960s. That decade started auspiciously enough, with the election of John F. Kennedy, the New Frontier, and the Age of Camelot. Cracks emerged quickly, with the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, simmering racial turmoil, and the beginnings of the war in Vietnam. By the time Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, nobody was saying much about it, but everyone suspected deep down that the world was in the hands of crazy, stupid, and evil people with the casual capacity to destroy the human race with the push of a button.

Leave it to stand-up comics to first point out that the emperors had no clothes. Comics, that is, such as Lenny Bruce, whose legal busts for obscenity and for political honesty began in 1961. Movies were slow to catch on — the Production Code, a set of moral guidelines for the film industry, would cling to life until the switch to the MPAA rating system in 1967. Nonetheless, political satire of the black-comic, near-nihilist Swiftian variety arrived with John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), an icy, absurdist thriller that conflated the Cold War and the American political process with incest, conspiracy, brainwashing, and assassination.

Stanley Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern took those notions to their logical and ludicrous conclusion in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Like Frankenheimer, Kubrick looked back to Swift, the greatest satirist in the English language, evoking in his masterpiece the devastating irony of A Modest Proposal and the allegorical grotesquerie of Gulliver’s Travels. He also shared Swift’s insight that all human abstractions and ideals spring from the basest physiological drives and functions. The Cold War, Strangelove gleefully demonstrates, didn’t spring from any conflict in ideology or between good and evil, but was the symptom of systemic sexual pathology.

It doesn’t take a Freudian to read an erotic subtext into the lascivious coupling between a B-52 and a refueling tanker in the film’s opening scene, nor to take a hint from characters named Buck Turgidson, Merkin Muffley, Alexi de Sadesky, and “Bat” Guano. Although no “precious bodily fluids” appear on screen as they do 30 years later in There’s Something About Mary, they nonetheless prey on the mind of renegade bomber wing commander Jack D. Ripper — and thus trigger World War III.

The billion-dollar poop
Surprisingly, despite the success of Dr. Strangelove, nothing approaching that film’s savage indignation had a mainstream release until Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H in 1970 (followed in 1971 by Kubrick’s even more misanthropic A Clockwork Orange). A few films here and there ruffled feathers. Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965) camped up Evelyn Waugh’s novel, taking aim at America’s enduring taboo: death. Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967) offered a mild slap at materialism and hypocrisy. Myra Breckenridge (1969), the sui generis, posed the gender riddle of transsexual Raquel Welch ramming a dildo up a guy’s ass. But, despite the cultural and social ferment of the time, movie satires remained relatively tame.

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