Sadly, Hollywood probably took notice when MTV scored a big $22.7 million weekend bonanza for the $5 million spinoff film of its short-lived TV series "Jackass." MTV President Van Toffler said it all by boasting: "We produced a good mindless escape for the weekend."
"Mindless" is exactly what this effort is all about. Led by ringmaster Johnny Knoxville, the show and these home movies are a circus of pranks, pratfalls, grossouts, and dangerous stunts. Knoxville is a masochistic Peter Pan, complete with a troupe of adoring Lost Boys whose parents clearly didn't complete the job of coaxing them into maturity. Their idea of fun is sitting around giving themselves paper cuts between their digits and on their tongues. Or attaching baby crocodiles to their nipples. Or hooking electrodes to their genitals. Or putting a few pounds of live shrimp down their pants and jumping into a school of whale sharks.
We all know stupid can be funny. But movie moguls have discovered that stupid with a layer of grossout can be funnier. This film plays with the new convention of stupid, plus gross, plus dangerous. The film contains a don't-try-this-at-home disclaimer both before and after the movie. You know it's a new day in Hollywood when the credits include a list of about a dozen medics.
The formula's working very well so far. Paramount Pictures, MTV's corporate cousin, released the film and reported that almost half the audience for the R-rated comedy consisted of males aged 17 to 24. Overall, males made up two-thirds of the audience, and almost three-quarters were under 25. They did not reveal how many audience members were under 17, but you can bet they came in droves.
Well, isn't Paramount proud? Just imagine the 90th anniversary promotions: "We made The Ten Commandments. Saving Private Ryan. Braveheart. And the film where the guy takes a poop in a hardware store toilet."
But media outlets are supportive. Time mysteriously calls it "High Art." All the worst habits of reality television could be spilling over into the movies. Why watch fake stunts when you can watch one of the Knoxville gang trying to walk a tightrope, for the first time, over an alligator pit with a few chicken breasts hanging from his posterior? Or getting a tattoo while four-wheeling on a bumpy desert road? For stupid, gross, and dangerous, you can't do much better than the movie's centerpiece, a man inserting a toy car into his rectum so he can shock doctors and nurses (not to mention his goofball buddies and millions of Americans) with the X-ray. Or try the man filling a Sno-Cone with his own urine and then eating it until he vomits.
The movie also plays pranks on businesses and families. It begins with Knoxville renting a respectable small white car, which he then takes to a demolition derby. Then he returns the ruined car and demands that the rental agency pay part of the cost to replace it.
Series fans will recognize cast member Bam Margera and his dad Phil. In the film, Bam sets off fireworks in his parents' bedroom at one in the morning. Then when his dad gets up to work at five, he sets off fireworks in his van just as the key turns. He also slaps his dad around as he's defenselessly sitting on the toilet. Clearly, Phil isn't exactly an unwilling partner in these escapades. He's just another poor soul who loves being on TV or in the movies and is willing to sacrifice his dignity (and any public notion of parental achievement) in the process.
You could call this a low-budget freak show. People line up to watch this stuff to see just how stupid their fellow humans can act. But in the process, the idiocy makes the Knoxville gang stars, even idiot heroes. One stunt, a boxing match in a California sporting-goods store, was ruined during filming because the store let out the secret and teenagers were crawling all over begging for autographs. The group filmed much of the movie in Japan to avoid the young autograph hounds.
This is now what passes for youth culture. In today's media economy, youth culture reigns over (and sometimes runs over) a comparatively kinder, gentler general culture that in some form still values tradition, wisdom, life experience, or even the common sense to avoid attaching fireworks to your roller skates just to see what would happen. Shame on MTV and its formula of whatever sells to youth, sell it.