A slapstick crude-and-cruel-taste prank-film by Johnny Knoxville and his crew of jackasses is the last place I expected to find an intriguing study in film narrative, but that was what I got from Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.

Having gorged on the five star meal that is DePalma’s Scarface for the 10, 000th time, I needed to feed my brain something less intense before submitting to the temporal death of sleep. Despite my affinity for indulging in mischief and madness I had no desire to see Bad Grandpa since it came out last year. However this seemed like the perfect condition – a no-brainer movie for a no-brainer mood. I certainly did not expect to be taken on an interesting screen-ride.

Right before the titular Grandpa sticks his penis into a soda machine (it’s Jackass, what else did you expect?) 2 of the final 3 opening credits grabbed my attention: “story by” and “screenplay by”. The suggestion that there is a story here intrigued me. A story means narrative, structure, a creative and technical way of telling. This opposed what I expected: a showing of randomly organized or loosely connected sketches much like the other Jackass movies or The Onion Movie. But if there was a story here, and if Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Her) is one of those telling it, I was surely going to pay attention.

What followed was an interesting and unique twist on film narrative. A hybrid of fiction and filmed-reality. An experiment (Inadvertently so?) in the film art of storytelling. What is it about this creation which most would shudder to call a film that makes it intriguing? First let’s look at …

Story and Structure

Bad Grandpa is a standard road-trip buddy-comedy with a simple character arc and three act structure:

Exposition: 8 year old Billy tells complete strangers in the waiting room of a law office about his crack addict mum who will soon be going to jail. In another part of town Grandpa Irving Zisman learns that Grandma has finally passed away. The sad news comes as a great delight to Grandpa, he is now free to chase tail, having not got any “nookie since the 90s”. At Grandma’s funeral Billy’s mum tells Grandpa he has to take care of Billy. She abandons the kid with Grandpa Irving and bails.

Rising action: this unexpected responsibility is an obstruction in the way of Grandpa’s newfound freedom, so he arranges to pass Billy over to his father, Chuck Muski – an irresponsible computer hardware salesman (he has like 3 old computers for sale) who only wants Billy for the $600 the state will assumably pay him for being a single (unemployed) parent. Grandpa and Billy set out on the drive from Nebraska to North Carolina. What starts out as a tedious trip soon turns into a bonding adventure as Gramps and Billy revel in their shared love for pranks and juvenility.

Resolution: Grandpa reluctantly drops Billy with his father and leaves, fearing for the kid’s well-being. However he has a change of heart and returns to rescue Billy from his abusive father. The duo head over to a beauty pageant for one last prank (in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine) before throwing Grandma off a bridge – her preferred burial choice.

In total there are 23 major prank scenes, which make up the main scenes, 22 junction scenes (non-prank scenes which link the narrative) and a few minor/sub prank scenes in the spaces between. The plotting shifts from prank scene to junction scene in alternate progression. Mostly one prank scene followed by one junction scene; occasionally two or three prank scenes followed by a junction scene or two. Combining the three act structure with the prank and junction scenes gives us this:

MTV reality show

Three act structure in “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa”

This structure blurs the line dividing reality and fiction, delivering an unexpected narrative.

Constructed Narrative/Anticipatory Narrative

All narrative in fictional films is constructed. The phrase “making a movie” aptly defines what filmmaking is – a process of building. The idea, premise, script, acting, cinematography, editing, aesthetics, style etc, are the blueprints, foundation, blocks, rods, roofings and more which are used to build a film. These features drive conscious narrative.

Bad Grandpa, however, delivers a narrative which is not defined by construction alone. On one hand it is a collection of pranks caught on camera, thus categorizing it as filmed-reality. Yet the fictional story is cohesive enough to be called a film. Prank scenes (so long as they are not staged) cannot be wholly constructed, they can only be set up then left to develop themselves based on reactions of the pranks’ targets (who become catalysts). The pranksters (actors, director etc) may aim to steer these reactions towards preset destinations or just go with the flow.

A story being a feature of the film means the prank scenes in Bad Grandpa are not independent entities but part of the narrative. Thus we expect them to ask or tell us something about the plot, characters and character relationships. Since prank scenes cannot be wholly constructed pranksters can only go into the scene with expectations. For the viewer this circumstance creates a sense of thrill, which to my surprise has strong playback value. Most importantly, the expectation arising from this circumstance creates an element vital to the telling of the story: an anticipatory narrative.

The story is therefore shaped by this dual/hybrid way of telling – a constructed/anticipatory narrative.Three features about this narrative captivated me:

Unity and Continuity

The narrative’s unity lies in the scenes where the filmed-reality and fictional story merge inseparably. The strength of this merger prevents the story from collapsing in the second act which mostly consists of pranks with very thin story value. The junction scenes provide motivational shifts from one prank scene to the next, a continuity needed for the unity to make sense. This is strongest in the first act and the beginning of the second act:

Prank scene: Grandpa learns about Grandma’s death.
Junction scene: Grandpa, happy to be free, tries but fails to get into an oriental massage parlour and a strip club.
Prank scene: horny and frustrated Grandpa decides to satiate himself by sticking his penis inside a soda machine.
Prank scene: at Grandma’s funeral Billy’s mum abandons her son with Grandpa.
Junction scene: in his car Grandpa further expresses reluctance to take care of Billy. So…
Prank scene: Grandpa, Billy, and a (really sweet) guidance counselor chat with Billy’s dad and agree to drive Billy over to his father in North Carolina.
Prank scene: Grandpa tricks 2 movers into putting Grandma’s corpse inside the trunk of his car.
Junction scene: driving to North Carolina Billy asks that they stop and get something to eat.
Prank scene: while getting his meal Billy tries to play on a broken ride. Grandpa tries to test the ride but it malfunctions and sends him flying through a huge glass window.
Junction scene: back in the car an angry Grandpa decides he absolutely cannot take care of Billy. So …
Prank scene: Grandpa hides Billy inside a box and tries to send him to North Carolina by courier (the shocked attendants actually consider whether a kid can be couriered or not).
Junction scene: realizing he can’t get rid of Billy so easily Grandpa resigns himself to a long ride.

Without the junction scenes we would be watching a poorly told story progressing with missing portions that would make certain prank scenes insensible. For example, if we don’t see Grandpa failing to get into the oriental massage parlour and strip club, sticking his penis inside a soda machine would just be a random prank.

Acting

The most enjoyable thing about any prank is watching the targets react to the situation, and Bad Grandpa takes this a step further.The presence of a story turns the targets from victims of a prank into co-actors; co-actors who do not even know they are being co-actors. They are telling a story without knowing they are telling it. They are in the fictional world of Bad Grandpa yet they are not of it.

They play an important role by giving the narrative that clinical bit of unity and continuity. For example, when the two women at the courier office refuse to mail Billy to North Carolina they actually motivate Grandpa and Billy to take the road-trip, this later becomes crucial to the duo bonding.

In another scene a bystander watches in shock as Grandpa drags Grandma’s corpse into a motel room, Grandpa asks for directions to a strip club which the bystander gives. Unknowingly “acting” as a bystander the man i) makes the story of the scene effective through his shock and ii) furthers the narrative by linking it to the next scene. The narrative wouldn’t break if the bystander doesn’t give the directions, the scene could simply cut from the motel to the strip club and still make sense, but in giving directions the bystander adds that extra bit of value and detail.

The quality of comic timing and line delivery from these co-actors is impeccable and stands as a testament to the inherent hilarity of life. Replicating such natural rhythms with equal efficacy in a wholly fictional movie is a challenge which I doubt can be fully achieved.

Suspension of Disbelief

The constructed/anticipatory narrative turns conventional suspension of disbelief on its head. Suspension of disbelief is an age long agreement between storytellers and audiences: I am going to tell you a fictional story but I will make it credible; I am going to treat your fictional story as a reality unto itself. So the audience willfully ignores any data or stimuli which reminds them that this thing being watched is a lie so as to see its truths.

In prank shows or other filmed-reality productions viewers are aware they are watching reality, thus there is no disbelief to be suspended. In reality TV shows, fiction (i.e constructed narrative) is frowned upon. What the audience seeks is not an imaginative involvement but a voyeuristic one.

Bad Grandpa fuses these two worlds into one, resulting, at least for me, in a rather unique and pleasant state of perception. The viewer’s mind bounces from suspension of disbelief to awareness of reality in a topsy turvy thrill-ride. Again the junction scenes are very important here; as the prank scene asserts the reality of what you’re watching, the junction scene snatches you back into the realm of fiction. The climax delivers the strongest sensation from the fiction-reality fusion.

Set in a bar where a group of bikers known as Guardians of Children are hanging out we immediately sense the tension. What will a group of hardcore bikers who love to protect children from harm do when they realize Chuck Muski is an abusive father? The fictional story and filmed-reality flow into each other in a seamless symbiotic relationship leaving the viewer simultaneously in the pleasant spots of two separate worlds.

***

The experience of watching Bad Grandpa turned out to not be the brain cell massacre I had expected. I found myself weighing the possibilities of how else this dual/hybrid narrative can be put to use. The problem with Bad Grandpa is the juvenility of its content which makes viewers not take what I found to be a delightful technique of storytelling seriously. For me the jackassness takes nothing away from the narrative. I find myself pondering the possibilities of telling a story using this constructed/anticipatory narrative in a more intricate way. What if we could tell a detailed fictional story which uses real people and heads towards unplanned destinations?

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