Rewind: ‘The Aristocrats’ Asks: What’s Shocking These Days?

From 'Gone With the Wind' to 'Irréversible,' movies have continually challenged the limits of good taste.

In “The Aristocrats,” dozens of stand-up comedians perform and discuss a legendary filthy joke. The joke’s structure is this: Guy walks into a talent agent’s office and pitches a family act that performs unspeakable acts involving sex, violence and bodily functions. The agent, stunned, asks what the act could possibly be called, to which the pitcher exclaims (pause for timing): “The Aristocrats!”

If that doesn’t sound funny to you, don’t worry. We didn’t tell it right. The joke is an improv classic, never told to an audience — except by Gilbert Gottfried at Hugh Hefner Friar’s Club Roast in 2001, the film’s impetus — but performed backstage for generations. What makes the joke legendary is the stamp each comic puts on the act’s description. The filthier, grosser and more offensive, the better. Of course, as times have changed, the joke’s limits have been progressively violated. The movie presents quite a few repulsive variations, but to be honest, the most shocking thing about “The Aristocrats” in 2005 is that the dirtiest version is told by “Full House” daddy Bob Saget.

Movie audiences have become so jaded, overstimulated and desensitized to formerly taboo material that it takes a lot to shock the popcorn outta the box.

Once upon a time, however, film studios were much more concerned about not offending customers. In 1930, Hollywood adopted the Hays Code, a list of rules regarding crime, obscenity, costume, dance, religion, national feelings, “repellant subjects” and, of course, sex. Naturally, most of these restrictions applied to sex, going so far as to even discourage “excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures.”

It sounds, and was, extreme. But early audiences were a bit delicate. It’s hard to believe there was a genuine public outcry when Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) uttered the phrase “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” at the end of 1939′s “Gone With the Wind” (another reason to never show Great Grandma your “Reservoir Dogs” DVD).

The Hays Code eventually wore out and movies began to slowly but surely depict themes and images once thought too damaging to the public interest. Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944) dealt with infidelity and sexual obsession. Otto Preminger’s “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955) viscerally demonstrated the horrors of drug addiction. Audiences may have been startled, but they hadn’t seen anything yet.

The Hays Code was finally abandoned in 1967 and replaced with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system, which has proven equally ineffective at curtailing cinematic prurience. Movies tend to augment social change, challenging standards and presenting difficult themes in a powerfully manipulative manner no other art form can equal.

“Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969) set new standards for shocking gunplay onscreen. Bullets now made bloody holes, and the victim didn’t just clutch his chest and collapse. Audiences were shocked as much by the unrepentant nihilism as by the choreographed violence, blasphemy and sex in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), which was banned in England for years.

Religion may well be the only perpetual taboo. Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) caused a huge stir by presenting Jesus as a man capable of human yearnings. And “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979) similarly raised the Christian community’s ire by mocking the story of Christ (born a few mangers down from Brian). Amazingly, neither of those films caused Christianity’s downfall, thus paving the way for Mel Gibson’s ultraviolent and hyper-Catholic “The Passion of the Christ.”

Probably no director took more delight in shocking his audience than John Waters. From the late 1960s through the early ’80s, the Baltimore filmmaker made a fistful of deliriously trashy comedies with his muse and star, the 300-pound drag queen Divine. Waters’ films are joyous celebrations of bad taste, suburban kitsch, family dysfunction and many other modes of freakiness. “Pink Flamingos” (1972) depicts two families competing for the title of “filthiest people alive” by engaging in sex with chickens, furniture licking and the ingestion of feces.

While violence should be the most shocking thing to witness on film, it rarely is. Audiences love to watch horrific crimes that would scar them emotionally in real life. A filmmaker has to go the extra mile to overcome decades of oversaturated film and television violence. That’s what Gaspar Noé did in 2002′s “Irréversible,” perhaps the most disturbingly violent movie in recent memory. The movie shows the depths of depravity to which even a good man might descend, hammering its point by portraying a rape and murder so viscerally sickening that many fled the theater.

Ugliness, like beauty, is ultimately subjective. One man’s filth is another’s art, and what you find shocking may be my idea of a walk in the park. Controversial films like David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986), Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (1989) and Larry Clark’s “Kids” (1995) use shocking content to inspire reflection and empathy rather than voyeurism. Mainstream movies like “The Island” or “War of the Worlds,” on the other hand, present cartoon violence and triple-digit death counts lacking either weight or consequence. Blowing extras up remains a nifty thing to do even after everything supposedly changed on 9/11.

The sad fact is, the easily shocked usually don’t want to be challenged. The censorious mentality is often closed. So-called cultural watchdogs often try to squelch art they haven’t even experienced, which is arguably the most offensive thing of all. And that’s no joke.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Aristocrats.”

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