Sadly, Hollywood probably took notice when MTV scored a big
$22.7 million weekend bonanza for the $5 million spin-off film of its
short-lived TV series "Jackass." MTV President Van Toffler said it all by
boasting: "We produced a good, mindless escape for the weekend."
"Mindless" is exactly what this effort is all about. Led by
ringmaster Johnny Knoxville, the show and these home movies are a circus of
pranks, pratfalls, grossouts and dangerous stunts. Knoxville is a
masochistic Peter Pan, complete with a troupe of adoring Lost Boys whose
parents clearly didn't complete the job of coaxing them into maturity. Their
idea of fun is sitting around giving themselves paper cuts between their
digits and on their tongues. Or attaching baby crocodiles to their nipples.
Or hooking electrodes to their genitals. Or putting a few pounds of live
shrimp down their pants and jumping into a school of whale sharks.
We all know stupid can be funny. But movie moguls have
discovered that stupid with a layer of grossout can be funnier. This film
plays with the new convention of stupid, plus gross, plus dangerous. The
film contains a don't-try-this-at-home disclaimer both before and after the
movie. You know it's a new day in Hollywood when the credits include a list
of about a dozen medics.
The formula's working very well so far. Paramount Pictures,
MTV's corporate cousin, released the film and reported that almost half the
audience for the R-rated comedy consisted of males aged 17 to 24. Overall,
males made up two-thirds of the audience, and almost three-quarters were
under 25. They did not reveal how many audience members were under 17, but
you can bet they came in droves.
Well, isn't Paramount proud? Just imagine the 90th anniversary
promotions: "We made "The Ten Commandments," "Saving Private Ryan,"
"Braveheart." And the film where the guy takes a poop in a hardware store
But media outlets are supportive. Time mysteriously calls it
"High Art." All the worst habits of reality television could be spilling
over into the movies. Why watch fake stunts when you can watch one of the
Knoxville gang trying to walk a tightrope, for the first time, over an
alligator pit with a few chicken breasts hanging from his posterior? Or
getting a tattoo while four-wheeling on a bumpy desert road? For stupid,
gross and dangerous, you can't do much better than the movie's centerpiece,
a man inserting a toy car into his rectum so he can shock doctors and nurses
(not to mention his goofball buddies and millions of Americans) with the
X-ray. Or try the man filling a Sno-Cone with his own urine and then eating
it until he vomits.
The movie also plays pranks on businesses and families. It
begins with Knoxville renting a respectable small white car, which he then
takes to a demolition derby. Then he returns the ruined car and demands that
the rental agency pay part of the cost to replace it.
Series fans will recognize cast member Bam Margera and his dad
Phil. In the film, Bam sets off fireworks in his parents' bedroom at 1 in
the morning. Then, when his dad gets up to work at 5, he sets off fireworks
in his van just as the key turns. He also slaps his dad around as he's
defenselessly sitting on the toilet. Clearly, Phil isn't exactly an
unwilling partner in these escapades. He's just another poor soul who loves
being on TV or in the movies, and is willing to sacrifice his dignity (and
any public notion of parental achievement) in the process.
You could call this a low-budget freak show. People line up to
watch this stuff to see just how stupid their fellow humans can act. But in
the process, the idiocy makes the Knoxville gang stars, even idiot heroes.
One stunt, a boxing match in a California sporting-goods store, was ruined
during filming because the store let out the secret and teenagers were
crawling all over begging for autographs. The group filmed much of the movie
in Japan to avoid the young autograph hounds.
This is now what passes for youth culture. In today's media
economy, youth culture reigns over (and sometimes runs over) a comparatively
kinder, gentler general culture that in some form still values tradition,
wisdom, life experience or even the common sense to avoid attaching
fireworks to your roller skates just to see what would happen. Shame on MTV
and its formula of whatever sells to youth, sell it.