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.

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit