Thoughts On: Jackass: The Movie
A compilation of stunts, pranks and skits drenched in gore, destruction and a pornographic sense of stupidity.
Destruction of property. Electrified testes. Fat man prat falls. Public stripping. Traumatising parents. Agitating dangerous animals. Imitating old people. Theft. Public excretion. Shaving heads. Atomic wedgies. Fighting professional boxers. Anal fireworks. Rectal toy car x-rays.
Vulgar. Disgusting. Degenerate. Immoral. Ridiculous. Tasteless. Gross. Offensive. Obnoxious. Mindless. Moronic. Sadomasochistic. Deplorable. Anarchistic.
You’ve got to love this movie.
Like it or not, Jackass is probably going to go down in the history books as a pivotal piece of cultural art. And I don’t mean art in a…
… kind of way. I mean art in this sense…
If you spend 2 minutes on YouTube you’ll see the cultural significance of this utterly ridiculous film. Almost every single ‘prank’, ‘social experiment’, ‘fail’ or ‘stunt’ is derivative of this movie and the brilliantly brain-dead work of the Jackass crew. But, why do people, myself included, like this film and all it’s become so much?
I think the answer lies in the fact that this film isn’t so much an invention or constructed phenomena. Jackass has existed off the TV and out of the theatre for forever. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager could tell you that. In such, the significance given to Jackass comes from its portrayal of the stupid, yet fun, side of humanity–just turned up to an absurd level–that has always been around. There is, however, a question of why this needs to be caught on film and made a business out of. For no matter how you try to angle this film as a mere projection of ourselves, there is always going to be the opposing opinion that says, what this film demonstrates is harmful; that the myriad of adjectives I initially used to describe the film are a reason not to see it. What I then want to talk about with Jackass is why it appeals to us and then why that justifies this film as a piece of cinema.
To start, I’ll restate that Jackass is just a projection of ourselves. This film only got so popular because there’s something in us all that likes to see people fall over, get hurt and do incredibly stupid shit. There is then a clear sadomasochistic side to most (dare I say, all) of us. Whilst this idea seems abnormal and perverse, it’s little more than the human will to search for patterns in life. We’re about to jump into the deep end, so plug your nose… liking Jackass is much like believing in God or fate. This seems ridiculous, but give me a moment to explain. The primary reason people believe in God is that there seems to be a hole in this universe – an existential, physical and/or moral one. People see disorder, chaos and an overwhelming sense of the arbitrary in life, but still have a feeling of control and centredness in themselves. That is to say, people feel a certain degree of control over themselves, but not the world around them. This disconnect between people and the world around them induces dissonance, an uncomfortable and confounding confusion. And to overcome that, people appeal to God as a means of injecting some sense into the apparently nonsensical. Moreover, people cling to God and ideas such as fate or meaning because they think they see evidence for them in nature. They cite miracles, absurdisms and unlikelihoods as reason for there having to be an existence of a higher power or guiding force. What we then see are people trying to judge something as vast as the universe without a thorough understanding of probability and proportion. We often use our, in the grand scheme of things, rather puny intellect as an approach to something complex beyond our comprehension. (And, yes, there’s probably people who then think that’s evidence for fate or God – but it merely pushes my point further). Nonetheless, the core reason for people living in such a way comes down to their mind’s yearning for patterns and resolution. So, what on Earth has this got to do with Jackass? The key string between these two ideas is human perception. We like Jackass because we like to observe and consume as much data as we can about the world. Moreover, we like to make sense of said data. So, when you watch Jackass, your reptile brain buried deep in you cranial cavity lights up in search of vicarious experience. (Please note, I know nothing about the brain – that was a metaphorical sentence). Vicarious experience is the entire reason why you can’t watch, but can’t tear your eyes away from the idiotic things in this film. We yearn for experience, to know what it’s like to jump in a pool of alligators, and if it’s inconsequential, if we’re not the ones getting bitten, that’s a bonus. This parallels a multitude of facets in life and human perception, most notably: our search into the universe. In short, we like to observe things, especially the new, exciting, dangerous and scary, from a safe distance.
There is one further detail that has us watch Jackass: hierarchy. People like to know where they stand in the world. Whether it’s comparing ourselves to others in the form of physical competition, mental competition or aesthetic competition; whether we compare ourselves to those around us, those we’ve never met or species and concepts beyond us, people love their weighing scales. In such, we see a need for quantification, resolution and conclusion. Just like many appeal to God as some kind of ultimate reasoning in the universe instead of leaving it open, meaningless and chaotic, people look for leaders, presidents, kings, queens, democracy, such and so on. Again, the metaphorically lit reptile part of our brain has us seek this hierarchy out. In the exact same respect, we like to see stupid people doing stupid things as evidence for them being above and/or below us in a different measuring scales. To clarify, when we watch Jackass, we put these men in hierarchical structures mainly labeled sense and bravery. Just like we need generals directing armies and men on the front lines, humanity needs sense and bravery. The funny thing about bravery though is that it’s not a very sensible thing – for the most part. The Jackass crew are a great example of this. We hold respect for them because we recognise their bravery. But, there’s also a huge lack of sense about these people. The joy in watching them then comes down to the fact we get to know them in terms of hierarchy under the two labels, bravery and sense. Again, people love to know things, to know where they stand, this is why we enjoy this structuring of people through vicarious experience. Moreover, in knowing that we’re better than some people, we find joy for obvious reasons; we’re not the bottom of the pack. In knowing we’re not as good as other people is an equally joyous or comforting realisation for most. By not being the leader, the best, the one at the top, you don’t have responsibility and the crushing weight of competition on your shoulders. It’s because of this that people have respect, like leaders, kings and people doing stupid shit they wouldn’t dare do. However, because we don’t like to be too low on scales, we do have a complex relationship with this idea. That is to say that constantly engaging in this ‘who’s better than who?’ way of life is tiring and rather empty. So that humans don’t have to spend their time in constant physical competition or mental debate with others, we turn away from personal experience and turn to the inconsequential vicarious experience.
The crux of why we like Jackass should now be coming all the more obvious. It’s because we can engage in something that defines people and the world, but without much consequence, weight and effort, that we like to watch this film. We see brave and stupid men demonstrating who they are without having to jump into their skits and be apart of the crew – and it feels great. So, whilst there is a sadomasochistic element to this, so is there one to life. To look at the world around us, we often see pain in others, we see them as worse then us. In the same respect, we often see things that are better than us, those that are better of. Therein lies our sadism and masochism; it’s no more complex then finding pleasure in hierarchy. A question you may be prompted to then ask is why? Why is there this comparison, competition, hierarchy? Can’t we just be nice and see each other as equal? This line of questioning is tantamount to saying, why watch this film? Why indulge the vulgarity? The answer to all lines of questioning, however, is simply that it feels good. Putting things in hierarchy, laughing at stupid people, feels good. To say it shouldn’t is to say we’re wrong to have the ability to laugh. Whilst this idea has a smidgen of intrigue about it, it’s a silly affirmation. We’re human. You can’t change that. This is why we like this film and why it’s ultimately a projection of ourselves. (Just like a whole lot of stupid reality TV and YouTube videos are).
The final justification to then make is that Jackass is, in essence, cinema. All of the elements of vicarious experience, hierarchy, pattern recognition, are what fuel our desire for stories. When you jump genres, all you do is alter the kind of vicarious experience and hierarchical structures you’re testing. Cinema is learning and comparing; it is the consumption and assessment of worldly experience. Denying Jackass on these grounds is impossible. So, I end by asking you, do you like Jackass? If not, why? Beyond saying it’s just not for you, how do you explain this?
Kiss/Eat/Sleep/Blow Job/Empire – Anti-Film
Jackass – Killing Yourself Out Of Boredom
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