Numb and number
Film critics can assess recent movie history by sorting through the items studios have sent them to promote their releases. In my archives, I’ve got a semen-collection kit for Road Trip (2000); a tube of lubricant (“There’s always time for lubricant!”) from Evolution (2001); another tube of lubricant and a tube of superglue (don’t mix them up!) for American Pie 2 (2001), and a container of hand cream and a box of tissues for Me, Myself & Irene (2000). I also have a variety of undergarments, including an oversize bra and panties from Big Momma’s House (2000), a lacy thong from John Tucker Must Die (2006), and a pair of briefs inscribed HOT ROD: SMACK DESTINY IN THE FACE for the upcoming film Hot Rod, which I received just a couple of weeks ago.
I suspect if Swift, no stranger to a good bodily function joke, saw these, he’d be saddened, not because of their yahoo-like puerility, but because of their pointlessness. Clearly the assault on bad taste in cinema initiated by Waters has become blasé. But then, so too has the politics.
This new bout of films still pays lip service to traditional liberal pieties of tolerance, equality, and hedonism. But audiences don’t care — they just want to cut to the fart. The raunch became the message, not the medium, and the knee-jerk moralisms have faded into vestigial conventions, a kind of background buzz drowned out by resounding flatulence.
Swift might also be dismayed by the dearth of uncompromising and mordantly hilarious satires like that of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. There was a period in the late ’90s when transgressive comedies with a political edge seemed on the rise again. Todd Solondz skewered the middle-class family in his gleefully perverse Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), followed by his even more transgressive Happiness (1998). Neil LaBute demolished macho ethics in his acridly uproarious In the Company of Men (1997) and did the same to yuppie morality in Your Friends and Neighbors (1998).
None of these art films had the box-office clout of even an underperforming, monkey-wrench-in-the-nuts yuk-fest of a film like BASEketball (1998), however. But that film’s creators, South Park’s Parker and Stone wanted to appeal to more than just the lowest-common denominator, aspiring to social significance while sticking to the bathroom buffoonery that made them famous. So they elevated their game with the big-screen version of their scandalous TV show.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut had no shortage of such post-Waters motifs as gay sex in hell or musical numbers about incest (why doesn’t Hairspray include a tune like “Uncle Fucka”?). And it also featured the most symphonic fart sequence since Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles. But for Stone and Parker, this was just warming the audience up for their excoriating critique of Middle America’s hypocrisy and puritanical repression. They wanted, like Solondz, LaBute, and even Swift, to lacerate their audience with their savage indignation.
As the new century beckoned, with the Bush industry promising a treasure trove of lampoon-able material to revel in, a renaissance of scatological cinematic satire seemed inevitable.
The ironic rebirth of irony
Instead, Parker and Stone showed their true Red State colors with their next film, the dull, mean-spirited, curmudgeonly, and quasi-fascist Team America.