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.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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