Spirited Away and Jackass

Starring:
  • Weird Imagery
  • Vomit
  • Balls and Assholes

 

 
Directed by the National Treasures of A) Japan, and B) Frat Guys

"Do you have the password, little girl? Does 'Fidelio' mean anything to you?"

I Don't Get Any of This

I guess this is where I'm supposed to say how brilliant Spirited Away is. I mean, it is at one-hundred percent on the Tomatometer—who am I to spoil that? Personally, I'm at a loss. I am a much bigger fan of hand-drawn than computer animation for sure, but I've yet to see the point of making a fetish of watching ass cheeks pendulate, which I see in nearly every anime movie. And besides, I'm probably completely missing the point, but Spirited Away smelled a little too xenophobic for my tastes: Did I miss something, or was that giant talking frog wearing a beret, smoking a long thin cigarette, and overseeing factory slave work?

Spirited Away is the story of Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl whose parents are moving to the suburbs. On the way, her dad takes a short cut along a dirt road. They discover an abandoned amusement park, which went south after the economy bust. Soon Mom, fussy and thin, and Dad, with gravel in his voice, gut billowing over his belt, and a cinder block for a jaw, come upon a restaurant of sorts. Chihiro Senses Danger: "The wind is blowing us in!" "Let's not go!" she pines. But they do, and Mom and Dad scarf down the food. "Don't worry, Daddy's here. He's got credit cards and cash." They glutton themselves and, low and behold, turn into pigs. American Pigs.

The rest of the movie is an Alice in Wonderland journey through the dreamscape of Japanese mythology. Usually I can offer as complex a deconstruction as you want (see The Ring), but you'll have to go to some anime fan page for that. My view of this film is probably juvenile and reductionist, but the animation looks flat without a digital projector, the dubbed lines are spoken in that robotic English common to Japanese film, and there are so many ethnic stereotypes I got lost in my notes: The French Frogs, The Fat Polynesian, The Slave-Driving Eastern-European Factory Boss, the evil Russian Witch, the American Pigs. I did, however, enjoy the little balls of soot that eat Lucky Charms. Also, the Giant Shit Monster from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back shows up. And the Eyes Wide Shut and/or Scream monster chases Chihiro around as the little dingleberries of soot hide her shoes. This gives her a break from begging for a job from the evil Phyllis Diller-looking bathhouse witch who nurses a giant baby. Sorry, y'all—I give up. I just kept wishing that someone would tell the American Dad that he has "a very big penis" and Trey Parker's band would play the "Chinpokomon" theme song. I'm sure it's as deep and textured as I've been reading, but then again, I thought that Watto thing in Star Wars was a big flying blue Jew, and that kind of stuff in a kid's movie throws me off. As Chihiro herself asks her rescuer Haku, the river god, "What's going on?" "Something you wouldn't recognize." I know how you feel, sister.

A bit bewildered, from Spirited Away I wandered over to the midnight, opening night showing of Jackass, just for shits and giggles. Not expecting a lot of giggles, I was mostly there for the shits, and Jackass delivers in spades. The Jackass crowd filled the theater by eleven thirty, smelling of Marlboro-soaked denim jackets and Evan Williams, buzzing as if awaiting the demolition derby main event. I would know—from year to year, you can count on about a half dozen Himes in the opening heats of the Henry County Fair Derby. Just from the buzz in that theater alone, I could predict a twenty-five million dollar opening weekend. You see, I've got my grubby little fingers on the pulse of America. Do you think Roger Ebert was at the opening night midnight show of Jackass? Or J. Hoberman? How about Elvis Mitchell and Jonathan Rosenbaum? No, they weren't. They can be spirited far, far away for all I care; the spectacle of Jackass is deserving of investigation, and shouldn't simply be passed off as a juvenile, masochistic spectacle—not when it's making this much money and inciting riots in the under-thirty crowd like nothing I've ever seen. And after having my mind bollixed by anime, I indulged a little revenge fantasy by watching white trash wreck havoc on unsuspecting Japanese (even if the stunt had already been pulled by Tom Green). After Spirited Away, Jackass felt like a Wasabi Snooter for the soul. Don't ask.

The opening is one of the funniest scenes thus far this year: The Jackass crew are piled into an oversized shopping cart, careening downhill but filmed in slow motion, giving each member a chance to mug for the camera (and the crowd to chant his name) before having garbage shot at them from cannons. Really, it's a metaphor for the whole Jackass phenomenon: A marketing campaign speeding out-of-control, firing trash at the masses. There are a few scenes that I think we could all agree are funny, the sort in which snarling rogues enact revenge on bourgeois privilege and comfort; here involving an airhorn on a golf course and convenience store jousting. Mostly, though, Jackass stunts revolve around four central aspects of human physiology: 1) The rectum, 2) The scrotum, 3) Vomiting, 4) Feces and/or urine. Really, once the movie presents itself as a masochistically homo-erotic vomitorium, the opening shopping cart scene is shown to announce: The Roman Circus Has Arrived.

Steve-O seemed to be the crowd favorite, but Johnny Knoxville is the impresario of this Circus Maximus—in the shrewd masterstroke, he offers himself as both Christian and Lion. For the daring but less heroic efforts (read: the stunts performed while drunk), Knoxville mostly prods the action like a zoo keeper with a stick in snake cage; Knoxville's crew's orificial onslaught involves anally-launched bottle rockets, vicious bungee-enhanced wedgies, and a particularly inspired sequence involving a tube of anal lube, a matchbox car, and some wince-inducing X-rays. But for the truly gladiatorial stunts, Knoxville steps up to take a rubber bullet to the abs or crash it up at a demolition derby. An impressive spectacle, really; I couldn't help but think that Ridley Scott would find all this self-torture the feel-good comedy hit of the year. It's the sort of exquisite sadism that would make Nero proud, a spectacle for the mob—and make no mistake, there's quite a mob, especially young, under-educated American males.

So what does any of this mean? For one, underneath the appeased Beavis-ian chuckles and Butthead-ian guffaws of the mob lies a genuine bloodthirst. For all the violence of the Roman Circus, it never matched that of the streets, and I think the same can be said for the Jackass audience: As painful as the electric shock to Steve-O's balls seems, it is far less so than what's felt by the meth-cooking, whiskey-soaked, wife-beating Midwestern and Southern masses. Roman emperors generated such grotesque spectacles to appease the mob and distract from the underlying social and economic problems; similarly, there's a genuine powderkeg cased in the hardships of those thirty-five percent of Americans who live at or below the poverty line. Sure, suburban kids love stuff like Jackass, but more out of the same ghetto chic that gave rise to Parental Advisory warnings. Try sitting through an opening night, midnight showing of Jackass thirty miles from Arkansas and see if you don't start to feel the anger and discontent of poor America spilling safely onto the theater floor, like the angry mullet behind me who fumbled his flask of Jack Green Label. Couple that with the culture of fear that Michael Moore articulates in Bowling for Columbine, and one begins to sense that politicians of Red America are currying the favor of the masses (especially in the months before an election) by appealing to their basest instincts by peddling a war that will be experienced in the same way one might watch others play "Grand Theft Auto." Or, for that matter, watching an episode of "Jackass." Is there any wonder why half the country is clamoring for a placating war that will be consumed in the same medium as its Roman Circus? This is certainly not to say that Spike Jonez, Jeff Tremaine, and Johnny Knoxville are evil masterminds—they're merely exploiting larger social trends for fun and profit—and, to be fair, Jonez's wheelie on a Rascal is pretty impressive. However, it still stands that Jackass may just be a sign of the fall of Western Civilization.

The Pitch For Spirited Away, Which I Will Admit is Completely Wrong:
 
1 Time Bandits
Plus
 
1 Princess Mononoke
Equals
   
2 Spirited Away
And The Pitch For Jackass, Which is Precisely Right:
 
1 The Beastie Boys "Sabotage" Video
Plus
 
1 "The Best of Backyard Wrestling Volume One," featuring Josh Wagner
Equals
   
2 Jackass
See Jackass For:
Steve-O's unfortunate audition for the next Croc Hunter movie.