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When did perilous danger become so funny?

As news of the third Jackass film reaches our ears, this time in 3D, it begs the question – How do we begin to de-construct the style and content of Jackass and understand this as indicative of that which audiences all over the world happily pay to see?

The first movie, released in 2002, (surely a little ironic as the year following Mary Whitehouse’s death), made with a budget of only $5 million dollars earned more than $22 million in its first weekend alone. And it’s content? – Driving around in golf-carts as though they were rally cars, walking into a hardware store and defecating into a display-piece toilet, and getting paper-cuts in the webbings of the cast’s toes and fingers.

Some of the skit’s names alone tell you all you need to know – ‘The Bungee Wedgie’ along with ‘Department Store Boxing’ and ‘Off Road Tattoo’ all make an appearance in a film that is often both funny and repelling in equal measure.

In the trailer for the second film, Jackass number two, the team proudly revealed some of the critical reactions they received from their first foray into cinema;

“a new low”

“a plunge into depravity”

“a sad commentary on our degenerating culture”

“a disgusting, repulsive, grotesque spectacle”

Like the first, the second movie easily more-than-quadrupled its meagre budget as millions flocked to see frontman Johnny Knoxville blindfolded and charged by a yak, yet more defecation and even a scene where three of the cast stand mere feet from a ‘460 Stingmore’ security mine before it is discharged, leaving them covered in sores from around 700 rubber balls, that outrank any paintball injury.

So, with a third film due to be released in October – what is it that keeps people coming back to see a group of regular guys put themselves through dangerous, painful, humiliating and often lethal acts for merely a few seconds glory on film?

Of course some cinema-goers just want to see something gross, testing the strength of their gut, just as a huge demographic flock to see horror films wanting to be frightened, testing their nerves and sometimes the patience of the people sat next to them.

However – I think the real answer is to be found in why the cast themselves take part in the various stunts.

I believe it is possible to rationalise the Jackass movies, and indeed the entire franchise, by seeing it as a natural rebuke to the overly-cushioned and safety-conscious society in which we live. Health and Safety has swept over all film and television, particularly in America, to the point where many often complain about the impossibility of actually being able to make a movie anymore; the American Health and Safety website AllBusiness states;

When it comes to risk management, Hollywood certainly lives up to its reputation: There’s no business like show business. At its core, producing a film is an inherent risk where millions of dollars are put into a Project that depends on the opinion of a fickle population […] and when the complexities of the actual filmmaking process are factored in, the undertaking only becomes that much more difficult.”

It is impossible to walk anywhere in the city these days without being bombarded by signs telling you where you must walk, what you must look for, who you must approach and when. Interestingly there’s hardly ever a ‘why’…

You can’t even buy a fruit & nut chocolate bar without being warned in big letters “CONTAINS NUTS!” I know. That’s why I bought it.

What Jackass, filmed with handheld cameras by a small crew and stuntmen who are only professional in the sense that they are paid for their exploits, manages to do is raise an enormous middle finger to the entire concept of such a thing as Health and Safety.

Just as Eminem states that the more PC he is told to be, the more ‘fuel’ this gives him to ignore its ideals and actively work on destroying it, there is an undeniable sense of liberty in just seeing a guy pole-vaulting himself off a pier – it’s the child inside us grinning beneath the sensible face of the cinema-goer: someone doing something we know he ‘shouldn’t really.’

Whilst reading of how a Pantomime in this country was reduced to having Jack merely ‘look’ at the beanstalk unless he wore a harness, before turning to watch Knoxville walk out in a cape and helmet, stride a ‘Wile E Coyote-esque’ enormous red rocket before being propelled about 150 feet high into the sky over a lake, plummeting to the water and then celebrating raucously with his friends, I was left in little doubt as to what culture I would rather endorse.

The point with Jackass is that they are just having fun. Some call it being ‘adrenaline junkies’ while others see them as just getting a huge dopamine hit from doing something dangerous – the point is they are reverting to the animalistic adrenaline-fuelled primal part of themselves and releasing the same endorphins that man used to do, thousands of years previously when hunting wild animals. Modern Western Society is so protected, so safe that many naturally want to break free of this – an endorsement of this is the rise in extreme sports over the last decade, where every-day members of the public are able to wear a suit and tie till Friday then jump of a cliff on Saturday afternoon- it is an outlet – not for stress or claustrophobia – but for a release, freedom, in the sense of their being ‘open’ to elements which they now feel are otherwise coated in cotton-wool.

Is this a regression then? No – I don’t think so – I believe that this new generation – the Jackass generation – are being raised in a world that does not force them to focus on risking their lives for their country’s safety, like their grandparents – they do not have the responsibility of a generation’s future in their hands and so they have no outlet with which to channel that natural process of fighting – so they make their own.

Have you figured out which film I’ve been hinting at for the past few paragraphs?

As Tyler Durden stands, half-naked among his fellow members of Fight Club, he states;

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.”

In other words – the futility of these lives means these ‘institutionalised’ men of society have to fuel their own adrenaline-fuelled exploits, returning to their animal ancestry by finding an outlet to be man, not as civilised being, but rather ‘top mammal.’

Even before Fight Club, there were underground organizations of men meeting to knock each other to pieces, before returning to a three-bedroom semi-detached life.

What Jackass seems to allow the cast, and through their films the audiences, is merely that; a 90-minute window through which we can watch and feel just a little emancipated, just a little ‘un-safe’ – a visceral thrill for the repressed “all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world”, all seated within a safe distance of the fire-exit.

Who would have thought that tying a firework to your penis before lighting it could ever be rationalised so philosophically?

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