Sunday, August 28, 2005

Review: The Aristocrats

By now it's no mystery that The Aristocrats, the documentary film by Paul Provenaza and Penn Jillette, is relentlessly, gleefully vulgar. The film is an extended deconstruction of a classic joke, presented in various forms by an impressive roster of stand-up comics and comedic actors who riff on the joke's core theme.

That the film works as a comedy has little to do with the joke itself. Rather, the big laughs the film delivers are fueled by the palpable sense of guilty pleasure the performers exhibit in their extemporaneous philosophical exploration of the boundaries of moral and cultural taboos of the sort that throughout history have gotten people burned as witches, thrown in jail, locked up in asylums, fired from their jobs as middle school gym teachers and clergymen, or courted by Jerry Springer's scouts.

While the film is not overtly political, the issue of free speech lingers in the periphery. But if Lenny Bruce's crusade was about free speech, THE ARISTOCRATS is about something more. The film is a celebration of the gratuitous use of foul language, an act of profound political subversion in itself. If such language is indeed a threat to the national moral fiber, then this film is a sign of the coming apocalypse.

But anyone who ever attended junior high was exposed to language at least as awful, if not more so, than the language presented in The Aristocrats. And most of us have grown up to become responsible citizens who rarely use that kind of language, usually only after slamming a car door on a thumb or when describing an IRS auditor.

If an American apocalypse is in the cards, it won't happen because people laugh at THE ARISTOCRATS, or use bad language, or tell astonishingly filthy jokes. It will happen because what passes for political discourse in this country perpetuates a cultural and political mythology that brands liberals as traitors, conservatives as fascists, Christians as the American Taliban, and dozens of other equally offensive Red State/Blue State, black/white, rich/poor stereotypes. The real fiber of this country is lost as the language of 21st century American politics erases the middle ground and pulls the plug on mutual respect and the thoughtful consideration of opposing ideas.

Language is powerful, and words matter. But The Aristocrats gives one pause to consider what kind of language is truly offensive and which words pose the greatest threat to the American way of life. For that reason, this unabashedly vile, uncomfortably funny film is well worth seeing. You may blush, you will squirm, but you will emerge undamaged, and probably in a better mood than when you entered the theater.

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