Whenever anyone discusses television as a vast wasteland, they very rarely mention cable public access programming. Perhaps it's because the first amendment based tenets of this entertainment idea lend themselves more readily to a hands-off approach. After all, if you tolerate the love of God or bad conspiracy theories, you've got to allow a lust for strippers and scatological humor as well. It could also be a case of recognitional redundancy. Crap is crap, so there's no need to keep reminding us of such. The truth, however, is somewhere in the middle. Cable access is like deep-fried fast food. There is no inherent value in what it's producing - this is TV, after all - but it also has a certain mouth round fullness and down home comfort food quality that satisfies the soul.
Take The Jerkbeast Show for example. The premise behind the program was simple. Two guys, some dude in a monster suit, and a bevy of prepubescent phone callers, all talking trash and spouting non-PC provocation at each other. Not really a talk show so much as a ridiculous rant forum, it was no different than dozens of similar shows on cable channels around the nation (Tampa even had The Happy Dog Show which substituted a horny hound handpuppet for the costumed creature). Unlike all the other homemade TV however, the Jerkbeast gang wasn't happy just being borderline stars. They had aspirations beyond the volunteer venue. Somehow, they decided to flesh out their fudged-up folly into a full-length motion picture. Thanks to Film Threat DVD, we now have a chance to witness the twisted semi-genius that resulted, otherwise known as Jerkbeast: The Movie.
Jerkbeast is an asshole. At 8 feet tall, he's all monster - teeth a snarled mess, skin a bright burnt orange. He spends his days riding around on a moped, beating people with a tree branch. Other than that, he's pretty much a slacker. One day, the creature gets the inspiration to take his message of aggression and anger to the masses. He grabs a couple of dorks - unemployed rabbit-smashing psycho hippy Marty and the most unattractive kid in the local high school, Sweet Benny - and the trio start a cable access program. When the beast feels he's pushed the TV trick to its limits, he decides to start a punk band - Blood Butt (the name will change, several times actually). The band releases a single "Looks Like Chocolate, Tastes Like Shit" that goes nowhere. But when a couple of sleazy record execs get them to sign their life away, things start looking up for 'beast and the boys. Turns out that the managers are crooked, and the group will spend the rest of the film trying to get out of their crappy contract, and back at the dishonest douche bags.
For a movie formulated out of a cable access program that's premise basically consisted of brain dead pre-teens calling up the hosts to try their hand at swearing, Jerkbeast is brilliant. As an example of homemade cinema, with cast and crew working from little more than a dream and an extended credit line, it's excellent. As a standard motion picture comedy, it's a little wanting - and yet, that may be exactly the motivation behind this mess of a movie. Not everything works in Jerkbeast. Some of the attempts at humor are obvious and lame, and for every moment of sidesplitting merriment, there's several of amateurish overreaching. Still, as a film starring a guy in an ogre suit and two tame slackers, Jerkbeast is very endearing and engaging. Sure, the story of a horrible rock band getting screwed by the industry has been done before, better and more believably, but none of the mainstream attempts at capturing the music biz featured an eight foot fiend with the fake foul mouth of a shipload of sailors.
There is no doubt that filmmakers Brady Hall and Calvin Reeder have talent. They manage to take the thinnest of ideas and stretch them into a full feature length presentation. They understand the basics of narrative and the necessity of using subplot to advance the storyline. Along with actor/cohort Brian Wendorf, the trio channels the same irreverent spirit here that fueled their broadcast free-for-alls, resulting in an idiosyncratic atmosphere that enlivens every moment of this mind-boggling movie. There will be times when you can't believe how dumb Jerkbeast is. There will be other times when you marvel at how clever and considered it is. This is a movie that's one-note and multi-faceted, outrageous and yet completely indebted to the formulas found in other 'rise to stardom' rock operas. In the end, the story of our sorry band may seem pat, and more than a little predictable, but there is still a richness and an ingenuity that keeps this film from utterly falling apart.
Hall and Reeder's first smart move is in making the character of Jerkbeast more than just a pissed off puppet. While the angry, anarchic persona that made the cable access show sing is still in place, the filmmakers find ways to make this papier-mâché monster sympathetic, and even a little charming. Jerkbeast is allowed to be nervous around girls, unable to communicate with the one true love of 'his' life, a stalker/fan named May. He's also a kind of social chameleon, able to comfortably talk with heavy metal heads and get down with rappers with amazing ease. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this epithet-spewing creature is that some of what he says actually has a purpose. Certainly not every useless taunt or the abundance of "F"-bombs is intellectualized. But when stupidity or authority stands in the way of this monster and his money, the rants can be classic. Like one of those full-sized muppets gone to horrible smelly seed, Jerkbeast is an interesting creation, and one that Hall and Reeder use to great effect.
His human companions aren't bad either. Reeder's reading of Sweet Benny is indeed iconic, since he is being required to play a character whom everyone argues is hideously ugly and deformed. Of course, Reeder is arguably the best looking member of the cast, so said comments always guarantee an out of place laugh. But Benny is given a serious psychological complex because of such cut-downs, and Reeder embodies them flawlessly. Even when required to instantly fall for a lovely Lupus patient, Benny is believable. Brian Wendorf's Marty, on the other hand, is a little more disappointing. Basically, he's like the Brandon DiCamillo of Jerkbeast - a kind of half hophead lackey who doesn't do much except agree with the others and look dopey. While Jerkbeast and Benny are getting all the good lines, Marty is more or less left playing straight man to move the plot along. At least on the TV show he got to chew out callers with the others. Here, Marty's movie persona is very underdeveloped.
Indeed, a lot of Jerkbeast's attitude is throwaway and insular. You get the impression that the filmmakers are making the movie more for themselves than for an actual audience. They fill the dialogue with non-sequitors, exploit individual attributes of characters that we've barely even met, and try time and again to twist convention to compensate for the lack of depth. A perfect example is the drug-dealing dummy named Preston. Whenever he shows up, there is usually a horribly hurried flashback to accompany his rambling stories. Sometimes they're hilarious (the entire stolen baby tale is great), but in most instances they're time killers (who cares about the Czech mafia, anyway?). That is why some will watch this movie and find it a 90 minute exercise in sophomoric humor accented with lots of shouting - and frankly, there's not much more to it than that.
But there is some slyness here, attempts by the directors to avoid a single sensibility. You just have to pay attention to find it. There are lines here that are instantly memorable ("Can't I live my life...in a cape?") and stuff you've heard a hundred times before (the various ways Jerkbeast intends to kills his managers). Yet somehow, Hall and Reeder manage to pull it off. They find the proper balance between the goofy and the confounding and end up with a movie that manages a tremendous low budget feat - it delivers genuine laughs with relative regularity.
If you don't go in expecting some manner of masterpiece, if you set you sights just low enough on the outsider cinema landscape and remember that the movie was made with more blood, sweat and tears than artistic insight and talent, you'll be pleasantly surprised by Jerkbeast. Unlike the Jackass movie, where Knoxville and the boys simply expanded their repertoire of self-abuse for the big screen, this is an actual movie that more or less stays true to the personas created on the cable access program. Certainly some of their in your face, confrontational shtick remains intact (and irritating), but it's exploited more expertly for this film. Instead of being the sole reason for the movie to exist, it's an undercurrent to the rags to riches and back again basics of the narrative. Call it the weirdest Wayne's World in the history of humor, or the longest private joke on record, but Jerkbeast is indeed funny. Sporadic, incomplete, and occasionally lost in its own lunacy, but also guaranteed to make you chuckle and chortle.
Film Threat presents Jerkbeast in a very good, very professional 1.33:1 full frame image. The picture is offered in "faux letterboxing" to give it a gratuitous cinematic feel of a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 print. The transfer has a few issues though. There is grain in many of the night scenes and occasional editing errors invoke the no-budget logistics of the production. The colors are bright and solid, and contrasts careen between crisp and unclear. While it's far from the worst independent movie ever made, the visual elements of Jerkbeast will remind audiences of its financial shortcomings.
As with most outsider cinema, Jerkbeast is in love with hardcore post-punk grind metal music. It never misses a chance to bolster the soundtrack with thick slabs of said slamdance serenades. The Dolby Digital Stereo mix captures the cacophony perfectly. It also does a bang-up job of keeping the conversations clear and the dialogue direct. Most of the songs sung by the Jerkbeast band are kind of stupid (they are, after all, the self-proclaimed 'worst group in the world'), but a couple are indeed quite catchy and fit perfectly into the mindset of the movie.
Film Threat DVD does a wonderful job of fleshing out this release with lots of valuable content. Individuals unaware of the origins of the cable access show and the characters it offered will certainly enjoy the material here. First up is a brief behind the scenes discussion between Hall and Reeder regarding the film. They are very frank about wanting to make the movie different from the TV 'experience', and some of the pitfalls that had to be overcome to realize their dream. There are also two 30 minute clip compilations from the Jerkbeast series, but be warned: if you don't want to hear dipsticks barely out of diapers trading violently blue language and insults with grown men who should really know better, this is not the hour of said slander for you. In addition, there is a photo slide show with lots of glimpses of the movie's making, as well as a trailer and a terrific Jerkbeast animated short. The filmmakers actually tried to market this messed up cartoon to Ted Turner and company, but the less than impressed network of Adult Swim passed.
The two premier features on the disc are the commentary tracks. First up, Hall, Reeder and Wendorf sit down to deconstruct and demolish their movie for the home audience. These guys are merciless, picking on all the shots that did not work, the crappy sets and the obviously bad acting. It's refreshing to hear them being so frank, but honestly, they are a bit too hard on themselves. They bring a lot of insight into the creative process and why they think the entire Jerkbeast concept fails and/or succeeds. The second alternate narrative comes from something called "The Comic Dude Roundtable". It features such online luminaries as Tony Millionaire (creator of "Maakies"), Johnny Ryan (creator of "Angry Youth Comix"), Coop (creator of "Devil Girl") and Tim Maloney (animator behind "Diaper Dyke"). Supposedly, we are being treated to the witticism and critical analysis of these pen and ink professionals. But since almost all of them come to the movie without a single clue what Jerkbeast is all about, we end up with lots of comments like "What are they doing now?" Sparse, dull and lacking any real purpose or pleasure, this is a bust of a contextual concept. Even if it is a stupid homemade movie, Jerkbeast still deserves better.
Imagination and effort should be considered as equals when evaluating a low budget film. Since the creators usually don't have the funds to fulfill their vision, they have to cut corners, compromise their ingenuity and ideas and redirect their efforts into places within their price range. If they end up with something halfway entertaining, the praise should be plentiful. After all, lots of big budget mainstream movies maul their audiences with underdeveloped concepts and piss-poor production, and they've got coke money out the wazoo. Jerkbeast deserves that kind of kudos. Sure, it's sloppy and incomplete in parts. Yes, there is a tendency to rely on shock and scat as the means of making merry. And a couple of rewrites, a few edits, and a recasting or two would have resulted in something spectacular. Still, this is a highly recommended romp, an acknowledged attempt by some cable access cards to extend their fleeting 15 minutes of fame. They manage the feat magnificently. You'll definitely laugh at AND with this crazy comedy crapshoot. But don't be surprised if you feel a little foolish afterward. Jerkbeast is humor of the most crude 'kick to the groin' kind. If you don't like nut busting in your gut busting, you best turn over to another channel. There's probably a preacher on, somewhere.
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