MUBI is showing Team America World Police in the United Kingdom from August 20 - September 18, 2016.
“I repeat, we have no Intelligence!”
—Lisa, Team America World Police
“It’s triply redundant: We see a city landscape including the Arc de Triomphe; we’re told it’s Paris; and we’re told it’s Paris, France (not Paris, Maine).”
—David Bordwell on The Bourne Ultimatum
In case you missed it—and you weren’t alone—Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America World Police is about the magic of movies. Its opening image, a painting of Paris, makes neighbors of that city’s default metonyms; no matter that the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe are separated in real life by a half-hour walk and the River Seine. Adhering to the needs of spoon-fed geography, an inscription confirms that this is indeed Paris, France. And then, more text further satisfies the cliché of clarity, positioning the French capital in terms only of its distance from the United States: it’s 3,636 miles east of America.
It’s believable, except it isn’t. As the camera pulls back, the painting of the two landmarks is revealed as the crudely rendered backdrop of a one-man string-puppet street show. The punch line is that the first marionette, itself a cultural stereotype (red beret, Breton shirt), is handled by a larger puppet still—a puppet puppeteer—working in a more detailed depiction of a typical Parisian boulevard. The joy, the verisimilitude, is in the layering of details: passersby cut arbitrarily across frame, as would extras in a live-action film (carrying a takeout artisan coffee and a Burberry handbag). Butterflies enliven the foreground with a sense of spontaneous action; the wires from which they flutter are unmistakable.
The cinematic grammar here is as sophisticated in its scene-setting as that of any other globe-hopping thriller. Jim Dultz’s meticulous production design gives a credibly cluttered, fully lived-in mise en scène, while Bill Pope’s cinematography utilizes the same optical shifts as a live-action film to both suggest spatial depth and pinpoint narratively significant visual data. The polished finish only serves to draw attention to just how crude the film is in other respects—as crude, say, as Jerry Bruckheimer productions, or Roland Emmerich disaster epics, or the Bourne franchise.
The crudity is deliberate. Like its comparators, Team America trades in shorthand. In an action sequence set on the sandy streets of Cairo (5,621 miles east of America), the degree of authenticity comes down to how much we buy (believe) the simulation. In this instance, the stand-in avatar is an Arabic housewife emerging on her balcony, beating dust from a thick rug. Trafficking local color to a transglobal market: if it’s good enough for the Hubert Bals Fund, it’s good enough for a $30 million action musical whose cast, save for two cats, consists entirely of inanimate, knee-height humanoids—the kind of top-heavy dummies whose outsize heads, long arms and floppy, gravity-defying legs recall the DK cheat mode on GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64.
As surrogates for actual people (most of them voiced by Parker or Stone), characters here are hilariously and tellingly rudimentary in their motivations. When fundamentally decent Broadway performer Gary Johnston realizes he and fellow anti-terrorist agent Lisa won’t be able to make love until he guarantees her the impossible, he does just that: “I promise I will never die.” The exchange takes place before a sunset on Mount Rushmore, Team America’s hi-tech Thunderbirds-style headquarters. Gary’s unblinking expression, Parker’s deliberately wooden voice acting and the hysterical sweep of musical strings makes us fully aware that this is intended to be read as no more ridiculous than the countless other daft romance scenes we’ve happily endured over the years.
Team America murdered the action film (it’s taken a leftfield visionary like John Hyams to energize it out of the doldrums). Its bodily movements are notably arthritic, its facial expressions a notch more variable than Gerry Anderson’s 1960s creations. When two puppets fly toward one another in a climactic fight sequence, their Matrix-style midair suspension provokes laughter not because the feat is implausible, but because the visibility of their strings pokes fun at the very idea that in The Matrix films such acrobatics (the product of pioneering technology) were meant for one second to convince. Similarly, it’s difficult to watch Team America (“fuck yeah!”) bazooka the Eiffel Tower or the Sphinx in Giza without recalling the much less ironic opening sequence of last year’s Spectre, in which James Bond causes more collateral damage in Mexico City than he prevents.
On a metafictional level, Team America is a giant piss-take of the mechanisms by which the film industry actively seeks (spends billions of dollars on) the Otherization of foreign cultures; think again back to that Day of the Dead sequence in Spectre, and how native flavors were remediated as mere window dressing for a violent, callous spectacle. We’re primed for this by Parker and Stone’s opening gag: a fiction within a fiction, with the outer diegesis consistently and self-consciously exposed as a careful fabrication in its own right. Indeed, the switcheroo from marionette to puppeteer (also marionette) doesn’t disguise the final joke, that the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Opéra national de Paris all cohabit the same small plaza (whose paving patterns are designed in the shape of croissants).
Most of the enduring jokes in Team America exploit our implicit understanding of how films like this work, and how they induce audiences to participate in their insidious methods. Its carefully constructed framework is what makes it a much better comedy about terrorism (and how we approach it artistically), for me, than something like Chris Morris’s Four Lions (2010), which focuses on the actual stupidity of terrorists rather than undercutting the ways in which they’re traditionally represented.
Hence the dramatic change, in the opening scene, from a head-height shot of a French boy singing “Frère Jacques” to a low-angle shot of the bearded and scarred faces of two Middle Eastern suicide bombers (and the shift from French nursery rhyme to the sinister shorthand of an Arabic tune). Also: terrorists from Durka-Durkastan talking gibberish, a white anti-terrorist combatant unproblematically brownfaced into cross-cultural believability, Kim Jong-Il singing a song about being ‘ronery.’ (Incidentally, I’ve always found the lallation jokes to be the uneasiest aspect of watching Lost In Translation—to say nothing of a diligently composed visual gag such as this.)
Parker and Stone are satirizing racialized storytelling rather than committing the sin themselves—though their scorched-earth approach does risk cutting both ways. (They also got their kicks, I’m sure, from the violent and sexual extremes afforded by puppets when negotiating an R rating from the MPAA.) I’m more troubled by the film’s recurrent homophobia, which I don’t think is embedded quite as effectively as the racial threads. As it turns out, the biggest obstacles to world peace here are the members of the fictional and unfortunately acronymic Film Actors Guild, a bunch of Hollywood liberals led by Alec Baldwin.
It’s for ridiculing such real-life media types that Roger Ebert—that rare breed of a socially conscious film reviewer who was also a household name—found Team America indefensible. For him, the film’s brazen disdain for the kind of antiwar liberalism embodied by the likes of George Clooney, Sean Penn and Matt Damon (“Matt Daaaammmmon”) was unacceptable given the delicacy of the moment, with military operations in Iraq escalating and with George W. Bush about to be reelected. It was a sensitive time; false dichotomies were unhelpfully nihilistic—and they seem only ever, it must be said, to benefit the bad guys.
Team America’s final standoff comes down to two actors competing for an audience’s suspended disbelief. It’s Gary against Alec. Baldwin, irked by shifting tides, dismays: “Global warming! Corporate America!” As if name-checking these alone verify his credentials. Gary wins the crowd over by reiterating an allegory about dicks, pussies and assholes taken straight from the man on the street (or in the bar). The speeches put forth by the F.A.G. members, in comparison, aren’t speeches. Their agenda is incoherent, another kind of gibberish. There’s something recognizable about this depiction: the tagline rhetoric, the tendency to devalue actual things into campaign slogans and PR stunts. Might it be that any commitment from the real Hollywood’s self-appointed peacekeepers to wider political struggle is probably compromised, in the end, by the very structures of fame on which the industry has always thrived?
None of this is to read Parker and Stone’s film as a leftist manifesto mocking part-time pacifists. It’s too slippery, clever and unambiguously derisive to leave traces of that. But in its delineation of a particular historical juncture and the ways in which mainstream films add to its clusterfuck discourse, Team America frequently and deliciously hits the spot.