Let’s Not Discount the Pretty Genius Production of “Jackass”
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Some critics are claiming that Jackass, and especially the latest entry in Jackass Forever, should be seen on par with Buster Keaton and the classics of silent era comedy. Are they serious?
Over at Hyperallergic, Juan Barquin makes the case that the Jackass series deserves serious recognition as documentary art.
He argues that the pranks of Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine and company are a direct line from the slapstick of revered cinema comedians Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges.
What’s more, the creators are well aware of this legacy.
“Jackass Number Two (2006) closes with an elaborate musical sequence that references everything from Keaton (with a direct recreation of the house gag) to Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams dance numbers,” Barquin contends.
Knoxville tells Hyperallergic, “When we’re in the middle of making it, we’re not in the moment of reflection — we are in the right now, because you have to be.”
That leads Barquin into a rhapsody: “The refreshing simplicity of [the show’s] gaze, the efficiency with which it presents its truly wild assortment of stunts — this is the true appeal,” he writes. “As documentary, these films aren’t quite vérité — some scenes are obviously staged. But even those segments have a bracing immediacy that lets the viewer play along.
“Regardless of how much Steve-O or Wee Man may talk to the camera, these are actual human beings risking their well-being for the sake of laughs, and audiences are drawn to this realism, no matter how heightened and performative it may be.”
Not only did Jackass take on the legacy of silent cinema’s stuntmen, but it also presaged the onslaught of prank and joke videos across social media, according to Barquin. The “DIY daredevils” that appear all over YouTube, and TikTok have their archetype in Jackass.
“A great deal of what the crew does feels like something anyone could replicate, from trying to light a fart on fire while underwater, to aiming everything from a hockey puck to a baseball at somebody’s groin,” Barquin says. “Anyone could pick up their cellphone and film their friends engaging in such idiotic behavior, which lends the show and films a sense of familiarity.”
Yet he is not an outlier in lending Jackass critical appreciation. Mark Kermode, perhaps the UK’s most influential film critic, also found something refreshingly honest about the new movie’s approach to inflicting pain on camera. Kermode also pointed to the unusual degree of male frontal nudity — repeated across the show’s history — as a rare instance of equality when female nudity is usually foregrounded on screen. The penis is also treated as an appendage for laughs.
That’s the point that The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw also makes in his favorable review of the film.
“In Jackass Forever, the penis is shown repeatedly, explicitly and in a way that’s weirdly the opposite of macho. Its vulnerability and absurdity is what comes across. It’s like an exotic, strange creature…”
“This isn’t a Mensa convention!” says one player in the film. “Is that disingenuous?” poses Bradshaw. “Isn’t there, in fact, some advanced showbiz intelligence and surrealist savvy in the way Jackass is set up and edited?”