Trey Parker and Matt Stone fight Hollywood ignorance with some ignorance of their own
My viewing of Team America: World Police was conditioned by and largely occasioned by my reading an article about it, and an interview with its creators, in Australian commercial film monthly FILMINK,1 which was lying around in the café where I ate breakfast that morning. In the interview, Trey Parker and Matt Stone mentioned that they had done the entire movie according to the directorial preferences of a “phantom director,” namely Jerry Bruckheimer. Wow, I thought, that sounds funny.
Had they actually consistently followed this formula and produced a satire on Bruckheimer action films using puppets, they would have done a lot better. The elements that owe to this approach are generally hilarious. The approach means, for example, that the entire team have to be white. That’s satire. The Bruckheimer approach also means showing America to be heroes: “If you want to do a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, they have to be the good guys and they have to save the world,” says Stone in FILMINK. This can be satirised by showing the heroes incidentally doing appalling things, e.g., destroying the Great Pyramid of Cheops, which they do. The funniest scene for me was their satire of the poignant lovemaking scenes in action movies, which in this movie is replaced by a parade of porn-movie stock sexual positions, and would never have been screenable had they not been being performed by sexless puppets. The only stand-out failing is reprising the South Park montage song: you did this joke already! It was the centrepiece of a South Park episode! You spent millions on this movie, I spent AU$12 on it, and you’re going to waste two minutes of my life with a joke you’ve already told me? Still, it is a truly funny tilt at movie-making conventions.
I’m arguing that Stone and Parker try to do two things in this film, one of which is generally funny and laudable, and the other of which is indefensible. The first I’ve already outlined, which is to satirise Hollywood movies, Hollywood celebrities, American interventionism, et cetera. The second is lurking in the background, apparently opaque even to the creators themselves. This dichotomy has caused considerable confusion among film critics who don’t feel comfortable with the ambiguities that result, but is probably the reason so many right-wing bloggers2 are calling this the best movie of all time. The review in Australian Empire is a typical liberal film critic’s reaction: “Its guidance system goes awry from time to time, but when Team America gets it right, it obliterates its comedy targets.”
This is a misdiagnosis. It’s not that Team America tries to attack the wrong things — to claim that it does makes us sound like PC fascists. The problem is that it ultimately presents a really stupid view of geopolitics in an uncritical way, and which thus appears in the piece as the logical, positive conclusion from the movie’s negative, satirical force. This viewpoint is not a satire directed at the wrong target: it’s completely lacking in irony, even if it is comically phrased. It really rears its ugly head fully only at the climax of the movie, which is why it appears as the conclusive moment, in protagonist-puppet Gary’s impromptu speech characterising Team America as dicks, their liberal American detractors as pussies and America’s enemies as assholes:
Pussies don’t like dicks because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes, assholes that just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way. But the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem with dicks is they fuck too much or fuck when it isn’t appropriate. And it takes a pussy to show them that. But sometimes pussies can be so full of shit that they become assholes themselves, because pussies are an inch and half away from assholes. I don’t know much about this crazy, crazy world, but I do know this: If you don’t let us fuck this asshole, we’re going to have our dicks and pussies all covered in shit.
What are they trying to say here? In an interview at the deceptively named UnderGroundOnline (UGO), Stone explains, “We were interested in the emotions behind the politics and the emotions of being American the last three years. Gary’s story is about being confused, being proud and being ashamed when he’s like, ‘I don’t want the power. I don’t want the guilt. I don’t want the responsibility.’ I think that’s what a lot of Americans feel about us being the police of the world, and that has nothing to do with this election. It’s a uniquely American conundrum that we’ve all had to deal with, and we’ll all have to deal with more.”
This quote tells us a great deal in its spontaneous tautology: they are interested in the emotions behind the emotions, which is to say, just the emotions; they are interested only in the surface level of American experience. They are also not interested in the politics behind these emotions, but only the emotions behind the politics, which is to say, they are interested in spurning political analysis in favour of affect. Stone and Parker are giving a classic lesson in how refusing ideology is itself an ideological gesture.
Stone owns up to a naïveté, which is, of course, characteristically American, though he does not say so, about global politics: “We don’t start off with an agenda, going, ‘Let’s make this statement,’ because we don’t assume we know the answer. We think that this shit is super complicated and the last people to understand global politics is fucking us. Right? So basically, our point is this, ‘Dude, it’s really complicated'” (Stone, FILMINK).
This citing of complexity to shut down criticism is an incredibly pernicious tendency of news media, rarely seen in cinema. Žižek cites its use in the Bosnia conflict to quash the idea that someone should intervene to stop it: it’s complex, multi-sided, so leave it alone.3 Since reality is always complex, it is always possible to attack any position by citing complexity.
The citing of complexity is the reasoning behind their satirical attack on the political activism of Hollywood celebrities, who, Stone and Parker argue, are not qualified to talk on these issues. This is true, and the practice is ripe for satire. However, precisely how they are able to judge how complicated the issue is, or whether these actors are speaking sense, is unclear, since Stone and Parker profess their own ignorance. This is compounded to the point of hypocrisy when the film itself ultimately does pass judgement on the geopolitical situation, delivering the message that, though the rampant U.S. administration pisses off liberals, it also takes care of the evildoers with whom the liberals would be incapable of dealing. The humorousness of the phrasing of this home-spun wisdom only serves to make it more pernicious. While this is a line to the left of Republican dogma, which sees the U.S. simply as good in the battle against evil, it sees the U.S. not even as the lesser of two evils, but as an utterly necessary evil in an imperfect world. It casts contemporary leftism as a discourse that with good intentions plays into the hands of the enemy, in a way that skirts close to Ann Coulter’s Treason discourse.
When it comes to core values, Stone and Parker are basically just normal blue-state Americans, liberal according to the American political spectrum, but not especially so. Their perspective is that of Los Angeles: they are obsessed, generally in a negative way, with celebrity, and otherwise basically have a liberal view of what’s acceptable. The inaccuracy of the American liberal worldview is simply an inaccurate view from America of America in the world. The film’s very subtitle, World Police, shows this view. It is the charitable view that liberal, cosmopolitan Americans have of their country’s international agenda: America is responsible for global order and justice. It is the best that the world has, and in the absence of an effective U.N., is the only thing standing between evil fuckers (in the film personified by Kim Jong II, bearing a striking resemblance to Eric Cartman) and the people of the world. This perspective is appallingly America-centric. In fact, it is probably less accurate than the conservative, Bush account of what is happening. Conservatives make no bones about the fact that America is going to war in defence of its own interests — after all, the people they are trying to convince about going to war are not liberals who care about the rest of the world, but right-wing isolationists who want to pull back into America’s tortoiseshell — claiming the unlimited right to attack for self-defence. This is, of course, pretty manifest to most non-Americans, even in countries that are closely allied to America: America is basically just self-interested and is not a world police force, but simply an entity that seeks to protect itself and, in fact, maximise its own well-being, through economic expansion and ongoing strengthening of its strategic position. Though this is good for some parts of the world, America’s allies, it is not good for large parts of the world, which is reflected in the ever-increasing antipathy of foreigners toward the United States. From the American perspective, this is irrelevant, since both dicks and pussies are Americans: there is simply no acknowledgement of the other’s existence in its own right. Saving the world means saving America.
Stone and Parker self-consciously boast in interviews of their “non-partisan” line. This means neither Democrat nor Republican. “Ultimately, we tried to make the movie optimistic and pro-American, because we basically don’t think the world is as dire as either side says it is,” says Stone on UGO. From an American perspective, with either side being Bush and Kerry, this seems eminently sensible. From a global perspective, with either side being America and its enemies, this is simply the American position. Here, Stone does not acknowledge the existence of extra-American perspectives, and that is because he is an American, and does not have them in his field of vision.
The most offensive part of the film for me is the scene in which the protagonist, disguised as an Islamist (in a hilarious fashion playing on the American stereotype of the Middle Eastern terrorist — this does not offend me), wins his way into the terrorists’ hearts and minds with a story about his own suffering at American hands. He tells a story about the “infidels”4 coming in Blackhawk helicopters to his village and killing his favourite goats. Everyone cries. This angers me for many reasons. First is the idea that Islamists are fighting for reasons as trivial as the killing of a goat — all the other terrorists start crying their eyes out at this story. The implication of close bonds between Muslim people and goats is pretty racist too, and it would be hilarious that this American is so off-target but for the fact that all the Islamists around him are so moved. Moreover, there seems to be an implication that there are no real American atrocities. The only thing we see America impugned for in this movie are the destruction of world monuments by Team America and a preposterously fictional raid on a village that kills a goat. The terrorists by contrast are shown perpetrating a terrorist atrocity, blowing up the Panama Canal. This adds to the perception that America is essentially a force for good in the world, a force for order and self-protection, rather than an imperialist power concerned with self-aggrandisement. People in the Muslim world have suffered a lot more than dead goats. We could cite the millions of dead children of the Iraqi embargo. We must cite the daily spectacle of American arms provided free to the Israeli Defence Forces being used to kill and maim Palestinian children. Or the American support for Saddam Hussein as a bulwark against Iran in a war that left hundreds of thousands dead. To be sure, Blackhawk helicopters did not actually appear to strafe Arab villages until 2003, and the story of Blackhawk helicopters would have to be bullshit, but I don’t think too many people in Fallujah would find that gag funny.
Of course, this movie is not for the people of Fallujah. It’s for the people of America. But to the latter, this movie just represents a propaganda piece that says, hey, everything’s fine, hilarious even: people who speak out against American imperialism are fags, pussies, and “giant socialist weasels.” This last epithet is applied, with some aptness, to Michael Moore, payback for his frankly dishonest use of Stone to support his trite main thesis in Bowling for Columbine. However, they go further by having Moore suicide bomb the Team America headquarters. This line is followed by having the celebrity liberals of FAG (the Film Actors Guild) set out to kill Team America, really for no obvious reason other than hatefulness, given that no substantial reason for their hatred of Team America has been shown in this movie: he is a pussy-become-asshole, a liberal who is so liberal he has become a terrorist by the depth of his liberalism. He has become radically other, un-American, enemy combatant.
OK, it’s for comedy effect, and it is pretty funny. The puppet fight scenes are side-splittingly inept, and seeing celebrities brutally disembowelled is definitely pleasing. But there is an implication here that opponents of American foreign policy are just anti-American. This means that we can write them off — not only the message but the people themselves, their rights, their lives. This will not apply to celebrities, of course, but will be applied to common traitors. Of course, vaginas/females are an important brake on the penises/men/Republicans, as per George W. Bush’s remark, “Every country needs a good lefty . . . We even have some in our country.”5 But the point is that to stop assholes/America’s enemies, we need dicks/brownshirts who will, by their very nature, fuck/detain indefinitely some pussies/critics of government policy. In this patriotic opposition to treasonous behaviour, they are reiterating the mind-boggling position they set out in the South Park episode “Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants.” Here, the boys travel to Afghanistan, and discover why Afghan people hate Americans. The conclusion the boys reach from this encounter with extra-American reality is, however, that whatever America does, one should always root for one’s team, otherwise one is just a douche. The boys were always ciphers for Stone and Parker themselves, the men who voiced and drew them and based them on themselves. Stone and Parker have of course reached the same conclusion as their characters, burying their heads in the rich American soil.
Ultimately, Team America speaks to us from and about the contemporary American perspective, the real American perspective that isn’t right or left but just monstrously ill informed. It’s a movie about how America looks from the American perspective, how imperialism is a laugh a minute, and how celebrities are a pantheon who mediate all aspects of American life, from the household appliances they use, to their religious beliefs, to their politics. That makes it interesting to observers of American culture, but to Americans themselves it is a delightful soporific.
- FILMINK, December 2004, Vol.7, 18. [↩]
- See the bafflingly racist “Jawa Report.” [↩]
- See Slavoj Žižek, “The Spectre of Ideology,” p.5 in his (ed.) Mapping Ideology (London: Verso, 1994). [↩]
- By the way, what’s with this use of the word “infidel”? I mean, infidel is an English/Christian term, yet it is constantly put into the mouths of Muslims, and has been for a century or more, which inevitably makes them sound crazy, since we no longer ourselves use this word, which, I point out again, is actually a word of English. [↩]
- Reported in the Toronto Star, December 1 2004. [↩]