I have never been the type of man who has much confidence in the people. After watching Jackass, I remain confident in my prejudices. The movie is not even a movie at all; it is simply a movie-length episode. In other words, I sat in a movie theater and watched grown men behave like fools for an hour and a half. What is even more disturbing, however is that, two days later, I went back to see it again.
Jackass, as those who have watched the MTV series of the same name know, is a ridiculous show depicting immature twenty-something men engaging in very juvenile activities. The weekly show has included, among other things, clips of the guys taking various shots below the belt (be they swift kicks or billiard balls), brutal boxing matches undertaken in sporting goods stores, and runaway shopping carts that crash headlong into bushes, sending their drivers head-over-heels through the air and onto the pavement. The movie is a bigger and badder version of the television series. In one clip Ryan Dunn has a bowling ball strike him in the privates; in another Johnny Knoxville boxes Butterbean and is subsequently concussed; in another, the entire Jackass team rides in an oversized shopping cart as what appear to be chunks of concrete are launched at them by pressurized air cannons.
The franchise is premised on a lack of reverence for anything. Reprising the role of “Party Boy,” Chris Pontius disturbs an older man in Japan by stripping down to a thong and dancing. Bam Margera, continuing his habit of parental abuse, ignites a garbage can full of fireworks in the middle of the night in the master bedroom, completely scaring his parents. A few hours later, while father Phil Margera turns the ignition in his van as he prepares to drive to work, another garbage can full of fireworks goes off in the back of the van, prompting Phil to dive headlong for cover.
Yet I keep laughing; I saw the movie twice, after all, paying nine dollars each time. I laugh even though the brand of humor Jackass purveys is nihilist and deconstructionist, offering no positive message while it tears down what society and its members see as being important. Though I enjoy Jackass, I cannot stand the equivalent in the art world. Urinals, splotches of paint, and other ridiculous modern “artistic innovations” infuriate me; a year ago I spent no more than forty minutes in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, eventually so upset by the junk I was surrounded by that I ran over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a dose of Renaissance and neo-Classical paintings to put my mind at ease. Why the dichotomy? I for one see no substantive difference between the Jackass movie and an early 20th century abstract painting, but I laugh until it hurts at Johnny Knoxville’s exploits while I cringe before a Kandinsky.
The difference is the nature of laughter, the status of comedy amongst the several arts. Many incorrectly denigrate comedy and the insights that one can draw from such works. I speak of comedy in a very classical, somewhat literary or dramatic sense; Jackass is, after all, a movie. Before Nietzsche offered his views on the nature of tragedy and comedy, introducing the concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, many thought of the two dramatic forms as being inextricably tied up with the idea of the Good. In a comedy, for instance, one stumbled upon a good in a ridiculous sort of way, while in tragedy one met ruin because one lived incorrectly. Jackass shows this quite clearly; the movie is funny because no one really gets hurt, though they come close. Rather, Knoxville and his associates are able to maintain their health while coming to understand themselves, their limits, and their failings in a blatantly ridiculous way. There are gaining knowledge of themselves not through philosophy, but rather through the self-infliction of hysterical sorts of pain. Comedy is reflection without introspection, to put it succinctly. If a bad result occurs, the situation is certainly no longer comedic.
To watch Jackass is to see man at his worst, denying the things that make him a man. There is Steve-O, who shoves chicken down his pants and hangs around in a pool full of alligators. There is Ryan Dunn, who kickboxes a rather large woman and is consequently pummeled. There is Bam Margera, who ambushes his father while he sits on the toilet and proceeds to punch him in the head several times. This is the abdication of reason, the abdication of manhood, the abdication of filial piety.
We are not meant to admire any of these men (even they laugh at each other as they perform their stunts), whereas we are meant to admire the modernist crap we see hanging in museums around the country. Jackass shows us the worst and, thought few may realize it, compels us towards the best, as any comedy should repel us from the fools on display. As Aristophanes once said, comedy is like a dung beetle; yet, though low and disgusting, it can open its wings and fly higher than Zeus. Modern art, which presents the same sort of vacuous message, commands respect. Maybe modern art should be appreciated—for its comedic value.
Steven Christoforou, a.k.a. Steve-O, is a junior in Calhoun College.