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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage