Vulgarity rules at box office

July 27, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Maybe the boy in front of us really was 18. A kind of fuzzy-cheeked 18. A short 18. In any case, I wasn't about to ask the tyke for his ID.

The idea that a child sneaked into "South Park," the R-rated movie about four cartoon children sneaking into an R-rated movie, was too delicious to pass up.

"South Park," the longer, funnier, cruder, ruder version of the television show, has hunkered in at the megaplex just as the children are supposed to be carded. Just as the whole post-Littleton, Colo., argument about entertainment has reached its peak.

It opens with a musical paean to the "quiet little redneck mountain town" that's about to have its children's brains washed at the movies. Their kids come reeling out of a movie spouting obscenities.

No redeeming social value

The beauty of "South Park" is that it makes no pretense to the redeeming social value of puerile humor, let alone its own. Nor do the moviemakers of this political humor flick deny that kids pick up vocabulary and values at the movies.

But the villains of this flick are the horrified mother-censors who place an electric shock V-chip inside the skull of one of the children, from "Mothers Against Canada" -- and nearly bring on Armageddon. The moviemakers' blunt point, wrapped in, around and through some funny (and some yucky) plot lines, is that the jihad against foul language is worse than the words.

The cultural critique -- in case anyone missed it -- comes in a virtual mission statement: "Horrific, deplorable violence is OK as long as they don't say any dirty words." The subliminal message is that parents who worry about the media ought to focus on worst things.

Well, I'll pop corn to that. But why did I leave the movie feeling just a touch manipulated? Is everyone who objects to the crude and the lewd another "Mother Against Canada" eager to sentence a star to capital punishment for foul language?

This is the summer when the gross-outs are raking it in at the box office.

Another summer hit is "American Pie," created by a 26-year-old who once wrote a term paper on "Porky's" that he called "The Gross-Out Cinema." Ready for a diet of semen-laced beer and masturbated pies? This movie must have been his final exam.

For your viewing pleasure, we also have "Big Daddy" with its heartwarming male-bonding jokes about bosoms and outdoor urination, and Austin Powers with a trans-Atlantic load of bad bathroom jokes. In the works are comedies about the slave South, an anorexic turned vampire, a man who fakes being paraplegic and a man who loses his penis.

Reducing the movies to the sum of their vulgarities isn't entirely fair. I can hear the ghost of Lenny Bruce as he listened to the policeman reading his script at the obscenity trial and begging the judge, "Let me do my own act!"

White House lewdness

Besides, real life can still trump the movies. The most lewd joke of the year was about the Gap dress that never got to the cleaners.

And by the way, I don't think you can legislate the language of respect. Try Louisiana where they just passed a law requiring school children to say "yes ma'am" and "no sir."

But what bothers me about "South Park" and its subtle defense of Hollywood gross is that it makes the vulgar sound hip.

Comedian Albert Brooks wonders about the crass success of crassness: "Maybe as a species we have to be able to say `pee-pee' before we can move on. Maybe everyone will wake up someday and say, `no, testicle isn't that funny.' "

But for now, the gross-out is in.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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