Pop & Circumstance: Citizen Jackass

Stupidity is the basic building block of the universe. It is more plentiful than hydrogen, breeds easily and is self-financing. – Frank Zappa

“Dear friends, I write to inform you that I have seen ‘Jackass: The Movie.’ And it is good. Quite good in fact. How good? Ah hell, the stupid thing is brilliant. And I mean it, too. It is by turns disgusting, sadistic and immoral – but it is the funniest movie I have seen in quite some time. Highly recommended. You’ve got to see ‘Jackass: The Movie’ – I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it.”

That’s the review of Jackass that I just wrote. As reviews go, I guess it’s okay – maybe you’ll want to see the movie now. But if you read the current issue of Variety, you’ll find that one critic called it “the worst movie ever made,” gave it zero out of five stars, called it a harbinger of the Apocalypse and condemned Paramount Studios for allowing such a movie to be made.

Obviously, he’s dead wrong, but how could he be so wrong and I be so right? Two respected writers for important publications sharing such a difference of opinion? And look – every other respected film critic I’ve read hates this movie. Something is not right here. Methinks this requires a bit of a closer look into the “Jackass” phenomenon.

In 1996, a man-child going by the name of Johnny Knoxville was trying to pitch an idea to skate magazines around the California area. The idea was to endure the effects of several self-defense products such as pepper spray, a tazer, a stun gun and a .38.

Not surprisingly, he was turned down a few times. Yet Jeff Tremaine of Big Brother Magazine recognized the genius of Knoxville’s proposal, ponied up the money for the assorted weapons and gave the idea a full article in his mag.

It was an instant hit among the indie skater community, and Johnny Knoxville became something of an underground celebrity. As such, he met and became friends with a number of skaters and like-minded twisted individuals such as the East Coast CKY crew of Bam Margera, Chris Pontius and Ryan Dunn. The group of misfits appeared in Big Brother and CKY skate movies, now considered classics of the genre, if that kind of thing makes sense (which it doesn’t). Tremaine and Knoxville soon accepted a deal with MTV, made one of the highest rated (and finest) cable shows in history and got themselves a movie deal. And what a movie it is.

Now, to be honest, I can see where the “Jackass: The Movie” critics are getting their ammo. The film is nothing but hilariously repulsive stunts intertwined with repulsively hilarious stunts. There is no plot whatsoever, no acting, no costumes, no screenplay, no key grips, no best boys, nothing. In short, it is barely even a movie. And I mean barely.

That Jackass would be the number one movie in the country and gross 25 million bucks its first week when it isn’t even a movie is staggering. I mean, they didn’t even try to do a movie. They just took $5 million from Paramount Studios and did some really stupid things with expensive damage bills. It is formatted exactly like the TV show, and I understand why this would warrant some criticism.

I am less sympathetic to those who criticize the content of “Jackass: The Movie,” which is absolutely goddamn brilliant. It’s hard for me to talk about, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise of any of the stunts, but let me give you one good example. One of the “Jackass” man-children, Dave England, has to defecate with a particular urgency, so the crew sets up a stunt for him to go into a hardware store and empty his bowels into a display toilet in the middle of the store.

Unfortunately, England cannot hold it in and defecates himself in the van on the way to the store. The camera pans across the “Jackass” crew as they all pile out of the van screaming, laughing hysterically and puking. The camera then shows Mr. England in the van tending to his soiled pantaloons.

Later, England attempts the stunt again. This time, he makes it into the store. He drops his pants, sits upon a toilet in the middle of the shop, clutches a newspaper, and proceeds to relieve himself. The shopkeeper and customers are stunned. England finishes and runs out while the camera fades out on a birds-eye shot of the newly minted stool. This sequence is easily the most disgusting thing, aside from “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” that I’ve ever seen in a movie theater.

And it is also one of the funniest. Let me explain. Please.

These days, the cultural bar is set so low, that anyone who can come along and lower it has done something extraordinary. And if this movie hasn’t lowered the bar, I don’t know what has. I see “Jackass” continuing a downward trend started by “The Simpsons,” and continued by “Beavis and Butthead,” “South Park” and “The Tom Green Show” among others. Obviously, it’s easier to lower the bar on TV, especially MTV and Comedy Central. Yet Hollywood cinema still has an aura of respectability around – I don’t know why, considering the stuff they regularly pump out and call feature films.

But “Jackass” has defied Hollywood logic in that it is extremely entertaining on the basest level possible and without aid of a plot, a star actor or a script. As such, it makes every other major studio release look overblown, formulaic and bland. Movie critics who regularly pander to the Hollywood machine are obviously going to pan Jackass, but I am telling you they are wrong – it is one of the best films I have seen in a while.

One tough question remains: Why is it necessarily good or entertaining to lower the bar? The further our means of cultural expression sink, the more options we have to express ourselves – as crude as those options may be. Shock for shock’s sake is ultimately unfulfilling, and I won’t deny that in ten years a man pooping himself in a van and then in a hardware store will not be shocking anymore.

But it will still be a creative, twisted and funny idea. And that is the bottom line: for all of “Jackass: The Movie’s” exercises in stupidity, it remains a very creative work of art (did I just call it art?). Go out and see this movie. And tell them I sent you.