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Strung out
Team America gets tangled in its own lines
Team players

LOS ANGELES ó In Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone target four of the worldís greatest terrorist threats: Kim Jong-Il, Michael Moore, Sean Penn, and the MPAA ratings board. So far only the latter two have fought back.

Depicted in the film as a two-foot-tall puppet working ostensibly for the Film Actors Guild but in fact a duped agent for the terrorists, Sean Penn responded through a letter leaked in the Drudge Report. Passionate if not terribly coherent, he wrote that he didnít mind being made fun of but he did take issue with their remarks in a recent interview to the effect that thereís no shame in not voting and that if you donít know anything, you shouldnít vote.

The Team America team fired back.

"He says heís not mad about being in the movie," says Stone. "But itís obvious he is. He says, ĎI donít care about my image, but when you encourage people not to vote . . . " Which is not what we did. We said that to encourage uninformed people to vote is stupid. Just trying to shame people into voting, or threatening them with death, isnít the best way. So what heís really upset about is that we made him into a puppet eaten by a panther [actually a black cat]."

Score one for Team America! The MPAA proves more formidable, however. Parker and Stone took it on in 1999 when they barely got an R rating for South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. This time they had a strategy. A key scene in the movie involved two Team America members, both puppets, having sex. How to avoid the dreaded NC-17?

"We packed it," says Parker. "It was a two-minute-long scene that was really fucking funny. We put in a few shots [some involving puppet golden showers and other fluid exchanges] that we thought would be our bargaining shots. Still they said, ĎYou canít have any of it. Just the basic missionary position.í We said, ĎCome on.í Then it got whittled down and whittled down."

The whittling was tough on the puppets. After 10 or so re-edits, the film got an R and the scene, according to Stone, remained "funny . . . but not as funny."

"What sickened me," adds Parker, "not that I wanted any more cut out, is that we blew Janeane Garofaloís head clean off and they didnít say a word."

"Itís such a weird anachronism," says Stone. "Thereís this secret group somewhere that doles out ratings. Itís like the Star Chamber. Thereís no accountability. You or I or the regular public canít vote them out of office or have any say. Theyíre accountable only to the studios. Theyíre not accountable to the parents or the artists."

"Weíre going to spend the next year trying to bring a class-action lawsuit against them," says Parker, ominously.

So much for the MPAA. They may have won this round, but as our president would say, they can run, but they canít hide.

As for Michael Moore, heís a surprising target, though some might take delight in watching him blow up. (The puppeteers stuffed him with ham before setting him off.) Wasnít Stone a friendly witness in Mooreís Bowling for Columbine? Donít get them started.

"Basically heís a shithead," says Stone. "Heís ripe for parody."

"Heís one of the few [celebrities depicted in the movie] Iím actually personally pissed off at," says Parker.

"The interview I did with Michael Moore is vastly different from how the movie ended up," says Stone. "I said, like, ĎI donít think guns are the problem at all.í He was, like, ĎI donít either.í Heís an opportunist. He doesnít believe half the things he says."

What really makes the two mad is the sneaky sleight of Moore hand that makes it seem they were responsible for a left-wing animated history of the US done in the South Park style.

"Somebody read Howard Zinn and they made a little fucking cartoon out of it," says Stone. "Itís so transparent. Moore never says in the movie that the animation is by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But he uses montage to put images and sounds together to create meaning that doesnít exist. Ninety-nine percent of the people who saw that movie think that Trey and I did that animation. Weíd never do anything so fucking retarded as that. So thatís a perfect example of how Michael Moore distorts truth."

And Michael Moore goes bang in a burst of blasted ham. So what have they got against Kim Jong-Il?

"Nothing," says Stone. "Heís just evil. At least heís an interesting character. Michael Moore is kind of a sad and bitter fuck. Kim is a fascinating character in real life. Thatís the one character in the movie that I think we might have gotten spot-on. He really puts on his own shows, his own musicals. Heís a nutcase."

A nutcase who puts on musicals. How can anyone hold a grudge against someone like that?

ó PK

Why does a vomiting puppet make me laugh? Maybe Jacques Derrida could explain it if he were still alive. Or Henri Bergson, whose philosophical treatise on laughter analyzed the innate hilarity of human behavior reduced to a repetitive or mechanical level. Whatever the reason, the spectacle halfway through Team America of a down-and-out Gary Johnston, all 22 inches of him, tossing his cookies for the fourth time epitomizes the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone at its best.

There arenít enough such moments, unfortunately. Not as many as in Parker & Stoneís previous film, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, or in the average South Park TV episode, for that matter. Their epic (at one-third scale) lacks some of the anarchic genius that has given us Mr. Hankie the Christmas Poo and put Saddam Hussein in Hell as Satanís gay lover. Parker and Stone find themselves a little adrift and not at their best in the current turmoil, and this attempt to capture that confusion in a movie only compounds it.

Blame Canada. Or rather, blame a postĖSeptember 11 world in which every target of satire has rancorous ideological associations and is thus unfunny. Parker & Stoneís answer is to retreat to a world of utter artifice based on the real world of inescapable political conflict weíre all too familiar with. This self-conscious contrivance is evident from the filmís first frame. An intertitle reads "Paris" and a puppet stumbles before a crude paper backdrop depicting the City of Light. The camera draws back to reveal that the puppet is being manipulated by another puppet and that the Paris they dwell in is in fact elaborately and wittily constructed. This Paris also has puppets who look a lot like Osama bin Laden, but before they can unleash their terror, the star-spangled helicopters and humvees of Team America save the day, doing in the evildoers, though laying waste to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower in the process.

So, the point is that the hamfisted American approach to the war on terror causes more harm than good, arousing the world to anger? Well, not exactly. The Parisian survivors of Team Americaís largesse look more bewildered than irate. And the Teamís themesong, "America, Fuck Yeah," has the kind of irresistible hook that will make it a hit across the political spectrum.

Maybe Parker & Stoneís target is æsthetic. Theyíve suggested that one of their satiric targets is the bombast of action directors like Jerry Bruckheimer. As such, the film will appeal to those who can pick up on the cinematic allusions. (The most notorious was the puppet love scene inspired by Armageddon that had to be extensively cut to avoid an NC-17 rating.) Bruckheimerís æsthetics, however, are political as well. As the Timesí Frank Rich has pointed out, the Bruckheimer style has been applied by the Bush administration not only to its self-promotion but to its policies. That appropriation seems to be at the heart of Team Americaís discontent, the suspicion that what passes for real events and policy is only an artificial manipulation of appearances by some cynical, unknown über-puppeteer.

And indeed, after the "successful" Paris mission, the Teamís creepy head, Spottswoode, decides he needs an actor to serve as a spy and infiltrate the terrorist cells. He visits the above-mentioned Johnston, an actor starring in the Broadway hit Lease (worth a Stone/Parker film in itself), and cajoles him into joining the Team. Johnstonís acting convinces almost everyone, from the Chechen warlord harboring WMDs in a Cairo bar to fellow Team members Lisa and Sarah, who are smitten by his charms. But he hasnít convinced himself, especially when the successful Cairo mission results in a terrorist attack on the Panama Canal. (Here the spectacle of puppet carcasses in the floodwater, reminiscent of corpses floating downriver in the Rwandan genocide, elicits at best uncomfortable laughter.) Johnston quits and goes on a bender, leaving the others to the devices of the real puppeteer: North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

Or maybe itís anti-war activist Alec Baldwin, head of the Film Actors Guild. Toward the end, Team America becomes a test of how much you enjoy the sight of Tim Robbins being burnt to death or a gun-toting Janeane Garofalo getting her brains blown out. In better times, Iím sure those of all ideological persuasions might chuckle at such excess and (one hopes) irony. Until then, I for one prefer the comic purity of a vomiting puppet.

Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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