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 Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.