The Wild Bunch

When bad behavior masquerades as bravery

It's hardly surprising that most directors--not wanting to come off preachy or find themselves backed into a corner--resist the anti-p.c. tag. "I don't give a shit about being p.c. or anti-p.c.," says Matt Stone, one half of the South Park / BASEketball duo. "We have our viewpoints, but we don't proselytize: We're just in it to make people laugh." Stone has a point: like the Farrellys, he and his partner, Trey Parker, temper their potty-mouthed tastelessness with giddy absurdism and goofy self-mockery. Besides, to call Something About Mary or BASEketball anti-p.c. misses the point: the new generation of gross-out boys aren't really defining themselves against anything as much as they're reviving a subgenre that self-destructed through overuse.

The most overt (not to say coherent) filmic attack on political correctness came in Dan Rosen's script for the 1996 black comedy The Last Supper, about a group of cartoonishly liberal grad students who invite a succession of cartoonishly bigoted guests to dinner, and kill them if they can't convert them. Supposedly a liberal critique of self-righteous liberalism, the film had all the sophistication of an undergraduate philosophy paper, spinning off one strenuously outrageous scenario after another from a contrived ethical dilemma, which it proceeded to run into the ground.

While The Last Supper aspired to explicit political debate (however rudimentary), most so-called anti-p.c. films operate on a more instinctive level. The archetypal politically incorrect protagonist--agrotesquely attention-seeking, avowedly taboo-busting caricature--is usually a mere plot device: a fall guy waiting to be tripped up by some payback / redemption / combination-of-both situation, or if he gets away scot-free with bad behavior, still something of a scapegoat, forced to reveal some ugly truth or other about the human condition (cheap laughs aplenty along the way, medals for bravery all round).

If the '70s produced memorably ambivalent screen figures and the '80s clear-cut heroes and villains, premillennial movies might be most notable for their mean streak--evident in the proliferation of unsympathetic, even despicable, central characters, in films that, for whatever reason, depend on the viewers' (or the directors') contempt for their characters, that test the limits of what the bad guy (and, by extension, the filmmaker) can get away with. It's not necessarily an invalid stance: still to come this year, there's Todd Solondz's Happiness and Peter Berg's Very Bad Things, both cruel and extreme films, but with very different agendas. The ironic reflex--to laugh and applaud regardless, to be suitably shocked and titillated--precludes intelligent discussion. If we are to get to the root of this nastiness, the first step is to stop mistaking it for bravery.

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