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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

Parker and Stone have crossed swords with the ratings organization before, losing their battle on the independently made film "Orgazmo," which received an NC-17 rating, they say, despite the fact that they consider it to be mild by comparison to "South Park." "The reason we got the NC-17 on 'Orgazmo' was that it was released by October Films, which had no clout, and we didn't have the money to reedit the film and continue to resubmit it," says Parker.

"It's all politics, relationships at the top," says Stone. "It's who you know. If you're Steven Spielberg and you want to push those limits, like in 'Saving Private Ryan,' you can because it's done in the name of high art and how much money he makes [for the industry]."

The satirical skewering in the film obliterates any line of political correctness. Though the $20-million film began production several months ago, changes and inserts were made until a week ago. The script for the 83-minute film went through about 40 drafts.

"Paramount was freaking out because we were adding things a week ago," says Parker. "We don't finish the TV shows sometimes until a day before they air."

Since the film takes several racial, ethnic and gender swipes, Parker and Stone couldn't resist what they saw as the racist implications of "Phantom Menace's" Jar Jar Binks character. "We just had to one-up George Lucas," Parker laughs. At the same time, Stone says they were nervous about the satirical use of blacks as human shields in the film's war sequences, in light of the real use of citizens as human shields in the recent Kosovo conflict. But they decided not to censor themselves.

"If it exists, we make fun of it," says Stone. Adds Parker: "There isn't a place we won't go. As soon as you say we can't make fun of this, we know we have to. . . . Society needs to realize it's comedy. Laughing at something doesn't mean we don't care about it. A racist joke is not an endorsement of racism."

As fans of the TV series are aware, real-life celebrities are often the target of Parker's and Stone's pillorying, and the credits of the film mention that the famous people are depicted without their permission. However, there are certain legal guidelines set forth by the lawyers at Paramount and Comedy Central, says Parker. For example, one of the biggest laughs in the film comes when Microsoft's Bill Gates gets shot--a scene which was legally approved. "You can kill him. But you can't say that Bill Gates must die," Parker explains.

Even fans of the Comedy Central series, which just began a new season two weeks ago, may not be prepared for some of the film's more scabrous elements, especially in light of the magnifying glass the entertainment industry is under in regard to content.

"We've only seen it with one audience, at the premiere [last week]," says Stone. "Some people were offended. But I don't think the 70% or 80% who loved it would have loved it as much if the 20% weren't pissed off."

Parker and Stone say they'll react to any outcry against the movie in the same way they reacted to initial protests against the TV show. "We'll do now what we did then: ignore it and do our work," says Parker. "Let Paramount deal with it."

Friedman asserts that Paramount has done its job in laying the groundwork for parents to make a sound assessment. "We clearly state that the film is R-rated in all our materials," says Friedman. "It's a widely watched TV show, predominantly by adults. I believe anyone who is aware of 'South Park' knows that it's sophisticated humor. We've gone out of our way to stress that."

The filmmakers doubt that the theater owners' new enforcement policies will prevent determined kids from getting in to see the movie--much as the "South Park" kids do in their own movie, thanks to a homeless man who buys them tickets. "I think 'Wild Wild West' [which is rated PG-13] is going to sell a lot of tickets next week," Parker says with a laugh.

"I remember being 13 or 14 and buying tickets to one movie and sneaking into a 'Monty Python' film or 'Stripes.' But they didn't make me want to go out and kill people. There are worse things for kids to see."

Not that Parker disagrees with the rating. "The R rating is perfect. Kids shouldn't see this on their own. If their parents think it's OK to take them, that's their decision."

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