It’s tempting to bury oneself in a reverence for the cameras used in Jackass: The Movie which blow out the skies and give interiors a sense of ghostly immediacy familiar to the viewer through home video but not film (perhaps similar cameras were used in contemporary arthouse films, but this would have been an anti-aesthetic decision unavailable to the makers here), or to reminisce about when Alex tried to colour in his eyes with a Sharpie, but more work needs to be done with these threads, valid as they are. Critics at the time disparaged what they perceived to be a disinterest in basic cinematic values and characterisation, while those who wrote fondly of it uniformly did so in the belief that they were watching a documentary. Returning to the work decades on reveals the latter group as the more perceptive one, not least because Jackass: The Movie works so powerfully as a document of grassroots decadence at the turn of the millennium. It is important however for the viewer not to lose sight of the fact that the same qualities that ground it in time also refuse to have it play out through the safety of museum plexiglass: a snapshot it may be, but there is always something given over to a snapshot that has it burn that way for good.
For Knoxville et al., Jackass: The Movie holds evidence of the state of their bodies and personal lives in the year of its release, and for the audience it holds not only historical weight but affective power too, for the way we are made to bear witness. There is a tension at play between documentation and spontaneous chaos that permeates the film, which allows the viewer access to its routines but also emphasises that it is the cast and not us who is (at this moment) suffering. This is neatly dramatised in Golf Cart Antics, where each buggy is given a driver and a camera. The person operating the camera is effectively on the same level as the driver, susceptible to the same spills and crashes, but they point the camera horizontally at the two heads looking to the right of the frame, and in doing so refuse to fabricate an immersive experience of ‘being’ in the buggy. Instead of looking from the buggy in order to capture movement, the camera looks into it, at the two individuals experiencing its turbulence. Only a set of roaming cameras ground this footage in any kind of space, which means that in order to make sense of slapstick cause and effect, we must become its spectators at a distance. This sense that the cast are partially using the film to their own ends means that while they suffer for our entertainment, they do so on their terms. Foregrounding the efforts of the performer could potentially read as indulgent, but in Jackass: The Movie this point of negotiated value gives the film a weight that is human, even touching.
An affective intimacy without immersion keeps the film somewhere between the chair wrestling scene in Gummo and one of the myriad skate videos released to VHS in the nineties that were put out by the skaters and not the professionals that knew how to frame them as superheroes. What is gained in intimacy between viewer and subject is lost in viewer sovereignty over the image- it was interesting at the time to realise that viewers would happily forfeit power for proximity. Something like The Blair Witch Project (released as Tremaine and Knoxville were assembling Jackass) takes this to the cinematic extreme, with a fictional image-maker suffering within its own diegesis (or the diegesis invading the protected site of image production), but in Jackass: The Movie this realism is most apparent in its ellipsis, in all the information the viewer is not made privy to. With its formal roots in stunt and performance art documentation as well as the fragmentary road movie, the images we receive are stained with the indeterminacy of time, place, and personality. When Steve-O says sarcastically ‘I’m glad I came down here to see what you guys were up to’ and then walks out in Paper Cuts, this allows us to fill in a bigger picture: they are on the road, staying at a motel, and the people present in the room bar Steve-O form a kind of inner-circle that hangs out and records videos without first assembling everyone else. Later when the scenery changes from drab skylines to palm trees for Tropical Pole Vaulting, Steve-O is in his element, employing circus athletics to reach gross out punchlines. Critics of the film’s supposed lack of drama and characterisation either lack empathy or curiosity; the narrative details that can be tracked through the fundamentals of action and location are too many to be gleaned in a single viewing. See the running electric shaver gag and what this reveals about individuals and the group’s pecking order, or of the main three, Knoxville’s documentarian approach to pain vs Steve-O’s hysteria or Margera’s efforts to always look like the rockstar among the freaks, bound as he is to their approval.
Every effort is made to ensure we know that these are everyday people, but they and we can occasionally only marvel at what they can withstand. The Minutemen’s Corona used to open every episode of Jackass makes History Lesson – Part II‘s famous sentiment ‘Our band could be your life’ resonate in new and twisted ways whether we want it to or not. The connection to music is important, not only because the dingy art-not-art spectacle of Iggy Pop’s self-mutilation works as a better analogue to Jackass: The Movie than professional slapstick comedy, but because in 2002 the ineffectual nostalgia of the garage rock revival had ensured that only art-not-art self-mutilation itself had the imagination to really capture the period’s lived experience of danger and boredom. The essay Of Pop and Pies and Fun from 1970 outlines the climate for the emergence of The Stooges, as well as for appreciating their stupid brilliance. Critics had them as ‘one more symptom of the decline of Western Civilization’, but for the author the label ‘symptom’ undermined the determination with which they were its threat. The Stooges were dangerous not only because they lacked the things individualism values (virtuosity), but because they demonstrated what can be achieved with the apparent valuelessness that can only come about through their wanton rejection. Crowe’s Vanilla Sky paints a similar picture of rebellion and individualism at the time of Jackass to The Stooges’ post-hippie dystopia (albeit from the perspective of its beneficiaries), although its safety registers less as a generational bubble waiting to be burst than a cultural and historical compulsion: a sky, and not just a mindset. Like The Stooges, anyone could conceivably do Jackass because nothing makes these performers special, and like The Stooges, the fact that no person did it better underscores the fact that you can still be special even if you’re a nobody. It’s the end of history, the winners have won, and these jackasses are killing themselves for laughs under the kind of overcast sky that only ever appears when this all starts to make sense: when the fools have a point.
Compared to the follow ups Jackass: The Movie is all low and no concept. But because of that it’s more interesting for the way it documents a group of nobodies (some exorcising mental health issues, others just bored and curious) wanting to become or make something special, and more grim as a snapshot of turn of the millennium sociality driven to what I called grassroots decadence but could just as easily be named domestic torture porn. In that essay, Bangs celebrates The Stooges in all their recklessness for having ‘a strong element of cure, of post-derangement sanity’; a cure that came with its own illness, but a cure all the same. It’s easy to tell what climate caused Jackass but it’s up for someone else to assess whether they ever represented a cure. Whether or not you ever drew on your eyeballs, there was a fleeting moment where Jackass was your life, because it was there in every garage, in every stupid gesture against meaninglessness, in every bit of fear that came when the sky went beige to grey. It’s always the worst content, cast in the best light; it’s ordinary, and yet it’s special.