Taking out all the jokes

I own the DVD and the CD of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. So I’m crushed that Team America: World Police is not funny. But it isn’t. In an interview for Salon.com, Trey Parker claims to have told Matt Stone, “Dude, we’ve gotta take all the jokes out of this movie.” On this they followed through.

The premise of the film is that it is an action movie, starring marionettes and satirizing American foreign policy. Except it doesn’t satirize American foreign policy. It rationalizes it. The dirty secret about parodies is that they always borrow the emotions of the genre they’re sending up and share more with their victims than is easily apparent. This movie’s dirty secret is somewhat worse. About fifteen minutes in (it’s not too soon to leave), you start to suspect that if there is any joke to this movie, it is the pleasureless, meta sort of joke that gives the viewer nowhere to stand—no character to identify with, no foxhole to hide in. The joke seems to be in the fidelity to cliche and the fact of the marionettes. There’s nothing playfully random. When two of the puppet characters fall for each other, they do it extra-syrupy and omit not one of the actorly “beats” canonical to such scenes. It’s endless.

After an hour or so, however (and by this point, it is too late to leave, because you feel compelled to see exactly how and how bloodily the train is going to be wrecked), you revise your impression: The movie’s joke isn’t meta at all. That was just your own resistance speaking, your own unwillingness to believe that the people who made South Park—a movie which invited you to believe that potty-mouthed children could rise up and overthrow a regime of adults so hysterical that they demonized Canada—could have made this. This movie’s joke, you realize, reluctantly, is simple. It’s on people who think that Bush’s hasty militarism and unilateral action is not the best foreign policy in a post-9/11 world. Such people—liberals in the media elite—might think that Bush’s foreign policy resembles an action movie, fought by puppets. Don’t you think they would pay $9.50 apiece to see a movie, if they thought it made that point for them? What if we made a movie that pretends to, but instead preaches about manhood and collateral damage?

To this interpretation, defenders of Team America will object that the sermon at the end of the movie is too obscene to be taken seriously. I would really like to agree. The sermon involves a theory of the world that might have been ripped untimely from the unconscious of 1950s Norman Mailer: murder cures evil, violence is strength, women don’t understand, and homosexuality is creeping in on us from all sides, including the inside. As I said, I’d really like to believe that these “ideas” are being lampooned, but it didn’t seem to me to have the texture of a lampoon. It felt, rather, as if Parker and Stone were in the grip of something they couldn’t fight their way free of, as if their senses of humor had been taken hostage by a compromise they didn’t understand. The coal mine, I’m afraid, has claimed another two canaries.