Mountains upon mountains of ink have been spilled over the last two decades about the Jackass franchise: Whether or not it’s good for kids or ethical to be broadcasting/producing it (who cares and absolutely), whether or not it qualifies as performance art (yeah, it does), what its particular influences have been on popular culture (tons, of course, mostly good), and whether it’s really feasible for the original cast and crew to continue doing this well into their AARP memberships (again, who cares/knows). I won’t really talk about any of these things, because I have nothing of value to add to them beyond the short answers that I just dropped up there. What I will say is that Jackass Forever, the latest installment of the series, is perhaps the most essential theatrical experience of the year.
But… why? you may ask, and I totally understand that mindset: For a certain cohort of late gen-X/elder millennial stoner/skater/alt kid/goth/jock/whatever, the series is wholly defined by the original TV show, watched either alone late at night or in between grav bong hits with your buds and bouts of the spins from drinking a little too much Evan Williams before trying to see if you could hold that nug smoke long enough in your lungs to breath out clear air. For my generation (middle millennials), Jackass was a primarily theatrical experience — sure, the DVDs had additional films’ worth of content, but it was the crowd that made it so damn special — and I think that’s specifically relevant to the perspective I’m taking on this now.
If you’re looking for high-minded critique, I will give you a single sentence worth: essentially, Jackass has become the skate vid equivalent of Michael Apted’s Up series, where we check in at least once a decade on our subjects and remark about how they’ve aged and how they’ve changed and also how little they have altered in the decades that we’ve known them. But Jackass lives in your limbic system and has a very meager series of goals beyond what we ascribe to the stunts, pranks, and setpieces that Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, and the rest of the gang are trying to bring to us. They want you to laugh, loud and often; they never want you to be bored; they want to raise your pulse every now and then; finally, they want to make you wince, be it from shock at seeing Pontius’s Godzilla-styled dick laying waste to a model city in the film’s hilarious intro or the fact that Knoxville takes a hit from a bull in this that is downright terrifying (not to mention all of the acts of genial genital trauma that the cast undergoes, often in short succession). To say that they succeed at these goals, whether or not you think they’re “good influences” or worthy of Abramovich-level analysis, is an understatement, and Jackass Forever continues that trend. It is kinetic bliss, the thrill of pain forged through friendship and camaraderie. It’s often stated that homoerotic male bonding is the driving and sustaining motivation of Jackass, but I’d grow it a bit broader than that definition would allow: It is about safety and trust before anything else, the safety (ironic, I know) coming that your friends both have your back and wouldn’t subject you to do shit that they wouldn’t do themselves, and the trust gained through its perpetual demonstration.
Trust, of course, is a thing in relatively short supply at the moment: The government, the media, the military, the scientists, academia, Spotify, whether or not that person next to you will put their mask back on after they finish eating their popcorn or whether or not you’ll end up on Twitter for forgetting to put yours on your face when you leave the theater. The signs of the Covid times are all over Jackass, but they’re beside the point, ultimately, to the wondrous displays of love and bravery between these guys on screen, even if it might not express itself as such by any standard metric outside of the BDSM community. It’s a hell of a thing to be reminded of the fact that normality is a state of mind by slices of hot and fresh hangout cinema, that even with masks and face shields and everything else that we’ve come to associate with the fact that Covid Isn’t Over Even Though Some Say “We’re Done With Covid” that one can still have a good time with their friends and do dumb shit and suffer the consequences for it but pick themselves up with cheer in their hearts and return to the fray with a slap on the back and a hearty laugh from the assembled crowd.
It’s one of the few times in recent memory, even with a slate of decent comedies having hit in the past year, that I can remember an assembled crowd roaring in laughter or gasping with discomfort, regardless of whether or not they’ve got a mask on. If Jackass is a celebration of the community that these folks have made for one another, the experience of watching Jackass in the dark at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night with a bunch of drunk college students from BU is a celebration of the communal aspects of the theatrical experience, one that we’ve been deprived of for far too long, even if movie theaters have been open and showing new releases for nearly a calendar year now. If there’s anything that made me trust that things might once again reach acceptable equilibrium, it’s the shouts, giggles, and groans that came from that auditorium. That’s a great feeling to have, once again.
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