In the history of serious documentary film, there are two strains, it seems fair to say. One has been on the recent upswing: the advocacy documentary, propelled along by Michael Moore and that Al Gore-with-a-deadly-PowerPoint movie, which, TL;DW. (Really, I remember thinking when that came out: The planet’s going bad? Just send me a position paper, and if I want to watch Al Gore I’ll turn on C-Span 2 or whatever, and, no I probably won’t, I’m just being polite.) The advocacy documentary is probably good for the world, as with all kinds of advocacy projects, whether they be litigation or burning cop cars on Rue d’Whatever in favor of not having to work for two more years into one’s 60s. But at some point-that point likely being “about six years ago”-I joined my fellow Americans in not being willing to sit through another film that reminds me about how chickens in America grow up neck-deep in their own shit. I know that! I don’t eat the shit-raised cannibal chickens! I’m not stupid. And if you are stupid enough to eat American commercially raised chickens, well you’re probably not watching documentaries about food, are you now. So then there is the other, more noble strain of documentary.
That’s depictive documentary, such as most Maysles films and “Jersey Shore” (yup, parent and child right there) and “Jackass” the TV show and Jackass: The Movie, Jackass Number Two and Jackass 3D, which raced no less than Werner Herzog to the cinemas to be among the first to usher in the era of 3D documentary.
Herzog’s film is about Chauvet cave art and so, just like Jackass 3D, it is also about mortality and what we value, fear and leave behind as a record of our time.
We are exiting-we’re pretty sure, at least, that we’re exiting!-ages of great repression and loathing. (It’s not impossible however that things could suddenly turn more puritanical and bizarre, and if so, our apologies to people in the future reading this.) The proscription against exhibiting male genitalia, our great cultural loathing at basic bodily functions, our fear of public embarrassment and attention, our wrath at the inability of modern medicine to make us less mortal: these are what made the Jackass project so important and vital. Our time, the future should know, was obsessed with how we die. It is literally all we could think about, accidents and disasters and cancer and falling apart and always, always, our great horror at the unforeseeable.
That people get hit in the balls and fall down quite often is sort of secondarily wonderful.
For those of us who fear the coming of the future idiocracy (at least as much as we fear the rise of the police and robot states), we approach a project like the Jackass franchise with some trepidation. The question is, indeed, only how soon it will be until a farting butt wins the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and if you’ve seen the trailer for the new Gus Van Sant movie, Restless, you may think that the answer is conceivably PROBABLY REAL SOON.
And the Jackass franchise could have gone either way. In this strange world of theirs, almost always utterly woman-less, packs of boys-swiftly aging into old man-boys-live among the ruins of technology. There are things with motors, things with engines. It is possible, the boys decide, to use the power of these machines in ways unintended, and so they skip through a primer on the laws of inertia and gravity and physics as a test of what comedy is, and what bodies are, putting into practice the kinds of ideas that occur when we are waking up from a nap and have a strange and stupid idea. (You know how it is when you wake up suddenly: Why is all the furniture on the floor, you think-How shortsighted, there are walls and a ceiling too!)
When they are not looking outside, at things that are bouncy or blowy or exploding-ey, they are looking at themselves, in the manner of all boys in their bedrooms. What’s most telling about the Jackass franchise to me is how they move without transition from issues of social embarrassment (dressing up as old people and ruining things) to technology-play (motors and engines) to bodies (specifically, barf and shit).
It’s the barf and shit that does me in-I’m the great Victorian holdout when it comes to this. I am being left behind by our forward-looking times. In the near future, we’ll all crap together. People will throw up in the streets and on the subways, and no one will think anything of it! Men will pee together in little pots in the streets of Berlin and Philadelphia!
I cannot at this time watch and listen to people really throwing up and crapping into the air (as one lad dramatically does in Jackass 3D) without an accompanying physical horror, obviously instilled in me by those, yes, etc., etc., outgoing and dated mores and outmoded fear-of-disease from a time past. It’s my monkey brain, with Queen Victoria’s superego. In short I cannot watch people throwing up and so I’ll never know how this fine, terrific, entertaining motion picture ended. I held out as long as I could but I was going to hurl and if I started hurling, others would join me, and the theater would become a barf-a-thon and then… well, then what? Then I would be embarrassed.
And that’s what the movie is about.
In any event, I’ll assume that some more people fell down in funny ways and that some more guys put things in their butts, and that it was photographed very expensively and well.
But I do understand, at least, the legacy of this franchise. For one rare exciting moment in the history of the Cinema Industrial Complex, the box office and the artistic merit are aligned! Picture it: an important sociological documentary makes tens of millions at the box office. A testament to our time. This is what we were afraid of or afraid of being or afraid of being seen noticing: scorpions and farting and getting old and little people and fat people and being naked and, most of all, taking a tumble and crapping our pants, while everyone laughs at us.