My own personal vision of Hell can be found in the 2006 Mike Judge film "Idiocracy," which presents a vision of the future where the IQ of populace has dipped to precariously low levels and corporations have run amok. All forms of entertainment and advertising pander to the very lowest common denominator, as the crassest, most vulgar sensibilities of adolescent boys have become the standard. Thus "Ass: the Movie," a film consisting of nothing but onscreen flatulence wins all the Oscars and monster truck spectacles are considered high art. It wasn't a great movie, but it stuck with me.
Over the last decade, I often fretted that the future presented by "Idiocracy" was coming true. The year 2000 brought not only "Scary Movie," the first in a series of increasingly derided spoofs from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, but also the "Jackass" television series, featuring a gang of daredevil hooligans performing crude stunts and pranks, which would soon find its way to the big screen. A few years later, the first "Saw" film would usher in the era of "torture porn" horror movies that were often less about scaring the audience than stunning them into submission with graphic content. Could "Ass: the Movie" be far behind?
Now fast-forward to 2010, and all three of these series are still alive and well and profitable. Friedberg and Seltzer released "Vampires Suck," their "Twilight" spoof, at the end of summer, "Jackass 3D" won the weekend box office two weeks ago, and "Saw 3D," the seventh and purportedly last installment of the franchise, followed suit this past weekend. We'll probably be getting more of all three in some form or another. And yet I feel no outrage, no resignation, and no despair for the human race. Instead, to my surprise, I experienced another feeling entirely upon the release of these latest exercises in cinema gratuity: nostalgia.
It's been a good year at the movies for looking backward, from the final films of the "Toy Story" and "Shrek" franchises to all the reboots of 80s properties that the studios have been sending down the pipeline. The return of the "Jackass" and "Saw" films felt like part of the trend, because their best days are clearly behind them. The second "Jackass" film was released in 2006. "Saw" has dutifully trotted out sequels every Halloween since the first one, but its fortunes have been in decline since "Saw II," and "Saw VI" was soundly trumped last year by the decidedly non-graphic "Paranormal Activity."
At some point the trend of shock-and-awe content hit a peak and went into decline. Sure, we still get a "Funny Games" or a "Human Centipede" or a "Serbian Film" testing the tolerance gore-loving audiences every year, but these are films that are recognized to be of only very limited appeal and haven't been widely distributed. Lately horror films have turned to demon possessions, zombies, and reboots of older horror franchises like "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween." The turning point was probably "Captivity" in 2007, which tanked at the box office after its advertising materials added fuel to the whole "torture porn" debate.
On the comedic side of the equation, the Friedberg and Seltzer spoofs have been losing steam for years. Their films are done cheaply enough that they always turn a profit, but the duo are a long ways from the blockbuster success they once enjoyed with "Scary Movie" and its sequels. Raunchier R-rated content is now pervasive in mainstream comedies like "The Hangover" and Judd Apatow's movies. The same can be said for the stunts in "Jackass," which surely paved the way for Sasha Baron Cohen's "Borat" and "Bruno." These films changed the standards of what audiences found acceptable to see onscreen, and were then promptly left behind when other filmmakers started doing more interesting things with their newfound creative freedom.
Graphic content for its own sake had its moment, but my sense is that the moment has passed. All the arguments about immoral vulgarity and mindless splatter have already been played out in every conceivable forum and now feel old hat. Whatever your stance on the role of "Meet the Spartans" and "Saw" in dumbing down or desensitizing the public, there's no denying that they've become part of the culture, one that I learned to avoid and ignore without much effort. The newest installments actually strike me as kind of quaint now, throwbacks to the early noughties when full-frontal male nudity and onscreen dismemberment were still considered novel. Trends and standards have changed, but now I don't think it's necessarily for the worse.
For the record, I've seen the first two "Saw" films, one "Scary Movie," and selected excerpts of "Jackass."