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By Mac VerStandig | December 12, 2002

Film has long been an experimental medium. From the days of George Melies making smoke-filled cuts in “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” through Mike Figgis’ real-time, multi-screened “Timecode 2000,” the norm for highbrow cinema has frequently been the abnormal. And while many such experiments, such as smell-o-vision and ultra-wide screen, have failed, pundits have always been willing to spare cinema’s name from the marks of such errors and instead, redirect attention to the many groundbreaking successes varying from the days of the talking “The Jazz Singer” through the non-linear Pulp Fiction.

And while the big screen has stayed silver, its two greatest rivals have been forced to display many tarnished marks. Radio has been scarred by the era of the Shock Jock and even seen live pigs slaughtered on air. Television has proven a consistently B-medium, and the trashy likes of “Survivor” and Anna Nicole Smith’s own reality show seem to bear constant reminder that TV is in no way headed out of its own, private, vast wasteland. But cinema has stayed paramount, rivaled only by the prestige of live theater. Or has it?

Recently, I was unfortunate enough to view Jackass, the latest film to emerge from Paramount Pictures, one of Hollywood’s chief operators. And Jackass has been very good to Paramount Pictures, bringing in over $60 million to date. I fear, however, that the greater repercussions of this film may not be so apparent. Jackass embodies the greatest threat to cinema’s silver reputation that I have ever witnessed in a motion picture, and having worked as a film critic for nearly four years, I have seen many a movie.

I do not mean to suggest that the simply poor quality of Jackass is any genuine issue. It is little secret that awful movies are as common in America’s theaters as prostitutes on Sunset Boulevard. No, the real danger is that Jackass makes no false pretenses about its horrific lack of anything capable of distinguishing it from television’s scum. This is not a case of a plot so poorly written that only the screenwriter can find it, this is an instance of no plot whatsoever.

With the lack of a pre-planned script, one might make the ordinary move of categorizing this film as a documentary. And a documentary it does appear to be on the surface: it is shot on video, not film, features no big-name actors in fictitious roles and does document occurrences in real places. However, every unsightly gag in the film is thoroughly and nauseatingly planned. Thus, the presence of actors, no matter how poor their technique, takes the production back into the realm of non-documentary cinema. Ordinarily it could be called “story cinema,” but, of course, there is no story here.

Indeed, Jackass seems to have created its own genre located in the twilight zone of categorical Hollywood. It is the embodiment of an oxymoron, “real fiction.” And many genres have been created before; Melies’ special effects film, Figgis’ multi-screened production, Crosland and Jolson’s talking picture, Cardiff’s smell-o-vision and so forth. And, indeed, the closed wallets of moviegoers have quickly dismissed many of these genres. However, those that have succeeded have all added to the prestige of Hollywood with their artistic supplements to film’s already-silver base.

The box office receipts on this instance of “real fiction” have shown America’s approval. And yet, the product being ushered in has no merits worthy of contribution to the industry that has mistakenly birthed it. “Jackass” is little more than a 90-minute instance of an element that has worked vigorously since its creation on MTV to separate television from any hint of class. But that matters little for TV, as the living room screen has already crossed a lowbrow point of no return and been sentenced to an apparently eternal wandering through its own vast wasteland. For cinema, though, it matters deeply. This hideous beast has snuck through the gates of the land of silver and has the potential to spread a hideously contagious curse of silver-plating upon the screen if not stopped swiftly.

Critic Mac VerStandig is the former Big Boss Man over at the now defunct If you’d like to contact him, go ahead and shoot him an email.

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