The Simple, Primal Pleasures of Jackass

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The Simple, Primal Pleasures of <i>Jackass</i>

In my Alamo Drafthouse screening of Jackass Forever, there was hardly a moment of quiet. Brief intervals of calm were interrupted by whispers of “oh no” and “oh God” and “I can’t watch,” often traced back to me, squirming around, delightedly, in my own cushioned seat. The best moments by far were when our nearly sold out theater was sent into a synchronized uproar that oscillated intermittently between shrieks of horror and howling laughter. During the 100 minutes which compose the fourth and (allegedly) final film in the Jackass oeuvre, I was reminded—as I am every time I witness a film of this caliber—of what is so magical about the moving pictures. It’s what the Lumière brothers sought over a century ago by revolutionizing filmmaking equipment, giving way to the birth of cinema; it’s what Nicole Kidman gazes upon in reverential awe at AMC, those “dazzling images on a huge silver screen” that make her laugh and cry and care. It’s also what I once would never have dreamed myself indulging in, back when I viewed lowbrow art purely as a poor reflection of oneself and of society.

Now, seeing Jackass Forever was similar to the first experience I had last summer—post-double vaxxed, pre-Omicron variant—in a bar with my friends full of chattering, laughing, schmoozing people. I was nearly moved to tears. But Jackass Forever was different from other raucous, crowded theatrical outings I have had since the onset of the pandemic, like seeing Venom: Let There Be Carnage, or Licorice Pizza, or The Beatles: Get Back rooftop concert in IMAX. While all were certainly fun viewings, instilling hope in the face of ongoing theatrical despair, there is something especially pure and, above all, beautiful, about the masses converging together in a dark little room to guffaw at something as simple and innocent as middle-aged men bruising their ballsacks and chugging rotten milk so that they can puke on themselves while being spun around on a small carousel meant purely for torture.

But let’s take it back a bit. In middle school, my boyfriend at the time took me to see Jackass 3D with his friend. Despite the fact that, logistically speaking, my boyfriend’s friend was the third wheel, it was I who was tagging along on someone else’s date. My appearance at this screening was met with a fair amount of personal resistance prior. My boyfriend was a Jackass obsessive—though more specifically he was a zealot of Bam Margera and his Jackass spin-off series Viva La Bam. I never heard the end of it about that guy, and I sort of hated Margera and the whole Jackass gang based purely on secondhand exposure. I was also not thrilled about the idea of partaking in the consumption of “low art.” This was before I had really begun to dig into capital-C Cinema—including niche, high-brow classics like American Psycho, Fight Club and Pulp Fiction—but I was nonetheless a girl in high school obsessed with appearances. What could be worse than watching a film in which human beings debase themselves with their own putrid bodily functions? Certainly, girls do not do such things. It’s important for us to look pretty and do pretty things, so that we may eventually wrangle ourselves a proper mate.

But somehow, this little boyfriend of mine managed to convince me to go. Historically, I am easily convinced of anything when I think a boy is cute. But I remember sitting in that theater and watching through my shoddy 3D glasses in utter revulsion as Steve-O was hoisted into the air inside a Porta-Potty endowed with a cache of human shit, which would soon cover his body as gravity pulled the portable toilet furiously back down to earth. I didn’t find anything funny during the film’s 90 minutes. I didn’t laugh once; I only recoiled in dismay and abhorrence. My memory becomes hazier when trying to recall what happened in the immediate aftermath of this viewing, but I’m sure it included me wordless and silent as the three of us walked out of the theater, feeling ocularly violated while my boyfriend and his friend reflected on their experience with the kind of unadulterated delight one feels after witnessing art that has truly moved them. This latter sensation was how I felt as the credits rolled on Jackass Forever.

Since my time with Jackass 3D, I have become a woman of the world. But my dabbling in the collected works of Jackass did not come about until a little less than a year ago, after some insistence from a good friend. It makes shamefully little sense why it took me this long to appreciate the Jackass films (it should be noted, I have yet to see the series) but, to me, it signaled the final ties cut from the vestiges of my remaining stuffiness towards low-brow art (along with my recent embracing of Adam Sandler pictures). I now prefer to luxuriate in art and films with the express aim to discomfort, unsettle and nauseate. I think that one of the best emotions a film can make an audience feel is disgust. This is because it is one of the primary emotions that we do our best to avoid feeling, or we avoid the things and behaviors that could make us feel that way. Yet disgust is inherent to having a body: Most of the things that our body can do are purely disgusting. It is a simple fact of being alive that the men (and now women) of Jackass intimately understand—one that they’ve earned their enduring success from and one which we would all be better off learning to embrace. There is no use trying to untether oneself from their primality, something I desperately wanted to do as a teenager repelled by Jackass and by the uncouth nature of my own existence.

There is also little use in either acting above Jackass or over-intellectualizing Jackass. The latter endeavor is futile, because what makes Jackass such a compelling and uniting artistic force is that it’s so gloriously uncomplicated. The great Buster Keaton once thrilled with his illusions of dangerous stunt work and the Jackass crew carries on the storied legacy (albeit now very real and very painful), delighting audiences with both reverence and disregard for the human form. There is, however, certainly something to be said about the obvious homosexual camaraderie within the Jackass crew—another way in which Jackass bridges tightly-held pretenses between the way we feel about our bodies and the bodies of others. Johnny Knoxville quite plainly distinguishes his pals’ penchants for getting bare-assed and touching one another’s genitalia as not gay-coded, but explicitly gay. My middle school boyfriend and his friend were the type of teen boys to overcompensate to prove their heterosexuality, yet could not get enough of watching these specific men get naked together and explore each other. It’s as if the Jackass crew expertly carried out a clever ruse. Under the guise of bro behavior is a looseness with the male physique that is deemed acceptable to straight men otherwise disquieted by closeness with other men.

When I watched all the Jackass films last summer, and as I walked out of Jackass Forever this weekend, I felt genuinely moved. In the latter case, it was from the pleasures of communal art that sparked joy in those around me, and in both cases from the lasting friendship of the men on screen forcing one another into jovial acts of extreme bodily harm. Beyond my personal growth from uptight teenager into gross pervert-art enthusiast, it is the relationship between those who make up Jackass which functions as a key element in their appeal. As written about recently by my colleague and long-time Jackass devotee Hannah Strong, “Jackass was born out of real-life friendships and a sincere commitment to the collaboration.” Such lasting commitment to one another feels especially poignant now, she goes on to write, in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and isolation. This is on top of the crew weathering the tragic loss of member Ryan Dunn back in 2011, and former member Margera currently dealing with mental illness and addiction which got him banned from the set of Jackass Forever. (Margera was involved in the early production of Jackass Forever, and even made it into one stunt shown in the film.) Even still, the crew and Knoxville do not speak ill of their struggling friend.

These endearing and undeniable features of Jackass have slowly won critics over. It’s clear in the gradual shift in the overall critical perspective on Jackass, the first film of which scored a less-than-desirable 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, inching upwards with each installment until Jackass Forever, currently sitting at an impressive 87%. It’s not that the movies really got better—they were always good—but that our world, an increasingly inhospitable one, slowly became more hospitable to their simple, silly charms, free of oppressive, culturally destructive IP and buoyed by real, human connection. As is more transparent than ever in 2022, there is no use fighting the cultural phenomenon that is Jackass. It is a disservice to ourselves to do so. As I sat doubled over in convulsions from a camera placed artfully underneath Steve-O’s taint, or from a mound of swarming bees dangling from his cock, I gave myself happily over to the lowest common denominator of entertainment. Because in our hellish world embattled on all sides, from which it seems we will never find any escape, it is in our most base human desires and functions where we can find reminders of what is truly beautiful about being alive.

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.