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Jackass: The Lost Tapes

(US DVD: 13 Oct 2009)

Where the Wild Things Were

Back in 2005 with the release of Jackass: The Box Set former Jackasser Preston Lacy complained during an interview, “This horse is dead, and we’re dragging it from the back of a truck. Let’s end it. Seriously.” Unfortunately, since then the Jackass boys have continued to exhume their exploits through sequels—Jackass Number Two (2006)—partially recycled material—Jackass 2.5 (2007)—and now, total rigor mortis mode—Jackass: The Lost Tapes (2009). Although one can’t blame a group of working-class kids for wanting to squeeze every cent out of a franchise that they assembled together from duct tape, plywood, and sheer irreverence, one can’t help but feel a wave of embarrassment at watching them desperately clutch onto a past that has long since escaped them.


Not coincidentally, a similar emotion washed over me when Johnny Rotten announced plans to stumble onto stage in 2008 for the Sex Pistols’ “reunion” tour.  The chant, “No Future” seemed to have overshot its original target of post-industrial Britain and boomeranged back onto the band itself. There is nothing sadder than an old punk unstuck in time. Yet like the Sex Pistols’ convulsive start in 1975, Jackass, when it initially hurled itself onto airwaves in 2000, embodied much of the nauseating charm of that original punk spirit.


The show was riotously birthed from the collision of West Coast and East Coast skateboarding culture. Jeff Tremaine and Johnny Knoxville, two of the show’s creators, worked at Big Brother Magazine in California during the late ‘90s. For an article he was writing at the time, Knoxville tested a series of self-defense devices like pepper spray and a taser on himself, which Tremaine videotaped (to be seen on Jackass: The Lost Tapes).


This footage, along with a series of other incredibly stupid recorded stunts performed by Dave England, Chris Pontius, and other West Coast Jackassers, was assembled into a Big Brother movie, which became an immediate underground hit. While touring across country, the group encountered the CKY Crew—Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Brandon Dicamillo, and Chris Raab—in West Chester, Pennsylvania. CKY had just finished filming its own skate and prank film that the Big Brother Crew immediately identified with.


Similar to the working-class origins of the various punk rock movements that have flared up worldwide from the ‘70s to the present, Jackass also arose from poverty. The Jackassers proudly claim that only Jeff Tremaine holds a college degree. The rest of its members came from the world of professional snowboarders, skateboarders, and sideshow freaks with a steady dose of low-wage employment barely supporting their lifestyles. Dave England once gleeful celebrated that the series finally allowed him to hold affordable and adequate health insurance.


Not surprisingly, the series was at its best when it assaulted the very bourgeois world that had long since written off its cast members, friends, and family as nothing more than society’s detritus—something to be resentfully hidden rather than accepted or at the very least understood. Thus, one could feel the pure pleasure of movement and assault as the Jackassers launched themselves, sometimes quite literally, at their target, using their bodies as weapons like in the “Urban Kayaking” episode where Dave England and Ehren McGhehey kayaked over, down, and through public fountains and monuments in Seattle, disrupting business folk on lunch break as their kayaks hopped out onto cement, down stairs, into crowds.


This is creative destruction where nihilism and innovation meet, where the chant “No Future” clashes against a powerful beat until inevitable annihilation or incarceration. The Jackassers embody this forward momentum that teeters towards both self-destruction and the eradication of all that they can’t stand: hypocrisy, condescension, and, perhaps worst of all, the dull throbbing boredom of routine.


When not busy jeopardizing their well-being with innovative stunts and pranks, the Jackassers slip into parody and performance, making a mockery of the mindless stupidity that often lies behind order. A sign in a convenience store that claims, “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” provokes a Jackasser to enter wearing no pants and underwear, claiming that his attire doesn’t violate stated store policy. Chris Pontius masquerades as the devil and protests along L.A. streets with the placard, “Keep God Out of California”, which finally provokes a religious bigot to attack him while screaming, “You wanna’ die right here, Fucker?”


Ehren McGhehy dresses in pink tutu and wings, claiming he is the “Meter Fairy”, as he deposits coins in unpaid meters just steps before the parking authority. His actions finally cause the Meter Maid to threaten him with a citation. All these tactics smartly pull the official order (commerce, religion, and the law) to its breaking-point to either reveal its underlying irrationality, hypocrisy, or just plain meanness—if not all three.


The member who best embodies this spirit is Dave England since he steadily maintains a bourgeois façade while egregiously overstepping the bounds of decency and common sense. By far the most memorable episode of Jackass: The Lost Tapes is “The Vomlett”, which viewers have seen a variation of in the 2005 box set. In it, England holds a cooking show. Ingredients and equipment stand exactingly before him on a fold-out table. The closed curtain behind him lends an atmosphere of an informercial demonstration. After instructing us about the amount each ingredient he will be using, England ingests it raw—that is until he gets to the eggs.


Jackass aficionados will recall that the original skit almost had Dave retching on the three raw eggs, but he somehow miraculously got them down. We are not so lucky here. We watch take after take after take of England attempting to swallow a raw egg and then barfing it up—from his mouth, through his nose, eventually sticking his fingers down his throat to clear it all out. Yet he stays in character, calmly claiming, “Cook is relaxing”, while egg snot hangs from his nose.


The sheer absurd contrast between action and demeanor, between description and reality— as when he chirps about a bowl of regurgitated omelet ingredients, “As you can see, the colors blend rather nicely”— pushes farce into the realm of disgust, revealing how far we can all go to hide the disgusting reality underneath a patter of well-groomed, meaningless sentences. Jackass, at its best, is about forcing these two worlds to collide: the harsh yet humorous and innovative blue-collar world of the Jackassers, and the staid, deceptive bourgeois world where even barf can be served as food. 


The show, however, might have simply remained an underground phenomenon had not Jeff Tremaine enlisted the help from his buddy, director Spike Jonze, to screen the Jackass boys’ antics before various cable channel executives. Jackass had many things going against it besides its stunts and pranks such as its aesthetic: an extremely lo-fidelity quality of home video recorded by people who clearly had no cinematic experience as endless uncentered frames, washed-out images, and clumsy overall handling glaringly exposed. Furthermore, the segments ran anywhere from five seconds to three minutes without any through-line between them. Even America’s Funniest Home Videos would consider this stuff beneath its taste.


Contrary to moral and cultural guardians’ diatribes against the series being symptomatic of Generation Y’s broken ethics and souls, Jackass actually pays accidental homage to the origins of silent cinema. As film historian Tom Gunning has explained, early cinema relied upon a “cinema of attractions” approach where pure exhibitionism and surprise trumped narrative, character development, and suspense. The self-explanatory film titles from this time reveal this aesthetic at work: Serpentine Dance, The Kiss, Cock Fight (1896), Boxing Cats (1898),  and Electrocuting an Elephant (1903). Edison’s film group was particularly notorious for filming every illegal and sideshow activity that they could lay their lenses upon. Jackass simply thrusts this aesthetic into the 21st century.


It was this roughshod “cinema of attractions” aesthetic that made the show so refreshing when it first aired in 2000. After decades of media conglomeration and the subsequent narrowing of television production into a slick, prepackaged aesthetic incubated within an insular L.A. mindset, Jackass was the only show existent at the time that was actually independently produced, edited, and written by a group of people who lay far outside the elite confines that normally guarded the production-end of “the business”.


And the series made no apologies about its lack of pedigree. Unlike the cardboard moralizing that punctuates the end of most reality television (think of The Amazing Race, Hell’s Kitchen, even The Jerry Springer Show), winking at its viewers while claiming some more noble purpose other than mindless sensationalism, Jackass irredeemably thrashed to its closing credits, unrepentant and unsanitized.


It might not have been the most intelligent of series and at times barely watchable, but within its vortex of vomit, shit, snot, blood, and laughter, it was one of the most pure of purpose. It strangely redeemed television for those us who thought control had long since been ceded to the bean counters. But it was clear since its initial salvo that the show’s talent was working on borrowed time, which brings us to 2009.


Much has transpired since the launch of the series in 2000. Many of the Jackassers have went on to create glossier yet more mediocre vanity projects: Viva La Bam (2003), Wild Boyz (2003), Steve-O: Out on Bail (2003), Steve-O: The Early Years (2004), and Steve-O: Demise and Rise (2009). But nothing compares to the Jackass years where anonymity, unprofessionalism, and simple disbelief that a major cable station was broadcasting their antics surged through every lopsided frame. The D.I.Y. punk rawness has dissipated, leaving many of the Jackassers reeling from the catastrophe of success.


Jackass: The Lost Tapes feels more like an epitaph than a celebration. We have seen many of these stunts before in other forms.


The extras include the introductory segments and closing sequences that were carelessly left out of the initial 2005 box set. The disc is more of an afterthought. Even worse, it has an air of nostalgia about it—the death blow to a punk attitude that prides itself on radical renewal and creative destruction.


Jackass fans might want to purchase this DVD simply to remind themselves of what they have lost. But they should immediately destroy it afterwards before sentiment unwittingly creeps in; it is, after all, what the Jackassers themselves would have wanted.

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Chris Robé is an associate professor of film and media studies. He's written for various journals such as Jump Cut, Cinema Journal, Framework, and The Velvet Light Trap. His monograph Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Left Film Culture was published by University of Texas Press. In his spare time he agitates for his friendly faculty union. He is currently researching contemporary media activist formations from the 1970s to the present.


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