DIRECTED BY: Chris Morris
FEATURING: Chris Morris, Mark Heap, Amelia Bullmore, David Cann, Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon, Roz McCutcheon
PLOT: “Jam” was a six episode TV series that originally aired on UK TV Channel 4. Each 25 minute episode was aired without ad breaks or credits. The show featured various “sketches” and faux interviews dealing with suicide, murder, sexual abuse, rape, child death, and medical malpractice. The whole thing was backed by occasionally intrusive ambient music and some segments were filmed or dubbed in an out-of-sync fashion that made them even more awkward and disturbing than the subject matter would suggest.
The show was repeated at a later hour as “Jaaam!” This variation took the original sketches and remixed the visuals to make the viewing experience more tricky and surreal with shots sped up, fed through filters and replaced with stills. Many of the sketches were born in a BBC Radio 1 very late night/early morning show called “Blue Jam” which mixed vocal skits with ambient tracks. Some of the radio sketches were taken directly from the old soundtrack and then lip synched on TV, resulting in another layer in the onion of weird that was “Jam.”
COMMENTS: To mix preserves, “Jam” is like Marmite: you’ll either love it or hate it. Allow me to give you a taster.
A couple believes their young daughter is a 45 year old man trapped in a young girl’s body, so they have the genitals of a 45 year old man grafted to her body.
A woman calls a plumber to her house to fix her dead baby. He is aghast, but she explains the baby is only 3 weeks old and they’re meant to last longer than that, and after all “it’s just pipes really.” In a throwaway comment she reveals that the father has said he will leave if she doesn’t stop “going on about the pipes.” An offer of £1000/hour convinces the plumber to give it a try, and later he takes her up to the bedroom to see his work. He’s plumbed the baby’s corpse into the heating system to make it warm and added a little tap so it will gurgle.
A couple bargaining for a house negotiate a reduction in price in return for sex sessions with the seller. When he receives a better offer, he threatens to renege on the deal, so they offer the services of the husband’s mentally disabled sister.
Some folks will have already decided that “Jam” is not for them, and I can’t really blame them. Part of me died when I typed the words “he’s plumbed the baby’s corpse into the heating system.” My mother would be so proud. “Jam” is as much horror as comedy; at times, it stretches its muscles to the tearing point while pushing the envelope. Maybe it tries too hard most of the time. Morris repeatedly invites us to laugh at some absurdity, and then muddies the water until we no longer know what to think or how to react. Disgust swells as laughter dies.
Take the “Baby Plumber” sketch as an example of his technique. A dark ambient soundtrack plays throughout the whole thing, and the dialogue is delivered in a very quiet, understated way. The sketch starts traditionally enough: a woman answers the door to a plumber who says he’s come to fix her boiler. It could almost be a ropy porno. Immediately she corrects him and says that it’s not the boiler, it’s her baby. The plumber looks as nonplussed as anyone would. As the woman explains the situation he looks by turns puzzled, disgusted, pitying. Then she mentions the money, and his pity and disgust are gradually replaced by greed. He doesn’t immediately jump at the offer; his moral wrestling is visible on his face at every moment. When he takes her upstairs to see his handiwork, he is clearly revolted and proud in equal parts. Any amusement we might have found in the initial absurd request dies as we hear the plumber detail what he has done, and we see steam rising from the out of the shot. Then as the viewer deals with this the sketch ends with the mother leaning over the cot, talking to the baby as though he is alive, and saying she doesn’t think daddy will leave now.
There is some fine acting on display, from both performers. And the writing subtly draws a picture of a broken woman whose baby has died and whose marriage is collapsing as a result. The plumber isn’t a bad man, he pities the woman, is horrified by her request, but he’s weak and venal and £1000/hr is a lot of money.
But is any of this funny, in any way? Are we meant to smile, or wonder what we would do in similar circumstances?
“Jam” poses this question time and again. We can all imagine finding the house of our dreams. If someone offered us a substantial discount in return for sexual services, would we be wrong to consider the option? This sketch starts out amusingly enough. What is really funny is not the offer but how the couple reacts. When the man thinks that the seller is just interested in his wife, he thinks it’s a great idea. When it becomes clear that the seller is happy for the husband to perform the oral sessions, suddenly he’s not so sure. His wife not only overcomes her own reluctance but takes grim pleasure in paying him back for his willingness to sell her services just moments before. Smart acting tells us lots about this couple and their relationship; so far it’s amusing and thought provoking. Then suddenly the sketch takes a detour to the very dark side. When the wife offers the services of her mentally disabled sister-in-law, everything immediately becomes very wrong indeed. Then we see the final shots of the confused young woman being taken into the house by the leering seller, and none of this is funny anymore.
And here’s one of the problems I have with “Jam.” Morris clearly wants to mess with our heads. Everything, the unconventional filming, the odd soundtrack, the bad taste, is designed to keep us off balance. Had the “Sex For Houses” sketch occurred in a more conventional series it would have been breathtakingly shocking, but “Jam” tries so hard to shock us that after a while, particularly if you watch more than one episode at a time, your mind starts to go “meh,” just to protect itself.
Watch “Jam” and you’ll see male porn stars ejaculate to death, a man have sex with a seductive doctor while his wife struggles to give birth alone, a six-year-old girl who cleans up crime scenes, an acupuncturist who nails her clients to the table and leaves them to hang, a lonely woman so desperate for friends that she kills to keep them. I don’t think that TV has to be safe, bland and unchallenging, and I’ve always laughed at inappropriate things, but I struggled with “Jam.” It tries so hard that all too often the effort shows, and it reduces its own impact by screaming its bad taste in your face for twenty five minutes at a time.
Chris Morris’ work is always challenging, though. In the UK Morris is best known for his TV work on “The Day Today,” a satirical news show shown on BBC 2 in 1994, and for his controversial current affairs satire “Brass Eye.” He recently directed the full length film Four Lions, about a group of inept terrorists from Sheffield.
“Brass Eye,” in particular, courted controversy by tricking celebrities into lending their names to fake publicity campaigns about (for instance) a made up drug called cake, and an elephant in a German zoo that had its trunk stuck in its anus. Morris’ masterpiece is probably the “Paedogeddon” episode of “Brass Eye,” which mocked the press and public hysteria in the UK surrounding pedophilia. This is an excellent piece of work and if you can find the DVD of “Brass Eye” I wholeheartedly recommend it, even if some of the cultural references don’t translate.
If “Jam” were a movie rather than a TV series, it would be a List candidate; it’s certainly unremittingly weird. The lack of availability will probably count against it. The DVD can still be found on some UK sites such as Play.com and is Region 0, so if folks are really keen they could get hold of a copy if they act quickly.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…most of Jam feels hideously, frighteningly wrong. But that’s what makes it so right. The word ‘genius’ gets flung around pretty casually; but if you accept that a good definition of a genius is somebody who creates something thoroughly new, utterly unlike what has gone before, then Chris Morris is a genius.”–The Independent, Thursday, 20 April 2000