"A Confederacy of Dunces"

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Posted by Lils from ? ( on Friday, November 08, 2002 at 3:19PM :

A Confederacy of Dunces

Jackass is a compelling examination of modern celebrity--and it's funny and gross as hell

By Jim Ridley

Jackass: The Movie

dir.: Jeff Tremaine

R, 87 min.

Now showing at area theaters

A few weeks ago, on NPR, a Vanity Fair contributor complained that reality TV had cheapened the concept of celebrity. If an Anna Nicole Smith or an Osbourne clan could claim public-airwave real estate simply by opening a voyeuristic window onto their fucked-up, fame-damaged lives, then the notion of fame no longer had any value. The epithet she used, as I recall, was "tacky." Why poor Anna Nicole is tackier or less worthy than whatever wife-killing upper-crust scumbag Dominick Dunne profiles this month is a question we'll leave aside for the moment. More interesting is the commentator's underlying assumption: that celebrity should be for the privileged few--a gate to be policed and protected, lest some lowbrow Visigoths trample their muddy Keds on the perfume ads.

The MTV series Jackass is the worst nightmare of people who consider fame some kind of meritocracy--a bunch of rough-trade hooligans winning public attention by humiliating themselves and each other with imbecilic, injurious pranks. Jackass: The Movie is more of the same, only grosser, grislier and grubbier, without any attempt to pretty-up its surveillance-cam video look. Reviewers cannot conceal their contempt, either for the movie or its audience; a typical quip says it was "made by jackasses for jackasses." But that two-pronged attack exposes the reviewer's own prejudice: Fame is worth nothing when the thinnest of lines separates the haves from the have-nots. How great can media access be when all it takes is firing a bottle rocket out your ass?

That thought must terrify the celebretainment industry, much as the unprecedented success of the camcorder-shot Blair Witch Project momentarily shook up Hollywood. There is a vast and growing audience, fed by traded MP3s and bootleg tapes, for whom star power and studio sheen mean next to nothing. Jackass the movie has no pretense to story, to craft, to production value. It looks like (but isn't) something anyone with a camcorder could do, provided he were sufficiently drunk or suicidal. Its appeal, though, is a little more complicated. Watching Jackass, a viewer laughs like hell at dopey pranks--say, trampolining into a ceiling fan--while getting a vicarious taste of total embarrassment. That's the kind of stunt stars don't do.

The typical Jackass set-up works like this: There are spectators and participants--or, more accurately, viewers and victims. The victim is the one performing the stunt: the armor-suited sap who rides a shopping cart into a convenience-store snack display, the guy who snarfs a snow cone of his own pee. The viewers, his friends and co-conspirators, usually lie in a heap of convulsed hysteria. There is no self-congratulation in their laughter. It is the kind of open, cathartic howling that can only be triggered by watching your buddy do the stupidest goddamn thing you've ever seen. I've heard it many times.

The difference isn't just that host Johnny Knoxville and his scurvy crew--Bam Margera, Steve-O, Jason "Wee Man" Acuņa, et al.--have actually elected to take a bowling ball in the nuts for our amusement. It's that their idiotic japes are so shameless, so beyond the boundaries of self-respect and social behavior, that they have an anarchic adrenaline rush. One of the funniest is a variation on a joke from the cinema's great prankster revolutionary, Luis Buņuel: A Jackass casually strolls into a plumbing store and cops a squat on a display toilet. Buņuel, in The Phantom of Liberty, was ridiculing the arbitrariness of what passes for acceptable behavior, but not even he would show an actor performing the function on camera.

Jackass' DIY demolition derby is the latest ripple of punk's anyone-can-do-it ethos--or more precisely, of skateboard culture, which celebrates fraternal bonding through risk, skill, foolhardiness, a high pain threshold and a casual acceptance of injury. Early skate videos often ended with Jackass-style pranks and outtakes, a heady combination of slapstick, documentary and actual danger. That trickled down into the work of enthusiasts as diverse as Harmony Korine and Jackass producer/participant Spike Jonze, whose own movies (like Being John Malkovich) prowl a weirdo wonderland where reality, fantasy and celebrity form a head-spinning blur.

Skateboarding, like bootleg video or Internet claim-staking, is a world where anybody can achieve underground notoriety, which will be ignored by the mainstream at its own peril. Stardom is no longer some distant, unapproachable quality, something that Andy Warhol and John Waters knew while the rest of the media lagged behind. The tools of fame will be seized, used and ground down until they no longer work--as long as there is someone who will do absolutely anything to be noticed, and someone to notice. We have met the jackass, and he is us.

-- Lils
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