WHO EVER THOUGHT that torture could be so funny? One man was branded with a cattle iron. Two others were covered with stinging insects. Another had a fishing hook tear through the cartilage of his cheek. Yet another had his reproductive organ bitten by a snake.
Reading about such things is horrible enough. Seeing them ought to be sickening. But everyone around me in the theater was laughing. And I have to admit that I was, too. I had time to kill on a Sunday afternoon, so I paid $10 to see Jackass 2 at the Loews multiplex in Georgetown.
For those unfamiliar with either the Jackass films or the television show that inspired them, there isn't much to explain. There is no plot. There is only the compulsive masochism of Johnny Knoxville and his heavily-tattooed friends. They volunteer to be branded, stung, fish-hooked and bitten.
Film critics had previously assured me that my $10 would be well-spent. The Washington Post compared Knoxville & Co. to "dedicated ballerinas who damage their feet in the highfalutin interest of art." The New York Times praised the stars' "impulse to deny the superego" and described the film "some of the most fearless, liberated and cathartic comedy in modern movies."
Normally, ardent comparisons to ballet suggest that a film won't be all that popular. But Jackass 2 debuted at number one at the box office, pulling in $29 million on its opening weekend and $51 million in its first 10 days. Something about this film resonated with a lot of Americans--and probably not its resemblance to ballet.
Its main attractions are, of course, the creative violence, unapologetic obscenity, and in-your-face attitude that have become staples of popular entertainment. But if one is looking for a subtler, psychological explanation for the film's success, it may be worth paying attention to something reviewers didn't notice: the film's patriotism. If you divert your attention from the bodily fluids being sprayed in all directions, you may notice that the stars-and-stripes motif recurs throughout the film. Early on, Johnny and friends take turns riding a foot-high, miniature motorcycle through a loop-de-loop.
The loop-de-loop track is shot in stationary profile, so the audience peers directly through the center of the loop, which perfectly frames an American flag planted in the background. Knoxville & Co. keep trying to build up enough momentum to ride through the loop, but mostly they go sprawling through the air banging their heads and other body parts on the track and on the ground.
Each attempt to go through the loop is shot from the same stationary, side-on camera angle, establishing the American flag as a visual anchor, the only constant amidst the chaos of flying limbs.
Of course, Jackass 2's reverence for the flag isn't always conventional. It occasionally borders on the offensive. In one sketch, the boys huddle around a member of the cast who is wearing nothing but a stars-and-stripes thong. The be-thonged one then lies down on his back, spreads his legs in the air, and performs an unpleasant party trick. Some patriots might prefer to watch an Iranian mob burn the American flag. Immolation, after all, is a much more dignified fate than becoming dirty underwear. But the unspoken point made by Jackass is that what makes the American flag great is that you can wear it as underwear and become a celebrity instead of a political prisoner.
Coming from Hollywood, the apparent equation of humiliation with patriotism may strike some conservatives as pathologically liberal. But it isn't. It's libertarian. Johnny and the boys aren't just shameless; they're shamelessly American. If they went backpacking through Europe, they wouldn't sew little Canadian flags on their packs in order to placate the locals.
Nor does the Jackass crew demonstrate any interest in placating the tender sensitivities of the American left. The fat, the old, and the demented all serve as targets of Jackass humor. Johnny and the boys also target a group whose sensitivities liberals have often defended of late, even at the cost of their own free speech: In the final act before the film's closing montage, one of the boys dresses up as a terrorist, hails a cab, and demands to be taken to Los Angeles international airport. What dressing up like a terrorist entails is a long, flowing robe, a headdress, a bushy, bin Laden-style beard, and a ridiculous accent that sounds more like Apu from The Simpsons than it does Arabic.
This total lack of respect for any standard of political correctness bears a striking resemblance to the attitude of Hollywood's other crew of potty-mouthed thirtysomething adolescents, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Like Parker and Stone, the Jackass crew aren't shy about their patriotism. They know that the freedom to offend has its natural home in America.
David Adesnik is the editor of Oxblog.com.