In 1960 Jean Luc Godard shook the cinema world with his debut film, Breathless. A cinematic experience unlike anything released at the time. The film was fast and loose, any preconceived notions of what film was supposed to be were shattered and the remaining pieces were melted and cobbled together in a beautiful onscreen explosion. Cinema would never be the same.
In 2010, Johnny Knoxville drove a Skidoo off a cliff, and dare I say the result is equally earth shattering as Breathless. While I am half-joking with the comparisons to the fiery French New Wave, I thoroughly believe that Jackass is a legitimately genius film, just in a radically different way to any other rule breaking films.
I’m using Jackass 3 for the title of this article since it’s my personal favorite of the bunch, but the same rules can be applied to any of the Jackass adventures, except for Dirty Grandpa, that one just plain sucks. What started as an MTV show about a couple buddies doing stunts quickly became a global phenomenon and remains ingrained in modern pop culture to this day. If you haven’t seen Jackass, let me explain exactly what its essence is. Starring Johnny Knoxville and his buddies, Steve-O, Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Dave England and a multitude of other memorable faces, Jackass is a plotless collection of dangerous and disgusting stunts. It is crass, offensive, gross, stupid, reckless and if Scorsese heard me compare it to Breathless, he would probably shoot me, point blank, in both kneecaps. Yet, I do fully believe that there is something we’re all overlooking when it comes to Jackass.
If you don’t believe me, let me ask you something. Have you ever seen anything like Jackass? You can argue all you want that there are better stunts in Mission Impossible, better stupid humor in Monty Python, better gross out moments in Pink Flamingos or better plotless vignettes in Dazed and Confused. But that still doesn’t answer my question, have you seen anything like Jackass? And try as you might, there is only one answer to that question, and it is "no." There has never been, and there will never be, a series like Jackass. That could be because safety laws are stricter or because nobody in their right mind would subject themselves to that type of bodily harm, but I argue otherwise. I don’t think anybody is brave enough.
Jackass was lighting in a bottle due to a multitude of factors, particularly the zeitgeist of the early 2000’s and teenage rambunctiousness, but the guys from Jackass were the main reason. A group of grown men willingly subjecting themselves to potentially life-threatening situations for the sole purpose of making us laugh. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that to be so insanely unbelievable. The perfect storm of courage and stupidity that compelled these guys to go through all this for entertainment is a spark of lunacy nobody has embodied since Harry Houdini. Even so, I doubt Houdini would stick a fishhook into his cheek and become live bait for sharks.
I think that utter lunacy is something extremely hard to create. Even many of the more critically acclaimed bizarre goofball comedies have an element of cleverness or technicality. Jackass has no cleverness. It’s somehow so inane and ludicrous it transcends any type of genre. All one can say when watching Jackass is “how?” How can something be so stupid, so crude, so ill-advised, and most of all, how does it make me laugh so much? I’m not the right person to psychoanalyze the enchanting allure of Jackass, but I can try. Somehow, Jackass splinters what anyone thought people would do for entertainment. Much like radical performance artists such as Marina Abramovič and Miles Greenberg, Jackass showed us the human body in ways we cannot imagine yet are driven to see anyways. Seeing the human body be contorted and harmed is as horrific as it is transfixing. We don’t want to test the lengths we can push our own flesh to, but within everybody is a tiny little part that wants to see how far we can go. Jackass goes to that level. They show us want we say we don’t want to see but are compelled to anyways by some mysterious inner desire.
I think that anyone can tell you that launching a man in a (very full) porta potty 100 feet into the air via a giant slingshot is hilarious, but nobody would dare do it. Yet, Jackass did, and the results are just as hilarious as you’d expect. Jackass isn’t trying to be anything more than utterly ridiculous, and it most likely doesn’t merit any praise whatsoever as high art, but I don’t think so. If something is so viciously anti-tasteful, is it not genius in its own way? Jackass is a massive middle finger to basically every movie ever made. So audacious and averse to cinema that watching it feels like a massive slap in the face. A slap made ever so poignant because you will find yourself having a good time. You can try so hard to build up a barrier of foreign arthouse movies, but a fortress constructed by Bergman, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Antonioni and more is no match for Jackass. It will bring you down to its level and remind you that you are merely human and laughing is the most human thing we can do. And when you strip away art of all artistic merit, what are we left with onscreen? Humans. Humans trying to entertain humans.
I unabashedly love Jackass. I doubt there is anything with such little depth and nuance, and as someone who loves those so-called pretentious movies, Jackass is a wonderfully crude reminder that I’m not better than anybody else. Jackass is the absolute bottom of the barrel, miraculously lower than any other media, which is tough. Absolutely horrible in every conceivable way and completely in control of its distastefulness. Wielding stupidity like a weapon against high art, Jackass is unapologetically obnoxious, a bold anti-artistic statement that should be studied alongside the greats as one of the finest examples of intent on film. Am I being serious when I make such bold claims about Jackass? In a way yes and in a way no. It’s a series begging to not be analyzed in any way but has the strangest most irresistible pull that begs me to try and stare into its empty center waiting for something to materialize, but both it and I know nothing is there. Utterly fascinating as a piece of media but something important that it tries to communicate, and I fully support, is how nothing really matters as long as it makes you laugh, and that’s exactly what Jackass does.