Saturday Editor’s Pick: Team America: World Police (2004)

by on September 11, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Sep 17 at 10:00* at 92YTribeca [Program & Tix] *Sing-and-Swear-along! *FREE BEER

 

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police is getting the full film-cult treatment with a late-night, beer-soaked “sing-and-swear-along” at 92YTribeca.

 

The South Park creators’ politically incorrect puppet satire seemed to have at least some appeal for everyone: neocons, libertarians, anti-war leftists, even the real-life special-ops forces the film was hyperbolically satirizing. It also seemed to have something against everyone — Sean Penn in particular. Proving to be as polarizing as the ideologies it lampooned and/or championed, few Hollywood films have managed to garner such wildly divergent interpretations.

 

Here’s the opening scene, in which a terrorist cell of racist stereotypes are foiled by our eponymous (anti)heroes with enough cultural collateral damage to shock-and-awe almost anyone:

 

 

A.O. Scott‘s review, in The New York Times:

South Park, with its class-clown libertarianism and proudly juvenile disdain for authority, has always been hard to place ideologically, but a number of commentators have discerned a pronounced conservative streak amid the anarchy, a hypothesis that Team America to some extent confirms. Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and other left-leaning movie stars are eviscerated (quite literally — also decapitated, set on fire and eaten by house cats), while right-wing media figures escape derision altogether.

 
Scott gets some blowback from The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson:

The question is as old as Voltaire’s wig powder: How close can you get to what you’re satirizing before the line between target and vilifier all but disappears? Indeed, A.O. Scott’s review could be read as straight on—that is, certifiably absurd—or a spoof itself. Of course, puppetry, a dramatic form with a built-in diegetic remove, has a 500-year-old history of socially subversive comedy. The very presence of ludicrous marionettes performing atrocities insists on a derisive agenda and an ideological response. Or so you’d think. No one mistook Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) as a cheer for the arms race, but his anti-military rip Full Metal Jacket (1987) was not widely perceived as a satire, and emerged in the culture afterward as a set of armed-forces catchphrases and gung ho clichés. Few know this dynamic’s double edge better than Paul Verhoeven, whose Starship Troopers (1997) made an even bloodier hash of U.S. might-is-right than TAWP, and yet was largely seen as a failed hairy-chested action film.

 

Like South Park, TAWP seems to me a fairly consistent attack on Middle American slope-headedness, reproaching the millions of Bush voters for their love of balls-out martial power, their gut-level xenophobia, their suspicion that “durka durka!” is an accurate-as-far-as-it-matters facsimile of how Arabs speak, their instinctive hatred for outspoken liberal celebrities, and of course, their ardor for Jerry Bruckheimer movies. Being professional sophomores, Parker and Stone may very well fall into the demographic they’re mocking without being aware of it. Even so, let’s not forget that the instruments at deliberate use are bleeding, cumming, vomiting, cocksucking puppets. How the dick-pussy-asshole speech can be heard as anything but a burlesque of barroom nationalism is beyond me. Because the movie doesn’t trust the average American citizen, it’s a sharper election year prod than The Manchurian Candidate. Parker and Stone aren’t the first satirists to underestimate their own aggression or be accused of selling what they’re telling us not to buy.

 

 

Alt Screen’s Nathan Lee found much to praise in Film Comment’s 2004 wrap-up:

The year’s most formnally accomplished, politically volatile, and thrillingly vicious provocation was: a cheeky kind of filmed theater, outrageously literal in the flaunting of its artifice; an ingenious parody of official modes of storytelling and a punking of their ideologies; a savage critique of the use and abuse of power by the most powerful nation on earth; a bracing depiction of unhinged America; a melodrama propelled by narcissism, revenge, self-righteousness, and paranoia; petulant, infantile, and rude as fuck; a cinematic sledgehammer; an eye-popping, mind-boggling, gut-busting puppet show. What it was not: Dogville.

 

Nick Schager for Slant:

As both a goofy homage to Gerry Anderson’s puppet-pioneering TV show Thunderbirds and a ruthless spoof of rock ’em sock ’em action spectacles, Parker and Stone’s impertinent film benefits from top-notch art design (note the great Times Square at the film’s outset) and a swashbuckling silliness that matches Anderson’s mid-’60s cult series. Mocking the stylistic tropes of cheesy Bay-Bruckheimer collaborations, the filmmakers utilize slow-motion, excessively corny dialogue, dramatic zooms, myriad explosions, and a bombastic score punctuated by self-referential ballads like “That’s Called A Montage.” Then, to hammer home their point, they even include a brazenly nasty, utterly hilarious third-act song titled “Pearl Harbor Sucked” (sample lyric: “All I’m trying to say is Pearl Harbor sucked, and I miss you.”). Though Parker and Stone’s spot-on replication is a joke that eventually wears thin, their lampoon is fortunately bolstered by self-deprecating ludicrousness—often involving the puppets’ limited range of motion and useless legs, which flop around beneath their torsos like withered appendages—and an unrelenting dose of crass nonsense, such as the sight of an inebriated Gary furiously vomiting in a dank alleyway.

 

Lurking beneath Team America‘s side-splitting exterior of nasty sex, ceaseless profanity, and martial arts mayhem is a levelheaded patriotism bereft of the right’s righteous militarism and the left’s pandering wishy-washiness. When coupled with lunacy like Kim Jong Il’s end-credits croon, “You are worthless, Alec Baldwin,” such sensibleness helps make Parker and Stone’s puppet-rific extravaganza the funniest, filthiest, and—as surprising as it may seem—shrewdest politically-minded film of this election year.

 

 

Sharon Waxman has an interview with Parker and Stone in The New York Times:

It’s hard not to wonder: are these guys just out to provoke? Or do they actually have something to say? Underneath all the kidding around, it seems possible they’re angry. But if so, at whom? “We don’t know,” Mr. Parker said, hanging his head as if embarrassed. “People who go will be really confused about whose side we’re on. That’s because we’re really confused.”

 

He added: “If you watch the first 40 minutes of the movie, you’d think Michael Moore wrote it and Rob Reiner directed it. If you watch the last 40 minutes you’d think we were the biggest right-wingers in the world.”

 

Mr. Stone said: “Basically, we’re working it out in this movie.”

 

A few lines down, Stone bravely asserts his Orwellian independence from ideologues: “You feel like you have to constantly take sides these days. This movie dumps on everybody.”

 

North Korea’s Dear Leader responds to the critics:

 
J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

From the opening shot of a French marionette show in a marionette world to the final gag of a live cockroach blasting into outer space, Team America is at once grandiose and tacky, elaborate and deflationary. Team America purveys a post–9-11 irony that’s founded on a combination of schoolyard insult, belligerent patriotism, and the absence of irony.

 

Catherine Shoard on The Guardian‘s pick of Team America as 4th Best Film of the Decade:

Team America is a wrecking ball. The most audacious slaughter of sacred cows seen on celluloid, it’s a cackling, gleeful hail of precision-aimed bullets, full of brains and ambition. All this despite – or maybe because – it solely features puppets: jerky, wooden, Thunderbirds-esque dollies with all-too-visible strings attached.

 

You could accuse Team America of many things – blasphemy, obscenity, sadism, racism. But no one could accuse it of pulling its punches. It’s utterly fearless. There’s no beating round the bush; scant metaphor, in fact – just plain speaking. It’s also ferociously funny, though most of the humour does, finally, come from the sight of the 2ft marionettes tottering around, gracelessly getting drunk, having inventive sex, attempting to walk through doorways, even wrestling panthers (played by kittens).

 

So, Team America doesn’t get fourth place on our poll for being important. Indeed, if anything, what the last five years have proved is its lack of concrete impact – celebs keep spouting, movies keep falling back on montages, Michael Moore still blows his trumpet. Indeed, it’s a film that, when it does age, will do so rapidly and irretrievably – you have to admire the way Stone and Parker have sacrificed longevity for cultural accuracy. No, Team America ranks this high because it’s a bona fide masterpiece: crafted, artful, brilliant.

 

And just to confuse the political subtexts even more, a seamless Team America/Avatar mash-up:

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