If I asked you what the most significant films of the 90s were, we would probably get a few safe films, like Pulp Fiction (1994) and Unforgiven (1992), big animation features like Toy Story (1995), a begrudging nod to big ticket sellers like Titanic (1997), and The Phantom Menace (1999), or maybe a cult hit like Being John Malkovich (1999). But what makes one film worth studying and another simply a piece of popular fiction?
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut would not be on the traditional list. And yet, for some strange reason my thoughts continue returning to it. It may well have been the most significant film of the 90s. It earns this status on three grounds; the first is the sheer balls of the directors to produce it, the second is its place within the history of narrative film, and the third is in cinematic form.
Let’s begin with the ideas that it explores. But before we delve into this masterpiece, I’d like to note that people need to view the film with the same approach they’d normally save for films like Un Chen Andalou (1929) or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). You need to de-construct the meaning from the imagery to really appreciate it.
Two ideas come under heavy criticism in the film. The obvious one is censorship; the subtle one is American Exceptionalism. These two ideas are explored in not just taking them to extremes but also by varying them across contexts.
When the four boys return from the new Terrence and Phillip movie Asses of Fire, we find that the film has had a profound effect on their behaviour. As it would, there is a lot of documented evidence that children imitate what they see in media, both in in terms of aggression and altruism. However, the more abstract the portrayal, the less the chance of imitating it. Parents are watched more closely than many would like to admit, and seeing your own godfather kill a man makes the behaviour seem way more valid than observing it on television.
Still, the parents take up a crusade against the film that gradually gets out of control. Of interesting note are the different parenting styles that are on show in the opening sequence:
- Stan’s mother is a caring and trusting parent given how happy she is to see Stan that morning, and he’s very open with her.
- Kenny’s mother rules by fear mongering, which obviously leads to delinquency.
- Kyle’s is authoritarian and coercive, and it is obvious that he has to lie to have a sense of freedom.
- And Cartman’s has spoiled him rotten, giving him almost all the power in their relationship.
It is understandable that parents would want to have control over what their children do, but fear is a powerful catalyst for this controlling tendency. Since they can’t undo the “damage” that the film has inflicted, they punish their children by grounding them and go out to recruit others to their cause (effectively undermining the impact of said punishment).
From here we see three key attempts to normalize children that come under the scrutiny of the filmmakers.
First we have rehab, or the psychological approach, which actually seems to work for a few seconds (or at least the course of a song), and to its credit the children seem to have better self control without losing the free will to curse if they wanted to. But criticism of this approach is made clear when the children are given the afternoon to reflect, and everyone goes out to see the film again. The reality is, cognitive psychotherapy that treats the individual can easily be undermined by its context.
The second approach is punishment, in the form of the V-Chip. After having it installed, repeated electrocutions instill learned helplessness to the point where Cartman doesn’t use bad language and instead he adapts to substituting certain words. However, internalizing punishment never erodes a desire entirely, and often makes it stronger. At the climax, Cartman discovers the power inherent in his words, and in doing so is able to make an important statement by his actions.
The third method is to subdue those they oppose, and to drown out their views. In the UN meeting, the Canadians are made a mockery of for their accent, Terrence and Phillip merchandise is burned in the streets (like the San Francisco comic book burnings of the 1950s), and the two actors are apprehended with the intention to execute. What’s interesting to note is how everyone goes along with it, even Conan O’Brien and Bill Clinton, just because their actions are promoted as being for the greater good, when in reality it’s masking pure fascism.
And this brings us to American Exceptionalism. The assumption the parents make is that ideas and language are dangerous, but as the story escalates, the real assumption is that the American way of life is the right way. People are even asked to join the army to show their commitment to their country and see the ultimate American concert. Notably, the only people who see something wrong with this hysteria are the children, but their small revolution (both physically and in numbers) isn’t strong enough to stop the people in power from acting in what they perceive to be their interests.
It seems very befitting that our first century of film ends with the release of South Park in 1999. In the 1920s, the Hays Code was established on account of a few celebrity sex-scandals, and was industry regulated as a compromise to government intervention on behalf of lobby groups. The code, based on self-censorship, wasn’t abolished until the 60s and was replaced by the rating system we know today.
Perhaps what has driven groups to demand mass media regulation has a lot to do with fairness. Mass media forms like film have a large impact, and they do tend to perpetuate myths and push certain ideologies, but centralized ownership does not facilitate a dialogue between these different ideas, and simply holds up a few of them. It’s no wonder people fear the power that mass media can have.
That’s why it seems suited that the twentieth century be capped off by the most offensive Hollywood film about censorship in mass media. Especially since a new problem is being posed for the twenty-first century in the form of fragmentation and the internet.
But this isn’t the only aspect of the film that stands it in good stead. Of particular note is the use of animation. The Simpsons gave the 90s an all-ages satire with openness about family relationships, but South Park is what broke with common decency.
Traditionally, animation has been a kids’ genre in the west. Disney musicals held a virtual monopoly on the animation genre ever since Snow White (1937), and it has only been since Pixar that the lead characters haven’t sung and danced. The choice to make South Park a musical harks back to the tradition, but the material invites us to think critically, and by this stylistic choice, the film asks us if these old films are as innocent as we remember them. The traditional Disney film often featured black and white, good/evil dilemmas and you can only wonder if they really are appropriate for children.
Another aspect of note is the voice work. Terrence and Phillip are voiced by Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Asses of Fire, the movie within a movie, stands as a self parody. A musical number about cursing and farting. This pretty much summarizes how those who haven’t seen the film would think of it. As the drama escalates, it is as though the authors admit that there are people who are going to oppose and persecute them for the film.
The other projects that the duo have taken on, such as Team America (2004), tend to reveal an inversion to the traditional approach to animation. While traditional studios use animation to make something fantastical, the directors of South Park strive for satire through abstraction. Without empathetic human faces, characters can do anything, and the more deviant the more humorous.
The trashy nature of South Park fits it nicely in the postmodern part of our canon, as a comment on the twentieth century and our relationship with the media.
On the one hand you could see the film as dated and not edgy enough. On the other hand what the film stood for in its time is significant, as is the insight that what we consider offensive is always changing and often constructed (last offence in vogue was the caricature Mohammed).