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Rated 'R'--as in Ridicule

Life imitates art as 'South Park' filmmakers' vitriol for the MPAA spills onto the screen and off again.

June 28, 1999|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The plot of the new "South Park" movie seems torn from today's headlines: Young kids sneak into an R-rated movie and become so entranced by the four-letter words they hear on screen that they can't stop using them. Their parents and eventually the government are so outraged that they take drastic action--everything from implanting a V-chip in a child to declaring war.

It's an exaggeration of recent events, of course, but clearly the R-rated "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" is a case of art imitating--or at least satirizing--life in ways that have already brought controversy to the raunchy comedy based on the popular Comedy Central TV series.

The animated musical, which opens Wednesday, makes the Motion Picture Assn. of America's rating system an object of ridicule. The "South Park" kids make repeated and vivid use of explicit language--in fact several of its songs are built around words not uttered in polite society. But that's relatively mild compared to the feelings "South Park's" creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have toward the MPAA.

"They [the MPAA] have no set rules. Things change from movie to movie," says Stone. "It makes no sense. . . . In going through their notes we saw that they had no standards so we decided these people are stupid and we'd just try to get it past them. If there was something they said couldn't stay in the movie, we'd make it 10 times worse and five times as long. And they'd come back and say, 'OK, that's better.' "

Stone believes the MPAA was more lenient toward "South Park" because of pressure applied by Paramount, which is releasing it. Both the studio and the MPAA vehemently deny that assertion.

MPAA head Jack Valenti labels Stone's comments "an obscene lie. I don't allow member companies to lean on the rating system."

"South Park" arrives at a worrisome time for Hollywood, when Washington's latest finger-pointing at the industry for depictions of violence and sex, and marketing adult films to teens is at its peak. An understandably nervous Paramount finds its film being an involuntary test-case for theater owners' recent voluntary pledge to ask for photo identification when selling tickets to R-rated films. In the next few weeks, two R-rated movies with sexual content, the teen comedy "American Pie" and Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," will open, bringing further scrutiny to the theater owners' new policing policy.

Despite its cast of 8-year-old characters, "South Park" is "most definitely a film for adults," says Paul Dergarabedian, head of Exhibitor Relations, an industry tracking firm. "But it had strong kid appeal. The whole ID idea is a new thing and it's going to have the inevitable growing pains. Kids will slip through the cracks."

"Exhibitors must be in a quandary," says one competing studio executive. "I wouldn't want to be the poor theater manager after some parents come out of the screening."

The self-referential plot of "South Park" directly confronts these questions. For example, after sneaking into the R movie, the South Park brigade wears T-shirts from the offensive movie in class--a sly reference to real complaints stemming from kids wearing "South Park" T-shirts to school.

Outraged parents take matters into their own hands, which escalates to a declaration of war on Canada, where the R-rated film-within-the-film was produced. Although it seems incredibly up to date--including references to the Jar Jar Binks character from the new "Star Wars" film--Parker and Stone say they decided on this plot for the movie well over a year ago.

"We know intimately what some of the reactions to 'South Park' [the TV show] have been," says Stone. "We decided that if we were going to skewer zealots and moral watchdogs, we didn't want to be self-righteous, so we took a few jabs at ourselves."

The R rating for the film calls into question the MPAA's criteria--which again was intentional. Besides the film's widespread use of curse words, it contains something to offend nearly everyone, including crude treatment of celebrities ranging from Bill Gates to the Baldwin brothers. Having insisted on an R rating in their contract with Paramount (which originally asked for a PG-13 movie), Parker and Stone left it to the studio to deal with the MPAA.

"We got an R because Paramount was behind it," says Parker. "But the independent filmmaker gets screwed."

"That's not true," counters Paramount senior executive Rob Friedman, who was involved in the ratings arbitration process with the MPAA. "Anybody who submits their movies for a rating, whether they're an independent or a studio, falls under the same guidelines."

An obviously outraged Valenti of the MPAA noted: "We've been in business for 30 years and while there have been occasional errors in judgment, there has never been any evidence of malfeasance or bending to pressure. The ratings board is immune from that pressure. If they have some evidence of this, I'll fire whoever's responsible."

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