What planet does this film come from? At the preview I attended, half the audience shuffled out ashen-faced at the end as if having witnessed the collapse of Western civilisation. The other half laughed like drains from the first frame to the last. Clearly, this film is a phenomenon worth investigating.
Jackass comes from planet MTV. Shot cheaply and amateurishly on video, it is an expanded version of a television show in which a bunch of crazy guys (including Johnny Knoxville, whom it had as the star) perform outrageous pranks and stunts – mostly involving mild physical injury to themselves. It bears less resemblance to a conventional feature film than even The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002) television spin-off.
The results are grosser than any so-called trash comedy of recent years. Our intrepid heroes stick firecrackers in their bottoms, inflict paper cuts on webbing of their hands and feet, withstand bullets and crash cars. One poor cameraman keeps throwing up, and it's sometimes hard not to join him.
It is too easy to deride this deranged UFO of a movie before comforting oneself with delectable middle-class fare like The Hours (2002) or Far From Heaven (2002). It is best to regard Jackass as (in current intellectual parlance) an essay-film. What does it essay, exactly?
All students of contemporary gender issues must see Jackass. The substance of the film is so relentlessly male that a skit entitled "Ass Kicked by Girl" elicits instant applause.
These fearless blokes are a strange and extremely exhibitionistic bunch (one appears especially proud of showing off the bulge in his skimpy underpants). Their insatiable drive to get together and test the limits of each other's bodies – often in an extremely cruel and humiliating ways – suggests an intensely repressed homo-eroticism. It is a spectacle that, I venture to say, will have special meaning for many Australian men.
Forget artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Juan Davila: if you want to know what's going on with the male body in Western society, Jackass is the ticket. It is also a film with great political resonance on the possible eve of a war: no image of the Ugly American could be more eloquent than these guys tearing around Tokyo and upsetting local citizens to the tune of "Turning Japanese".
Some viewers have expressed surprise, disquiet even, at the presence of Spike Jonze both as producer and guest participant in this disreputable exercise. In truth, Jackass provides the secret key to the sensibility behind Adaptation (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999).
The ironic, postmodern joker and the dude who disguises himself (Candid Camera style) as a decrepit, old man in a wheelchair are assuredly the same player.
As always, beneath the polite facade of the arthouse stirs an everyday world of tasteless, adolescent fantasy.
© Adrian Martin February 2003