Gilbey on Film: Cinema as cultural Trojan horse

The third Jackass movie is Abu Ghraib reflected in a funhouse mirror.

When the first Jackass movie opened in 2002, it was as refreshing as anything that featured tidal waves of shit and vomit could possibly be. Not only was the spectacle of amateurish daredevilry liberated on the cinema screen from its original televisual format, where the stunts had seemed neither as visually magnificent nor as sickeningly masochistic as they needed to be, but there was also an emotional honesty about the picture that cleared away the cobwebs from a million closet-case buddy movies. There was no subtext about those gurning, guffawing playmates -- including the ringleader Johnny Knoxville, the more-than-necessarily tattooed Steve-O, the diminuitive Wee Man and, er, all the others -- who got a buzz out of putting their lives, and those of their friends, in mortal peril. Or rather, the subtext was left flapping in the wind, hanging out there for all to see. Plainly put, Jackass was about how much these young men wanted to have sex with one another.

Every other stunt seemed to require the cast to either expose themselves in front of their friends or to visit some medieval punishment on one another's genitals; or to devise an anally fixated form of affectionate humiliation. (You think it's a coincidence that the second syllable of the title is "ass"?) All part and parcel of being a young blade, you might say. Maybe so -- but this is American cinema, where such transgressions can usually only be alluded to. Yet here was Jackass, comprised of a string of body-fetishising sketches, the sole purpose of which was to edge ever closer to the ultimate dare for the heterosexual male: anal sex with another man.

The original movie got as close as could be in one of its final scenes, in which one Jackasser placed a toy car inside a condom, which he then inserted into his anus before visiting a doctor and demanding to be X-rayed. The joke was on the physician and his surprise at seeing a toy car on his patient's X-ray but the real point of the scene was that it allowed the prankster and his pals to get to the brink of intercourse. How touching and encouraging that they used protection.

Jackass 3D, the third Jackass movie, opens this week but the mood couldn't be any more different. Sure, the lads are still obsessed with one another's bodies and the fluids contained therein. (Although, despite the presence in the new picture of Seann William Scott, famous for playing a character who inadvertently quaffs a glass of sperm in American Pie, there hasn't yet been a stunt or gag involving that particular fluid . . . has there?) But times have changed. Knoxville (whose T-shirt proclaims: "Totally straight") is looking a little tight around the chops and he no longer has the physique of the couch potato; he even makes a reference to how he started working out after the first movie. He has a bona fide acting career, too, having starred in John Waters' A Dirty Shame, among others. (Waters, who appeared in Jackass Number Two, is a fan. He has described Jackass 3D as "a gay snuff film made for straight, blue-collar families".) One of Knoxville's fellow Jackassers, Chris Pontius, even has a perfectly low-key turn in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere -- which won the Golden Lion at Venice, no less.

As for the others (you know, Steve-O and Wee Man and . . . and . . . those other guys whose names don't matter), the ride must be nearing its end. How long before they're getting paid $100-a-pop to skateboard into a wall at a county fair or to light their own farts at a bachelor party? If I didn't laugh much during Jackass 3D, it wasn't because the jokes had got old but because the jokers had.

And because the new movie, you realise as it unfolds, takes place in the shadow of horror. For where else, other than in a Jackass film, are you likely to see grown men being injured, tortured and forced to endure humiliation with sexual overtones while other adults look on and laugh and take photographs? Sure, it's a comedy. But it takes only a baby-step rather than a leap of the imagination to see the whole thing as a distorted replaying of the Abu Ghraib nightmare: it's Abu Ghraib reflected in a funhouse mirror.

If that sounds hysterical or extreme, consider some key scenes from the new movie. A semi-naked man is placed on top of another semi-naked man, top to toe, in a position intended to suggest oral sex. In fact, the men are glued together with strong adhesives smeared on their bare chests while the giggling onlookers debate whether they should force them apart using an electric cattle prod. Cattle prods feature in another distinctive torture scene: they are suspended from the ceiling of a narrow corridor, along with 20 or so fiercely buzzing stun guns, to form an assault course through which the semi-naked Jackassers must run, trying (and, naturally, failing) to avoid being shocked repeatedly.

Animals play a big part in the pain and intimidation, as they did in the US torture of Iraqi prisoners. A blindfolded man is encouraged to antagonise a donkey, which then kicks him several times. Rams, bulls and buffalo figure strongly. A pig eats an apple that is protruding from between a naked man's buttocks. And, in the most explicitly Abu Ghraib-esque scene, Knoxville is chased up a pole by a vicious dog, which then sinks its teeth into his buttocks. This is every bit as illuminating as anything in Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure. And I think the film-makers know exactly what they've got on their hands: they've even used that shot of Knoxville getting savaged for one of the film's posters.

You could look at this as a way of making the idea of torture palatable -- of getting the American public to laugh at something that has caused its country great shame. Once you laugh at something, it can no longer be quite so appalling. Reframing torture practices as self-induced slapstick is one way of doing that. But the film is more knowing and acerbic than that reading would suggest. These aren't berks, though they spend most of their time thwacking one another in the balls or driving rocket-powered wheelbarrows into paddling pools. My hunch is that they are deliberately feeding the horrors of US foreign policy back to American audiences in disguised form. No one goes to see movies about Iraq or Afghanistan -- even The Hurt Locker was seen by a fraction of the audience that flocked repeatedly to Avatar -- but a Jackass picture breaks through the cultural defences of a mainstream multiplex audience. It's cinema as a cultural Trojan horse.

Sure, not all of the people who see Jackass 3D will make the connection between, say, Knoxville's intimidation-by-canine and the dogs that were used in Abu Ghraib to keep naked Iraqi prisoners in check. But some viewers will. And they'll mention it to their friends or blog about it. Flash-forward to 20 or 30 years' time and the film may even have a part to play in helping the next generation understand what went on in Iraq.

Not that the link between the Jackass phenomenon and America's adventures in foreign lands has been forged in the first instance by the Jackassers themselves. I think they realised fairly late how their innocuously homoerotic show had been hijacked. An internet search of the words "Jackass" and "Iraq" turns up hundreds of examples of bored soldiers passing the time by making their own stunt videos; Tazer guns appear to be a particularly popular accessory. That's the goofy aspect. But there's another side. As far back as November 2003, the Washington Post reported that :

. . . soldiers in Husaybah, Iraq, allegedly emulated a popular MTV gag show, making an amateur "Jackass" video. "I am going to punch this guy in the stomach; this is Jackass Iraq," one soldier said in the 52-second video before striking the detainee, sending him to the ground. Investigative documents said the soldiers made the short film "in order to have fun and relieve some of the tension that had been building up during the mission".

With the new movie, the Jackass gang regain control of the monster they created. They're using it for a purpose they could not possibly have intended or predicted back in the days when all they wanted to do was to storm one another's defences.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Serebrennikov's arrest is another step in the erosion of Russia's cultural freedom

The detained director is widely known for challenging more conservative forms of theatre.

“The play opens amid scenery which has already become, it seems, painfully familiar: a room with official furniture and a cage, to which they lead a man in handcuffs.” Thus reads a RIA Novosti review of Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s staging of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots in Moscow in 2013.

On Wednesday, it was the 47-year-old Kirill Serebrennikov who was led to the cage in handcuffs. Crowds gathered outside chanting “Kirill, Kirill” and “freedom” as he took the stand in a Moscow courtroom after being detained on suspicion of embezzling 68 million roubles (£900,000) of government funds, according to reporters at the scene.

Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest until 19 October awaiting trial. If found guilty, he could face up to ten years in jail. The investigation alleged that house arrest was necessary as Serebrennikov has a Latvian residence permit and real estate abroad. However, authorities had already confiscated his passport at the beginning of August, the director said. Travel abroad would be impossible.

The investigation into Serebrennikov reflects the incremental – yet cumulatively extremely effective –  erosion of freedom of expression that has pervaded Russian cultural politics in recent years. Russia’s legal system implicates vast swathes of its residents, and some have suggested that the processes involved in securing funding for the theatre are near-impossible to navigate.

“The laws governing Russian theater financing are so arcane and contradictory that even a mathematical genius could not run a theater and abide by the law,” theatre critic John Freedman wrote in The Moscow Times in June, as the case started to develop. The investigation is also an example to others who continue to challenge the status quo; locals have spoken of “an atmosphere of fear and hysteria” among (what’s left of) the country’s leading liberal cultural figures.

Serebrennikov was initially remanded on Tuesday by the Russian Investigative Committee’s special investigations department. He has himself previously been critical of artistic censorship and called the accusations against him “absurd”. Supporters are now beginning to draw parallels with Stalinist-era crackdowns.

“Director Meyerhold was not arrested by the NKVD, but by Stalin. Director Serebrennikov was not arrested by the Investigative Committee, he was arrested by Putin,” renowned author Boris Akunin wrote in a public Facebook post on Tuesday. “Russia has moved into a new state of existence with new rules.”

Other key cultural figures have stood by Serebrennikov to support freedom of expression and grimly reflect on present-day realities. Writer and director Viktor Shenderovich told television station Telekanal Dozhd (TV Rain) that even global fame cannot “save you from the interests of a repressive state if it decides that it is in its interests to put you on the ground face down.”

Thousands of people signed a petition demanding his liberation. “Artists should have the right to express their opinion freely. That is guaranteed by our country’s Constitution,” the letter signed by more than 14,300 people as of midday on Wednesday said.

The case, in theory, revolves around funding awarded to a theatre project known as Platform between 2011 and 2014. Three other former colleagues of the director were also detained in connection with the case. However, Serebrennikov’s supporters believe there is more to the story.

Serebrennikov is widely known in Russia for challenging more conservative forms of theatre. He is the head of the Gogol Centre – one of Russia’s more avant-garde institutions. It was here that The Idiots was staged. His originality and talent is widely hailed on the Moscow theatre scene.

At the beginning of July, Serebrennikov’s staging of a ballet exploring the life and work of gay or bisexual ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was postponed. The ballet, according to the New York Times, explored homosexuality in Nureyev’s art and his battle with AIDS, which killed him in 1993.

In a subsequent press conference, the Bolshoi confirmed the postponement of the ballet, with the theatre’s director general Vladimir Urin saying “the ballet was not good” and that he and others were “very depressed” by what they saw. Urin did not state that the homosexual themes played any part in the decisio,n.

On 7 August, Serebrennikov told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that his passport had been seized by authorities. At the same time, he said Urin had contacted him to say that Nureyev would be shown in December this year.