Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Jackass 3: Meaningless Bravery

I once saw a portion of a documentary about a South American tribe. Part of their ritual passage to adulthood involved elaborate stunts designed to bring the youth face to face with fear. They stood on top of tree trunks that had been shorn of all branches. The trunks were held in place by guide wire. Which were then removed. The teen had to scramble to hold onto the falling trunk. The philosophy behind it was to prepare the teen for the perils of adulthood and hunting.

I studiously avoided "Jackass" while it was on television and by the time they'd transitioned into movie theaters I was full-on into parenting and was only seeing Pixar films.

Oh, I'd seen snippets here and there and knew who all the reprobates were but I'd not been IMMERSED.

My outlook on them, I'll admit, was shaped in large part by the traditional media response. They were degenerates, this was everything that was wrong with America, these no-talent attention-whores needed to be stopped.

I was reminded of how much heat skateboarders took when that craze started hitting the streets. Apparently it was okay to join a group of kids and pursue an activity but going out and doing it ON YOUR OWN IN PUBLIC was beyond the pale.

So I am a bit ashamed of the knee-jerk conservatism that I was espousing.

Imagine my surprise when I finally watched the movie "Jackass". Melody was bartending and I was in NYC for a few days visiting. The bar had a downstairs private room with a TV and VCR. Yes, vcr. The only tape? "Jackass".

I figured I should watch this piece of trash. An hour and a half later I was exhausted from crying and laughing and recoiling in horror. They changed my mind entirely that night.

Human beings love to witness acts of bravery. We re-tell them, we fictionalize them, we invent them in order to shine a spotlight on the best facet of human behavior. Our willingness to ignore peril if need be.

The image of the firefighter rushing into a burning building is the perfect example. An act like that reassures us that we are NOT simply beasts, that we have a higher level of morality, that we can operate heroically INSIDE of fear. In fact, this might be one of our defining characteristics. Animals do amazing things in response to danger but they don't have the same knowledge of mortality that we do.

I find there to be a deep beautiful philosophy at work in the "Jackass" catalog. And I am one-hundred-percent serious.

They isolate that characteristic - the human ability to face grave danger with aplomb and they REMOVE THE CONTEXT FROM IT. I find this to be endlessly fascinating.

In "Jackass 3", Johnny Knoxville does a stunt called "Invisible Man" in which he is painted to fit perfectly into a mural of a rainbow spread across a field with a tree in it. Knoxville stands in front of the mural and the camera is lined up so that he essentially disappears.

A bull is then let loose into the corral. The hope is that he will be "invisible". But of course, the bull isn't perfectly lined up like the camera. Bulls can't see color. Knoxville is a sitting duck. He successfully evades a goring but then the bull sneaks around the back of the mural and roars out at Knoxville. He leaps to avoid the bull but the bull rams his legs, sending Knoxville head over heels into the mud, receiving a nice kick in the head for his trouble.

As Knoxville is standing there and hoping against hope that the bull will not see him, his fear is palpable. The charming thing about all of the "Jackass" crew is that they allow us to see their fear. They don't hide it with false bravado like so many of the youtube pretenders who intentionally hurt themselves for attention.

And that is why I can occasionally find myself very moved while watching instead of just horrified or grossed-out. It is as if they are showing us that we don't have to be so afraid of pain, that we are stronger than we think.

If you transplant these staged stunts into real life, a whole layer of respect and admiration would come into play. A man was inadvertently left in a corral and withstood a brutal bull charge! The strength! Two members of a marching band were attacked by a ram! The trumpet player distracted the ram from the tuba player who was almost unconscious on the ground!

Meaningless bravery.

And total acceptance of your friends. There is a running gag in "Jackass 3" called "Rocky" in which Bam Margera sneaks up on someone from behind. He throws water at one side of their face to distract them and punches them from the other with a boxing glove.

Do fights ensue? No! The person rolls around on the ground in pain for a while and then they laugh and hug.

I know it sounds stupid but for me, it accentuates how capable we are of forgiveness, how willing we are as human beings to incorporate flaws into our relationships. The acceptance of these ambushes is very telling.

My favorite portion of "Jackass 3" comes when we see Ryan Dunn sitting in a comfy leather chair in a re-enactment of the famous speaker ad. He seems to be in a comfortable living room. The air from the speaker becomes so intense that he is actually blown from the chair. We then see that the "speaker noise" is being generated by the tail end of a jet airplane which is about 30 feet from Dunn.

He is blown across the airfield. He attempts to get up. He is blown further back. He is blown along the ground for several yards. He struggles to position himself so that he can even attempt to stand up. After a few agonizing moments he achieves upright status. But it is clearly taking every ounce of his will to do so.

After that massive effort to stand up, what does he do?

He jumps into the air so that he will be hurled backwards again. Because he knows it will make his friends laugh. What I was left with was the image of a small creature buffeted about by a force impossibly greater than its own. And that creature didn't crawl away in disgrace. He got up time and again to continue to face it. And tried to get a laugh doing it.

Consider me a jackass.