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'Jackass' Kicks Hollywood Back Where It Belongs

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By Ned Vizzini
Ned Vizzini is the author of "Teen Anst? Naaah..." and has just finished his first novel.

November 14, 2002

To the delight of unimaginative film critics everywhere, "Jackass: The Movie" was not No. 1 this past weekend. It was trumped by America's latest champion of equality, Eminem, in "8 Mile."

Yet the snow cone of Hollywood has been permanently yellowed. "Jackass," which cost MTV Films about $5 million to make, pulled in more than $22 million its first weekend. Now, two weeks later, it's still grossing them out in terms of taste and sales, remaining in the top five films and raking in an estimated $43 million - not a bad return in the post-Enron economy. Even at this early date, it is essential lore for its target audience, 15- to 25-year-old males. (Don't even mention the title and ask one of these males, "What was your favorite part?" They'll know what you're talking about.)

The damage has been done, and it hasn't been done to movies or to youth or to good taste. It's been done to Gwyneth Paltrow. Because, really, who needs her? Movie stars making $20 million a picture had better make sure their investment portfolios are sound. "Jackass" and its inevitable cinematic copycats are part of the new standard in entertainment - "instant reality." It's the most important, forward-thinking media trend we've got, and it makes all the old stuff look just that.

Instant reality is exemplified by "American Idol," the still-popular "Real World" and the faux-real HBO show "Curb Your Enthusiasm." This "verit" turns the camera back at the viewer and serves up real life through pliable, disposable personalities. Anyone who denies this genre's power isn't paying attention and certainly doesn't work in television, where the last five years have been a scramble after the success of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor." These shows shocked programmers who were used to paying actual actors actual money. Suddenly they didn't need to; they just needed concepts.

How did it happen? Birthed in 1992 with "The Real World" and presaged by "Cops," dating shows and foreign television, instant reality grew up in step with Generation Y. Its popularity depends on 18- and 25-year- olds and stems from their timeless desire to divorce themselves from the ideas and loves of their parents.

Generation Y are not slackers. They grew up with the sceptre of slackers, and so they went nuts and got successful as fast as possible. Some, like Napster founder Shawn Fanning, grabbed onto the Internet boom. Others took dance classes and became Britney Spears. Some silly ones, like me and Nick McDonnel and Marty Beckerman, wrote books.

Non-slackers don't get too happy when you show them scripted material thought up by some guys in California. They'd much rather see real people doing real stuff because it reminds them that they, too, could be doing real stuff. When a 17-year-old watches "American Idol," synapses in her brain instantly relay from the occipital cortex to the cerebellum that she too could be an American idol. Bam! - she's one of 2,000 16- to 24-year-olds who tried out in New York Oct. 24 for the show.

The "Jackass" audience is a lot more motivated than people think. (MTV had to put up notices at the end of every "Jackass" episode making it clear that no viewer-submitted material would be screened.) The audience also lives in a packaged, focus-tested world of constant advertising. This isn't a bad thing - today's ads are the most entertaining part of prime-time TV, very much in touch with the American attention span - but it makes a mockery of "escapism." It used to be you went to a movie to escape ordinary life. Now ordinary life is branded sensory bombardment: the Internet, terrorism complete with accompanying imagery and a blow-em-up blockbuster every two weeks. Sitting down and seeing some dude on "The Bachelor"? Now, that's escapism.

The Internet is a big part of the instant reality phenomenon. We now expect entertainment and news delivered as fast as we can read - hence the phrase "real-time," which was a strict computer term before the 1990s. Since we are used to getting our e-mail and stock quotes in real-time, we want our entertainment in real-time. Anything else feels wrong.

This entertainment revolution is just beginning. Innovations in technology will be the next step; with the death of celluloid and the onset of digital cinema, we open ourselves up to entirely new ways to "go to the movies." Tom Petty and Korn have already experimented with live concerts simulcast in theaters across the country. In 20 years it will be feasible to sit down at the movies with a controller in front of you, see a man on screen and vote with everyone else who's in any theater in the nation to have this man do ridiculous things. Or perhaps the camera will be focused on you and you'll make a fleeting contribution to mass entertainment. (These ideas were outlined by film critic Godfrey Cheshire in his brilliant 1999 essay "The Death of Film.")

The history of Western thought has been one of descent from "The Republic" to Johnny Knoxville in "Jackass: The Movie" getting shot with a "non-lethal" beanbag bullet - from big issues to the most private parts of the human psyche. The next step will be the "you" channel: just you, or someone very much like you, doing things that you do, or would like to do. With a soundtrack.

It's not bad. It's wonderful. We've lived under the yoke of Hollywood too long. Now the only way to be a movie star is to make fun of it. So get with the program: the "you" program.

Copyright 2002, Newsday, Inc.


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