By Armond White
In 2002, the New York Film Critics Circle came close to naming Jackass the year’s Best Non-Fiction Film until more traditional-minded members (after some audible grumbling) pushed the vote to the since-forgotten Standing in the Shadows of Motown. (Some might call that a cop-out.) Now, Jackass 3D continues the prankster series that began on MTV and, at last, has picked up a kind of honor: Jackass 3D held its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art.
Clearly, notions of respectability have changed since ’02, but so has the mainstream’s understanding of the Jackass phenomenon’s significance. Curator Josh Siegel put Jackass 3D in the same tradition being celebrated in MoMA’s series “More Cruel and Unusual Comedy: Social Commentary in the American Slapstick Film,” which showcases movies from the silent era that dared to crack the funny bone before tickling the mind. The Jackass crew—Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Chris Pontius, Wee Man and Steve O—perform Three Stooges-style slapstick with mischievous disregard for propriety and safety. Turning their bodies into pincushions, punching bags, toilets and vomit projectors, they publicize redneck recklessness as a form of foolish All-American freedom.
Jackass stunts are clearly stuff parents wouldn’t sanction their rowdiest sons to do—with the exception of Bam Margera’s parents (ursine Phil and grinning April), who are eager, if often surprised, participants in the set-ups. They provide an adult-to-kid context that proves risk and folly are not limited to youth. It may have something to do with the American sensibility for individual fearlessness and license. Jackass 3D upgrades the silliness by incorporating the latest—hallowed—Hollywood technology. And be grateful for that: Seeing feces and dildos poke-out at your customized goggles puts all James Cameron’s high-falutin’ pronouncements about “immersion” in correct perspective: It’s not only a filmmaking gimmick, it’s also a marketing gimmick.
Through such candor, Jackass 3D isn’t exactly subversive: How can it be when it doesn’t take itself seriously? It is, thankfully, irreverent of all pomposity. Siegel cites the tradition of slapstick as social commentary, but that’s only accidentally true of Jackass 3D. Having derived from the venal, shameless laboratory of MTV’s mad scientists who are devoted to exploiting teens and young adults by luring them into hedonism, narcissism, alcoholism and shopping, there’s no room for commentary—just consumerist anarchy by example. Despite a disclaimer that warns against imitating the Jackass stunts, most of the acrobatics and hazing routines cost money (and standby EMS) to perform. The promptings of drugs and idiocy notwithstanding, these kamikaze acts tell less about the mental state of these irresponsible boy-men than about our youth culture’s open sleaziness.
Cultural critic Richard Torres’ 2002 assessment of the first Jackass movie—“It’s not homoerotic, it’s just homo”—wittily cut to the masculinist basis of these Iron John/Burning Man rituals run amok. Credit one of the series’ producers (and sometime participant), Spike Jonze, with the knack for turning such polymorphous perversity into something akin to surrealism. But keep in mind an important difference: the Surrealists weren’t paid by Sumner Redstone. Back then “Shock the Bourgeoisie” was not an expected part of the entertainment marketing. The only surreal element of the Jackass films is the thin line between performance and humiliation. The line between silly and psychotic wavers. Knoxville and crew absorb all definitions of gender as well as gender-fuck (although this time I missed Pontius’ bouncy, glitter-thonged Party Boy shtick), and they come out free.
The Jackasses laugh at their own virility and fearlessness. This allows them to ring clownish variations on classic examples of social critique: One routine has a Jackass hold an apple between his buttocks as a pig snorts it out and returns for more—mocking the horrific moment of unmanning in Deliverance. But most often Jackass 3D offers outrageous changes on comic form: A bar fight among dwarfs is the most conventional, containing a complete, unified scenario. Steve O’s Super Cocktail Bungee routine in a feces-filled port-a-john utilizes distance and trajectory in a way that recalls the great waterslide joke in Norbit (and should help rehabilitate that wonderful film’s unfair reputation). Bam’s fear of snakes gets aroused with Indiana Jones-style torment. There’s even perfect dramatic/comic balance in the recurring meta-motif of a cameraman constantly repulsed by the odorous antics. Revulsion or jittery trepidation is what acknowledges the existence of standard perimeters or at least the audience’s own squeamishness.
Jackass 3D can also be considered an inkblot that tests popular perception of what is tasteful and, of course, what is male. Director Jeff Tremaine’s final 3D trick is a celebration with in-your-face explosions, wreckage and confetti. It imitates the destruction of bourgeois materialism at the end of Zabriskie Point, then becomes an end-credits montage singling out each of the Jackasses alongside their nostalgic schoolboy photos. An accompanying Weezer tune, “Memories,” describes a longing for innocent carelessness. It’s an indulgence, but to understand it is to understand why the terrorists hate us and why Jackass 3D is also a political documentary.
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