You will believe a bum can fight.
I can’t take credit for that tagline. My friend Justin, who brought this modern masterpiece to my attention, gets the kudos. Unfortunately, he has also created an indelible stain on my psyche by smuggling it into my home and putting it in my DVD player.
If you haven’t heard of “Bumfights” by now, you haven’t been paying attention. Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer said it “sets a new standard for the cruel exploitation of damaged human beings.” Howard Stern lauded it on his radio show, causing sales to skyrocket. The National Coalition for the Homeless described it as the “worst form of exploitation we’ve ever seen,” while co-creator Ty Beeson says he’s “glad this tape has brought to life the problems of homelessness.”
While I realize this is supposed to be a review, no examination of this particular DVD would be complete without paying some attention to the publicity surrounding it. Critics of “Bumfights” include members of the U.S. Senate, homeless advocacy groups, and the Las Vegas Police Department. Supporters, unsurprisingly, have been few and far between. We’ve already mentioned Stern (the mastermind behind such uplifting fare as “Homeless Howiewood Squares”), but the only other public statements of support that I could find have came from the creators themselves and Los Angeles homeless advocate Ted Hayes, who gamely offers that at least the creators are “bringing homelessness to the consciousness of America.”
So what’s the big deal? “Bumfights” consists of three types of material. The first is your garden variety shaky-cam footage of two non-bums beating the crap out of each other. Most of these appear to be high school kids fighting in parking lots or outside shopping centers. Strangely enough, this sort of footage makes up fully half of the running time of “Bumfights.” While it’s never clear whether the combatants were paid to do so or merely filmed surreptitiously from behind a parked car, it’s all standard “Best of Backyard Wrestling” kind of stuff. Not much new to be found here.
Second, we have the shenanigans of some of Las Vegas’ finest homeless citizens. Sights like Rufus the Stunt Bum ramming his head into a wall or Donnie the veteran getting “BUMFIGHT” tattooed on his forehead aren’t going to be very shocking to today’s sophisticated television aficionados. Anyone who has seen Steve-O vomit repeatedly in a hotel parking lot on “Jackass” won’t have far to go to, er, enjoy watching Bling Bling smoke some rock and take a nice watery dump on a sidewalk. Images like this or those of Rufus pulling out his own tooth with a pair of pliers may be unsettling to some, but won’t be too much for fans of this sort of thing. There are also a few fights, but not nearly as many as the title would lead you to believe.
Finally, we get to what I suspect most of the uproar is about. In several segments, we see Todd Richard Lewis as Steve Urban (get it?), “The Bum Hunter.” The Bum Hunter’s shtick is to sneak up on a sleeping homeless man – muttering in an Aussie accent about what a “fine specimen” he’s found – tie the man’s legs and hands together, mark him (either with a marker or spray paint), then “release the subject back into the wild.” This might be humorous if the men involved weren’t all obviously completely unsuspecting, but most of them wake up in varying stages of confusion or fear at the sight of a strangely dressed man writing on their faces with a Sharpie while camera lights shine in the background. Some of them even fight back. Crikey!
Want to film mongoloids beating the crap out of each after they’ve gotten all hyped up watching “RAW is WAR?” Knock yourself out because, let’s face it, adolescent idiots will continue to whale on each other while trying to keep their baggy pants on whether you pay them or not. The antics of Rufus, Donnie, and Bling Bling are probably exploitation, but these guys have obviously descended so far into the abyss that buying them some two dollar rock or a bottle of MD 20/20 or a BJ from a drag queen in exchange for severe head trauma almost seems like an act of mercy. Rufus even seems to be enjoying the attention most of the time. And hell, if Mr. Bling *doesn’t* smoke crack and suffer from loose stools on a daily basis, I’d be surprised. The exploits of the Bum Hunter, however, are strictly reserved for those among you who liked playing frog baseball and picking on the retarded kids in school. The creators’ assertions that all parties involved gave their consent rings a tad hollow when you realize the guys set upon by the Bum Hunter couldn’t have signed anything until *after* they’d been terrorized by this jagoff in a Boonie hat.
Will “Bumfights” lead to further exploitation and abuse of the homeless, as some critics believe? Frankly, I don’t know many people who’d go out of their way to harass someone who likely hasn’t bathed in days and/or has possible mental problems. Beating up homeless people was around long before “A Clockwork Orange” made it popular, and wasn’t it just a couple years ago those teenage geniuses filmed themselves doing paintball drive-bys on the homeless? Besides, make a wrong choice and it’s your ass. Rufus is quite the scrapper.
Schadenfreude (delight in another’s misery) and voyeurism are the new cornerstones of American entertainment. Anyone who argues that “Bumfights” makes us more sociopathic as a nation obviously hasn’t been watching “COPS” or “American Idol” lately. The development of something like “Bumfights,” where by using the indigent we can pay less for greater levels of humiliation, is as much simple economics as it is logical progression. It’s what the market will bear, and it gives the people what they want. So laugh it up when “Steve Urban” duct tapes some bewildered hobo’s mouth shut, just don’t come bitching to me when spy camera footage of you taking a leak behind your house shows up on “Best of Backyard Urinations.”
You will believe a bum can fight.