- A male ass or donkey.
- A foolish or stupid person; a blockhead: “You’ve acted like an irrational jackass and it’s time you stopped” (Margaret Truman).
dictionary.com: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. (accessed: February 16, 2007).
Is there anything more contrarian than a Jackass? In the modern parlance, as popularized by the MTV show of that name, one way of defining a Jackass is as a person who deliberately seeks out danger and embraces it. The danger may be physical in nature, or “merely” humiliation, through defiance of polite society and the intellectual standards we have come to cherish.
Why was the TV show so popular, and successful, that (to date) it has launched two movies and four spin-off shows? My view is that it provided a modern audience-friendly expression of Surrealism, a cultural movement dating from the aftermath of World War I. There is also a case to be made that Jackass was, at least partly, a response to the rise of Reality TV: Unreality TV, one might say. Let’s start with a little history, shall we?
André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto defined Surrealism as:
Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
“Automatism” may need a little more explanation. In the strict sense used by Breton it meant the creation of artworks without conscious restriction: automatic writing, free drawing, and so on, all with the aim of capturing the results of free expression in its purest form. Later critics extended the concept in to the world or machines, and in to free jazz and other improvised music.
By the 1950s, the Situationist International looked to Surrealism as an aid in setting up Situations in which the unexpected was possible. More than just an “arena” or “playing field”, a formal Situation defined the initial conditions to be followed, as well as plans for the audience: the Spectacle and Recuperation. The latter were important in defining the isolation of the “artists”; audience participation was not on the agenda.
Where are the Situations today? Not on Reality TV; that has a chequered history, with little pretence of being genuinely real, in the opinion of this author. Candid Camera caught genuine reactions to absurd situations, set up for the camera. The American Family (1974) documented the destruction of a family, as did Capturing the Friedmans (2003) but who knows exactly what effect the cameras had on the events and the way they unfolded? MTV’s Real World was anything but real.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the producers of Big Brother franchises were taking their cues as least as much from Lord of the Flies as from Orwell’s 1984. Isolated from the outside world, differences are marked and reactions are exaggerated, twenty-four hours a day. Yet, despite the drama, there is no relevance to the real world. With no real consequences to one’s actions, Big Brother embodies no genuine risk, for either audience or participants.
Film, as a purely visual medium, has made increasing demands on actors as the art developed over time. The effectiveness of Method acting on screen came from an actor’s ability to go from merely playing a role, to inhabiting it, taking on the personality of the character, and even his or her appearance. When this is done well, the results are mesmerising and award-winning: think Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Charlize Theron in Monster, or the way Christian Bale transformed himself in a matter of weeks between The Machinist and Batman Begins. To put one’s body on the line, to “leave it all on the screen”, is a mark of commitment to one’s art.
It was from this long-term perspective that I recently found myself defending MTV’s Jackass, and the spin-off shows Viva La Bam and Wildboyz. This does not imply that I fully understand or appreciate every aspect of everything that they do; my appreciation is directed at the intentions of all concerned, and their willingness to follow an idea all the way to its bitter end. Sometimes the consequences are all-too-visible from the start, but on other occasions the results are surprising, even educational.
One comment by Jackass cast member Steve-O formed the backbone of a song: “if you’re going to be dumb, you’ve got to be tough”. He wasn’t kidding, and was particularly inventive in devising situations in which he would experience pain: snorting wasabi, having all his hair waxed off, and getting a tattoo in the back of a Humvee driven on a rough dirt road by Henry Rollins.
Yet, despite the violence in many segments, others derive their humour from a modernist surrealism, the (mis)appropriation of aspects of modern culture for nefarious ends. The shopping cart, a harmless symbol of domestic consumption, becomes a conveyance; delivering its contents to the terminal checkout. An Oompa-Loompa is cute, but an Oompa–Loompa on a skateboard is another matter entirely. As is a hot dog on a skateboard, or an morbidly obese person showing off world-class bike ramp skills.
Violence aimed at a person typically comes from a violent person, so the shock value of some segments derives from violations of this convention: a fire crew using water from their hoses to knock people down when there is no fire to extinguish; young children lining up to kick Johnny Knoxville in the crotch, egged on by their parents; or giant pandas running around Tokyo’s Akihabara district, knocking each other in to stalls of street trader merchandise.
Some Jackass cast members have expanded their particular take on the Jackass genre into TV shows of their own. It is instructive to compare and contrast the divergent world views expressed in these shows – which can be described as moves in opposite directions: inward vs. outward, insular vs. expansive.
Among the most popular Jackass segments were those in which Bam Margera and his friends terrorised his parents in various surreal ways. These included various horrifying midnight wakeups, such as a heavy metal band, fireworks, and one memorable occasion when his father heard him coming and thwarted his plans. After Jackass: The Movie, which used an alligator to extract some unladylike language from Bam’s mother, his family and friends co-starred in Viva La Bam. Almost a canonical example of Unreality TV, not even the most tolerant of parents would accept what Bam put them through, had it been real and totally unscripted. They certainly left it all up on screen, “it” in this case being the piles of money that went into expensive setups and stunts.
Inverting the “home makeover” genre in his show Homewreckers, Ryan Dunn managed to evoke some of the old-fashioned Candid Camera prankster atmosphere to useful effect, even making “educational film” segments on “safe” pranks that actually were safe to perform at home – at least until your mother caught you. This retreat in to relatively harmless fun might be construed as an understandable reaction to his infamous “toy car x-ray” stunt in the first Jackass movie; there was not much further he could go down that route.
By way of contrast to the insularity on display in the above shows, Steve-O and Chris Pontius set their sights wider, travelling the globe as the Wildboyz and “interacting” with indigenous wildlife and people, on every continent but Antarctica. A welcome change from typically antiseptic documentaries on natural or anthropological topics, much humour derived from their “babes in the woods” status everywewhere they went; people might mistake bravado for experience, but wild animals respect no flags or cultures, as they found out. Even these Jackasses knew their limits, sometimes choosing to stay safe, and generally respecting the wildlife and cultures they encountered.
By their willingness to “live in the moment”, and accept the consequences of the situations they created, the Jackass cast and creators deserve more credit than they typically receive from the mainstream media. They have received criticism for their lack of conventional taste, but it can be argued that this serves to free them from self-censorship to create the situations they exploit. The planned nature of the situations is not a flaw, and there are valid practical reasons for it; the planning only goes so far. The same is true of editing of the results: they are in control over the presentation of their work, as any artist is. In their willingness to follow the dictates of situations to their illogical conclusions, the Jackass creators serve to keep alight a glowing ember of the Situationist International spirit.
Note: this piece is my contribution to the Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon, organised by Jim Emerson of the scanners blog and rogerebert.com. I’ve surprised myself by expressing some of these ideas in polite and not-so-polite conversation, so why not put them to some use, eh? 8)