Friday, April 15, 2005

Jackass and Subversion

The print ads for Jackass: The Movie feature a warning explaining that “the stunts in this movie were performed by professionals, so neither you nor your dumb buddies should attempt anything from this movie.” In light of the fact that children maimed and burned themselves imitating the MTV show’s stunts, it seems sensible enough that such a warning (maybe not such a glib one, perhaps) should preface the film. But what is it doing in the ads? Why have the producers of the film concluded that the warning embodies some integral part of the Jackass appeal?

The warning tells us the Jackasses in the film are “professionals”, but judging by what you see, you would think they were trying very hard to convince you that no “professionals” were involved in the making of it, either in front of or behind the camera. Because despite the warning, the performers in the film appear to encourage us to perceive them as ordinary people, with no apparent special talents at all. In fact their supposed lack of special talent structures many of the film’s gags: the apparent ineptitude of the jackasses is frequently contrasted with the competency of trained professionals. We see the chief Jackass, Johnny Knoxville, fight a world champion fighter, whose prowess is documented in clips where he is seen pummeling other pros (another one of the Jackasses fights a female kickboxing champion, as well). After we see skilled skateboarders perform a thirty foot rail grind down a huge concrete stairway, we watch them laugh as Knoxville, obviously unskilled and unpracticed, takes a header into the sidewalk attempting the same thing. We watch along with the alligator and shark experts as the Jackasses blunder foolishly with these animals. Throughout we are encouraged to celebrate and enjoy their willingness to proceed with their stunts despite an obvious lack of skill and understanding. They’re just some reckless regular guys, willing to sacrifice their bodies and their dignity for a few laughs from their friends.

The look of the movie reinforces this, reaffirming their amateur status with amateur film techniques. Jackass: The Movie bears no trace anywhere of Hollywood slickness. This seemed especially obvious after the preview we saw for the latest Steven Seagal film, which jams into two minutes nearly every conceptual and technical cliché of American action films (orchestrated fights, explosions, quick edits, scripted one-liners, exaggerated heroes and villains with contrived motives, etc.), and which, by the way, featured no warning despite containing lots of stunts, most of which looked dangerous and all of which were certainly performed by professionals. But nothing about Jackass: The Movie suggests you couldn’t have made it yourself with a digital video camera and an iMac. For much of the film, we see them in a host of humble, humdrum locations like suburban parental homes and shopping centers. Even the footage from Japan has a familiar quality, animated with a tourist’s sense of excitement at the novelty of the foreign. In its apparent lack of editing, its amateurish, ad hoc set-ups, its random structure, and its complete erosion of the boundary between cast and crew, the film seems designed to resemble a precocious home movie. The warning, finally, testifies to the fact that nothing stands in the way of you and your friends doing to yourselves the same preposterous things you have seen them doing. To be like Steven Seagal, you need training, a big budget, and the technical know-how of the Hollywood film industry. But to be like Johnny Knoxville, all you need is some Miller High Life, a high tolerance to pain, and some friends to goad you on. Indeed, the warning is necessary not because there is anything especially attractive about what they are doing, but because we might foolishly believe if we do those things someone might want to film us.

Jackass: The Movie plays a bit with this fantasy, in which we are heralded and celebrated for being humiliated and for being average. In this regard, Jackass is like the legion of reality shows on TV: the dating shows, the home movie shows, the physical challenge shows, and so on that populate syndicated television time slots. While its tempting to dismiss the appeal of these shows as schaudenfreude, or rubbernecking, that’s too reductive. It may be our profound identification with these people making fools of themselves that has viewers tuning in. After all, many Americans spend much of their working adult lives feeling humiliated and average, the consequence of a profit-driven economy that puts no priority on guaranteeing meaningful work. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that many Americans should be drawn to shows that suggests these traits qualify one for recognition, or at least America’s denatured and distorted version of recognition, celebrity. This is one of the culture industry’s most insidious myths about itself, that it’s enviable to be universally known, desirable to be known for contributing nothing in particular. In a society where we are under routine surveillance such an illusion might make the invasion of our privacy seem glamorous, even validating. But not everyone drawn to Jackass is a dupe of these myths. More significant things are missing from the lives of many Americans, things that Jackass , in its warning, promises implicitly to provide.

It’s strange that little of what goes on in these shows especially resembles “reality” – more often than not what is happening is preposterous and scarily unreal. What makes them “real” are the people, who, if they aren’t ordinary folks, are at least aspiring actors trying very hard to act ordinary. This makes them unlike The Real World, one of Jackass ’s MTV cousins, which relies heavily on manufactured narrative lines created through careful editing and manipulative musical cues to generate its appealing kind of fictitious reality. While this caters to and confirms some of the audience’s prejudices, it also subjects viewers to subtle ideological instruction. As these narratives give shape to amorphous raw experience, they also palpably falsify it, building into it prevailing assumptions of what constitutes conflict, and what resolves such conflicts satisfactorily. In this way, these shows are able to shore up the values of a consumer society. We learn from these shows that the important conflicts are all interpersonal and not political. And we get the comforting sense that our dissatisfaction could be cured through careful lifestyle choices, which manifest themselves as shopping decisions.

Jackass doesn’t play that game however. The film rejects all trace of narrative, and certainly conveys no comforting set of American values. Indeed, it assaults any kind of structure at every conceivable level. If the film can be said to have any organizing principle, it would be the repeated rejection of the concept of boundaries, which takes place in one form or another in nearly every single frame. One of the first sequences exemplifies their assault on the order of civic life. They rent a car and waive insurance, and then enter the car into a demolition derby. When they return the wreck, they deny responsibility for the damage, and refuse to pay. The producers probably settled with the renters off screen, but obviously we don’t see that. The film depicts only their refusal to accept the consequences of their actions, or acknowledge any of the rules that govern economic exchange. This same ploy surfaces in another sequence, where Knoxville, dressed as an old man, continues a shoplifting spree in the plain sight of an irate store owner, who keeps having to remove groceries from Knoxville’s sweatsuit. Generally the film targets for its pranks people like this, society’s low-level authority figures and stake holders: shop owners, security guards, parents, the very sort of authority mocked by the flippant warning. This is the sort of authority that blankets us in our everyday lives, never tyrannical enough to make us rebel, but constantly coercive enough to frustrate and stifle us. So while Jackass flatters us by suggesting that ordinary people like us deserve to be celebrities for degrading ourselves, it also voices our anger at the degradation, waging a kind of juvenile guerilla war on the system. That their attacks are clownish, harmless, and entirely impotent doesn’t matter; we still get the thrill of identifying with men who are refusing to cooperate, and who have trumped any kind of reprimand society could dish out.

But it’s not only the boundaries of social authority that are attacked. They transcend all the petty nuisances and conflicts of life (and allow us to fantasize about it) by plunging deeper, into more firmly rooted boundaries. The very physiological boundaries that govern our bodies’ limits are tested. Whether they are ingesting their own pee, or snorting wasabi, or inserting toy cars in their anus, or yoking ignited bottle rockets to their penises, they are always subverting the obvious function and integrity of the body’s orifices, challenging the notion of their limits, wallowing in their abjection. One need not be Bataille to recognize how these preoccupations recapitulate the challenge to social order without really threatening it. The warning lies right at the crux of this apparent contradiction: it acknowledges our temptation to reject the social order while it reinscribes that order in a genial, knowing fashion.

This paradox reveals its complete nature in what is the most characteristic of the Jackass strategies, their relentless testing of the human thresholds of pain in a variety of morbidly and masochistically ingenious ways. They inflict themselves with paper cuts, they get themselves shot, they get themselves beaten senseless, they mangle themselves in golf cart collisions, and on and on. That this makes for a visceral viewing experience is undeniable. Even as we cringe and start at what we reflexively know must hurt, and hurt badly, we can dream that the average man is indestructible. The very boundary between life and death, the boundary marked out by suffering, seems in these stray moments to be effaced, though the memory of the warning always serves to undercut this.

Finally, the urge to challenge any and all boundaries, no matter how unchangeable, finds its apotheosis in the repeated scenes of cast members hurtling themselves headlong into walls. Even though the sight of a man jumping off a trampoline directly into a ceiling fan and a wall initially prompts real involuntary laughter, it leaves a sad, lingering sense of desperation and futility. There’s a dimwitted heroism in how they choose to fight these losing battles with the imperviousness of walls, but there’s also the dismaying impression that all wars with society’s boundaries are meaningless, as well, doomed to failure. Because the war with walls and the war with petty authority have been conflated, they both seem absurd, good only for entertainment. The warning stands here to comfort us: it would be “dumb” of you and your buddies to challenge the social order, so let the “professional” Jackass es do it, so you can laugh at their hubris.

Although the boundaries which it contests only end up seeming more insurmountable, Jackass: The Movie services its audience’s sense of rebellion, while assuring them that real rebellion is both painful and useless. It allows us to entertain the idea of rebellion, diffusing that feeling without having to act upon it. In this it resembles periods of sanctioned lawlessness, like Mardi Gras or Halloween, where our anti-social energies are dispersed and cleansed. Perhaps this is why the film is best seen in a crowded theatre, where the infectiousness of cathartic emotion can have full play. But this also alerts us to the film’s most significant appeal, beyond its wish fulfillment or its catharsis. It is no accident that the warning is not only for you, but is for you and “your dumb buddies.” Because what Jackass : The Movie promises above all else is the feeling of camaraderie that is so clearly lacking in American life. One could argue that that enormous popularity of the film (as of this writing, it is the nation’s top grossing film, earning 22.7 million in its first weekend, the third-largest opening ever in the month of October) stems from this lack, and Jackass ’s ingenious attempts to fulfill it.

A sympathetic viewing of the film generates the sense that we belong to a club, we have been accepted into a real group of friends, and have been invited to share their experiences with them. The apparent authenticity of their mutual bonds is forged through the pain and humiliation they undergo for each other’s amusement. As in the film Fight Club, ritualized, self-directed violence takes on an oppositional significance, promising something true in the increasingly synthetic American landscape. Only through these extreme, drastic measures can a person break through the veil of unreality draped over everything by an increasingly intrusive media culture to real experience of oneself and other people. The gut reaction we feel when we watch one of the Jackass es bleed connects us to their group, assures us we belong, that we, too, are real. We have become so accustomed to our responses resulting from contrived media manipulations, that to respond to something truly dangerous and painful feels like liberation. The warning assures us our liberation has been authentic. This stuff really did hurt. And we have been fortunate enough to sneak in to the club through the theatre door, as it were; we get the feeling of belonging to the fraternity without needing to be hazed.

The plethora of reaction shots reinforces our sense of belonging. These shots, which punctuate every single stunt in the film, are essential to its effectiveness, and may be more important than the footage of the stunts themselves. Like laugh tracks, they cue our emotional responses, but they also disguise their coerciveness by making us feel included. We are not laughing at someone, but laughing with them. We are made to feel like we are insiders, united with the jackasses in a community independent from square, regular society. Much lip service is paid to the value of community in America, but little in our culture fosters it, as actual communities tend to cooperate, and thereby constrain commerce. Real communities are able to fashion their own entertainment without the guidance and direction from the culture industry. They can produce their own standards of value that are actually relevant to their own needs and interests, rather than the interests of multi-national conglomerates.

Jackass: The Movie seems to offer us this, a democratization of entertainment wherein one is invited to entertain oneself, crack oneself up the way the Jackasses clearly do. It is tempting to thus celebrate the film and its popularity as some kind of counter-cultural triumph, the sign of a new generation’s arrival. But it doesn’t provide what it promises. There is nothing subversive about it. Despite the casual appearance, and the welcoming tenor of the film, their community is not ours. What is real has been successfully displaced to the screen, and our lives sink further into colorless unreality. The warning, again, clarifies our situation. The community we see in the film is reserved for professionals, and we should not try to imitate it. Not only are we still watching rather than participating in life, we are learning that the cost of having a real life, with authentic experience and true community, is pain and humiliation far beyond what we already know. And we already know too much.

Though the warning in the ad hints at the existence of a subversive community, and seems to promise danger not to us but to the social order which can no longer comprehend and manipulate us, it actually confirms and gilds our exclusion from this fantasy. The powers that be may very well have reason to be scared at the thought of people rejecting mass entertainment and finding localized, organic ways to assimilate their experience, resolve their tensions, and enjoy themselves. But from Jackass: The Movie they have nothing to fear.

1 comment:

  1. Butterbean is no world champion, but he is a crazy 365-pound bruiser with an unbelievable fighting spirit. I wouldn't last two seconds. And I think they did get the supplemental insurance on the car, didn't they? Anyway, 25,000 words later, you kind of liked Jackass, didn't you? I thought it was pretty entertaining, except for the doody parts.