Thursday, October 05, 2006


From the first time I saw jackass in its original incarnation on MTV, I had the insistent feeling I was in the presence of some form of greatness, performance art that was insistenly anti-art and quite literally 100% balls-out performance. (These guys are always reaching down into their Speedos, getting their ya-yas out and making like Charlie Watts.) The antics of Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Steve-O, Jason “Wee Man” Acuna, Dave England and the rest have their roots in skateboarding and extreme sports, and each bit seems dedicated to testing, in some outlandish or gruesome way, the physical resilience and plasticity of the human body, the ghastly excretions from said body’s various orifices, as well as the use of those orifices as entry point and receptacle for liquids and objects any sane person would want to keep far away from their nose/mouth/ass. The jackass boys (it seems inappropriate to refer to them as men somehow, even though they are undeniably beginning to exhibit some of the ravages caused by age and relentless self-abuse) are also engaged in a constant flirting match with, if not the Reaper exactly, then at least a lengthy stretch in the hospital or, in the case of the bit from the first movie when Knoxville and pals piss off a bunch of golfers with perfectly timed air horn blasts, a severe beating by five-iron. The show, and the movie, remind me of what would happen to the Looney Tunes stable if they were somehow governed by the reality of three dimensions and gravity, and when Knoxville and friends hit the wall or go sailing into traffic whle riding in a shopping cart, they’re cackling all the way.

There’s also something immensely appealing about spending so much time in the presence of these amiable go-for-broke dimwits, who seem to be able to translate to dumbfounded audiences everywhere the singular giddy vibe of hanging out with a group of friends and doing anything to try to make each other laugh, including randomly administered beatings, death-defying stunts involving wild animals and every known form of transportation, and, of course, the ingestion of solids and liquids meant only to be seen and endured by the Ty-D-Bowl Man. But it wasn’t until the movie came out that I began thinking about the degree to which these boys and all their abused body parts were upping the ante and making it okay for a certain rather large portion of the movie’s intended demographic (males 18-25) to think, even subconsciously, about why guys like to hang out with guys and do things outrageously. During SLIFR’s most recent movie quiz, “Professor Julius Kelp’s Endless Summer Chemistry Test,” reader Chris Oliver, put it most succinctly when he answered a simple “jackass: the movie: yes or no?” query in the following fashion:

jackass: the movie… makes a great double feature with Y Tu Mama Tambien. Viewed together, these two films provide a fantastic amount of insight into the homoerotic nature of male bonding.”

As Lieutenant Willard said when considering the Chef’s urgent dictum to “Never get outta the boat!” in Apocalypse Now, absolutely goddamn right.

And now, in jackass number two, “the homoerotic nature of male bonding” has been wrenched from the muck and the mire of subtext and placed right out on the table for all but the most insistently closeted to see. It’s still there in the wild roughhousing that remains a jackass hallmark, in bits like “Medicine Ball Dodgeball” (“In the dark,” as Margera gleefully hisses before the lights go out) and “Beehive Limo,” in which four of five lucky jackasses are trapped in a stretch limo with a hive of angry bees. It’s also embedded, in a rampaging metaphorical sense, in the very setup of the bit that opens the new movie, in which Chris (Party Boy) Pontius wraps his dick in a sock disguised as a mouse and offers it, through a passageway marked “glory hole,” to a very hungry snake. It’s there even in moments when the boys position themselves to be gored and/or trampled by bulls (a recurring motif in number two); strap themselves to unstable rockets which either might take them high in the air or explode on the launchpad; or stand in the path of a mine designed for protecting embassies and endure the impact of hundreds of crowd-repelling hard rubber balls as the mine explodes.

But jackass number two forgoes even metaphor for some of its funniest anally-oriented bits, preferring to speak, shall we say, more frankly on the subject. In “The Strongman,” Bam Margera perches himself bare-assed on the bell at the top of a tower, but not before suggesting that a tiny metal cast of a cock and balls be attached to the dinger, so that when the strongman hits the platform with the mallet and rings the bell, it will appear as though Margera is being anally intruded upon. Later, one of the jackasses (Margera, again) submits to having a cock and balls branded onto his butt cheek, a stunt that goes achingly, infectiously wrong when Margera can’t hold still long enough for a proper brand to be set into his flesh. (Margera’s mother later confronts Dunn, the queasy administrator of the brand, and demands to know why he would do such a thing to a friend. Dunn’s answer: “Because it was funny!") And Steve-O, never one to be outdone (he is, after all, the jackass who had his entire back covered by a tattooed, grinning visage of himself), completes the study of male-on-male comedy by submitting to the “Butt Bong,” during which he ingests a full pint of beer through his asshole and then tests himself to see how long he can stand pat before it all comes gushing back out. (And it does. Oh, yes, it does.)

Some will be predisposed to see the whole jackass phenomenon, and particularly this new movie, because of the way everything—the homoeroticism, the self-mutilation, the excrement, the vomit—is turned up to 11, as inherently without redeeming value, and there’s not a whole lot of point in trying to convince a person who feels that way to come over to the dark side. (As Matt Zoller Seitz recently said in response to those, including myself, who insisted on disagreeing with his positive assessment of The Black Dahlia, hey, your mileage may vary.) But no matter how revolting or randomly violent or irresponsibly dangerous the hijinks get in jackass number two, there’s that overriding sense of, if not intelligence, exactly, then I’ll say openness about the whole enterprise-- the possibility that there really is something going on underneath its scarred and bruised surface, that put a consistent, disbelieving smile on my face. The jackass phenomenon—TV, movies, and even jackass: the movie-- the official companion book— is largely perceived, even by the jackass fan base, as transgressively, aggressively artless. But I wonder if the grungy, anti-cohesive sensibility at play here, which I suspect speaks to a generation’s smudged sense of direction more profoundly than they may even realize, might look to future generations the way the pinballing verbal and visual anarchy of the Marx Brothers or, maybe more appropriately, the less talented Ritz Brothers, looks to us from a distance of 60 or 70 years.

Of course, audiences in the early ‘30s weren’t necessarily thinking art when they gleefully gave themselves over to the head-spinning hilarity of Horsefeathers and Duck Soup. But there is art, a method to the madness, at the heart of the Marx Brothers’ most inspired lunacy (and even some of their most half-hearted), just as surely as, to invoke Lt. Willard yet again, there is pointedly no method at all to the madness of jackass, outside of the jerry-rigged engineering behind some of the more elaborate bits. Making a direct comparison between the two, then, would seem fairly pointless, unless it is to consider historical context. But in the way it spiritedly indulges its own acknowledgment of the guy-on-guy underpinnings of its concept (and paves the way for its comparatively rigid audience to accept them), and in the way its purposefully slack, formless collage of literally hit-and-miss set pieces do lend themselves to a Dadaist notion of body-oriented (and film) art accessed through the back door, by any means but those readily acknowledged by the gatekeepers of taste and achievement, jackass number two furthers the idea-- a fairly radical one for a society as basically repressed as ours-- that good-natured, homoerotic bonding between men is just the way it is. And if, as a side effect, this attitude encourages some of the groups of macho men who will congregate around it in theaters and on DVD to recognize some of those undercurrents in their own relationships with their buddies, maybe that’s a step toward a more tolerant attitude toward those among them who are considerably less closeted in their behavior.

But don’t misunderstand: jackass number two isn't exactly Brokeback Mountain for the Mountain Dew set. Ultimately, it just wants you to piss yourself at some point, and it sustains a remarkably high “near-death” laff quotient during its 90-minute running time. My only real gripe: a bit entitled “Old Man Balls,” with Knoxville in old-age makeup sporting a foot-long nut sac hanging conspicuously out of his Fruit of the Looms, goes on far too long. And for that matter, Knoxville never comes up with anything close to the improvisatory inspiration of his line from the first film, when the old man character shouts in mock outrage to a puzzled, pissed-off store owner, “I was Lon Chaney’s lover!” But for a movie that kicks off with a man hanging on for not-so-dear life as a high-pressure firehose dangling from a crane whips him around at high speed (“Firehose Rodeo”) and ends with an endearing parody of Busby Berkeley musicals that literally comes out of nowhere (and wears its Village People-derived iconography loud and proud), these are niggling complaints. A comedy perched purposefully on the taint between art and aimless self-abuse, scored to the sounds of skate punk and bone crunching on concrete, jackass number two is some sort of masterpiece.


Chris Oliver said...

I haven't seen Number Two yet, but I really did watch the first one and Y Tu Mama back-to-back. And Jackass is really about as gay as it gets. And what's so funny is that nobody in the movie seems to have any clue that there's anything homoerotic about what they're doing! But the whole movie is these guys getting naked together and shoving bottle rockets and toy trucks up each others' butts. It's gayer than a Mommie Dearest/Top Gun double feature!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Chris: As SteveCarlson observes in his review, in jackass number two the curtain is definitely pulled back-- these guys know exactly what the subtext is, and they're gung-ho about placing it front and center. That's what's so refreshing about the whole enterprise. This is how most guys I knew growing up acted (sans the mind-bogglingly insane stunts) when no one but their circle of friends were watching-- but the Jackasses embrace it and turn the concept of homosexual panic on its ear.

Anonymous said...

Arghhh! I got back from seeing this movie about an hour ago, and my stomach is just settling down. Still, of course, I loved it. Great essay on the gayness factor. Well said.