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Best of Boston 2009

Dirty politics

Has the Right Wing hijacked raunch?
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 27, 2008

STILL WATERS: Director John Waters’s post-1981 films have been expensive and bland.

The last resort of the true patriot is a fart joke.

What else can be done when lies, greed, cowardice, and entitlement stifle every other outlet for political protest and resistance?

There once was a time when raunchy humor and scatological satire were the weapons of choice for subversive voices to lampoon the establishment and the powers that be — in ancient Athens, for example, with Aristophanes, or Rome with Petronius, medieval England with Chaucer, and Renaissance France with Rabelais. And then, in the 18th century, there was the master, Jonathan Swift.

More recently, we’ve had Americans such as Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin — all funny people who have aimed their profane, blasphemous, iconoclastic, and obscene wit at the absurdity and tyranny of oppressive regimes, ossified traditions, mind-boggling hypocrisy, and venal stupidity.

But, nowadays, blue comedy doesn’t necessarily mean blue politics.

So many of progressive to moderate bent, such as myself, have long taken it for granted that, if a movie is dirty and funny, its politics are probably okay. I first started to question this assumption, however, back in 2004 with South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s feature film Team America. I was a big fan of their 1999 debut feature South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. I thought these were guys with the courage of their radical, subversive, dirty-minded convictions, willing to take on the powers that be. But something must have happened to them in the intervening five years, because, in Team America — X-rated puppet sex notwithstanding — they can’t find any more formidable figures to eviscerate than ineffectual lefties Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.

My misgivings grew with Jason Reitman’s debut feature Thank You for Smoking (2005). At last, I thought before the opening credits appeared, an acrid, black-comic satire about the corrupting power of lobbyists. But by the end, my expectations were confused, if not stymied, when the film seemed to be an endorsement of the profession.

And I needn’t go into my disappointment with Knocked Up, which uses its gleefully irreverent smuttiness to further a family-values agenda that could actually be embraced by Mitt Romney. Even Borat, with its nude wrestling and blatant irony, amounts at best to a takedown of such mighty institutions as redneck rodeos, drunken frat boys, and aging feminists. When it comes to the really tough targets (Alan Keyes?!), the equal-opportunity trickster Borat gets gun-shy.

So when the formerly hilarious Steve Carell turns bird-shit jokes into Bible lessons in Evan Almighty, or when the long-irrelevant but once-inspired Robin Williams does kicks-in-the-balls duty as a priest in the sanctity-of-marriage-boosting License to Wed, or when even the iconic enfant terrible John Waters has mellowed into the doting grandfather of a PG-rated musical by way of Broadway with Hairspray, I’ve got to wonder: what happened to the left’s monopoly of taboo-taunting, dumb-ass farce? Or was this tradition all just an illusion, one that crafty right wingers — or fence-sitting opportunists — have learned to exploit, masking their reactionary politics with sophomoric blasphemy and potty talk to lure in credulous, knee-jerk liberals?

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.

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Related: Cinema of Shadows, Media misfits, John Waters runs deep, More more >
  Topics: Features , Alan Keyes, Alexander de Large, Aristophanes,  More more >
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Dirty politics
So you're saying that something can only be worthwile if it conforms exactly to your personal politics? Oh, and did you actually watch Team America? To call that movie 'fascist' is like calling Dr. Strangelove 'jingoistic'. You didn't get the joke.
By Fallingdown66 on 07/26/2007 at 8:41:56
Dirty politics
keough is on the money, as always. more!
By rain king on 07/27/2007 at 12:17:55
Dirty politics
So we should expect an article from Peter Keough on how the left has hijacked the documentary genre.
By Trent on 07/30/2007 at 9:43:56
Dirty politics
Wow, did you even watch Team America? Way to completely miss the point of the "patriotic" elements of the movie. As for Borat, the whole point of the movie was to show the underlying racism, sexism and homophobia that exists in America. That seems to have soared right over your head as well. I'm still trying to figure out why Knocked Up is a "right wing" movie. You might be reading a little much into it.
By Keith on 07/30/2007 at 12:03:34
Dirty politics
What a ridiculous article! Who said the left owned the kind of humor you are referencing to begin with? There are a lot of nonsensical points in this article, but let me focus on the most important. Now that the baby boomers, the former hippies, are old enough to have amassed power, the left IS the establishment. Please don't pretend that because George Bush is president that the left is powerless now. Please don't pretend that they don't control the media, and the slant of almost every news story. The days where democrats were rebels are long, long gone. In the Boston area in particular, how long can you go spouting 100% doctrine leftist politics (as Keough does) before anyone at all disagrees with you? A very long time. Not very edgy. Please don't pretend that hypocrisy is the exclusive province of the right. The left IS the establishment, the rich, the powerful, just as much as the right, if not more. That is why the jokesters now point their fingers at you on occasion. The South Park guys are Libertarians. That means that no, they are not the right, they are not the left, they just think things through for themselves without swallowing either major party's BS. It's about time the left was called on it's nonsense by even the young and hip. Stop whining about it! You sound like a spoiled 8-year-old girl.
By Uncle Julie on 08/16/2007 at 12:36:45
Dirty politics
If the "right wing" has hijacked raunch, it is quid pro quo for socialists calling themselves "progressive" as if the rest of us would have stayed in the caves. Mr. Keough, I grew up in Boston, and having an interest in the arts, I have read you, on occasion, since I was a kid. I have always known, since that first review, that you were a self important shill for the left (sorry, the "progressives"), but I never thought of you as obtuse until now. I am SHOCKED at the way you so painfully missed the point of Team America. Anyway, it's fun to watch you wring your hands like your parents generation did about yours. Oh- and are you not aware of how "fascist" YOU sound? Apparently not. "Meet the new boss....he's the same as the old boss." -The Who (I thought I'd use a reference you'd be comfortable with at your age. *smirk*)
By MikeyV on 08/18/2007 at 5:39:08

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