When I was pregnant, I was afraid of having a boy. It wasn't that I didn't like little boys, but there was something about them that felt alien to me: the stores of excess aggression, the fascination with scatology and penis jokes, the constant need to prove … something by risking their own safety and that of their equally incomprehensible little friends. If I had a boy, I feared, there would be something about his sense of humor and his source of deepest joy that I would never understand.
As it turned out, I had a girl, so I've never had the chance to investigate the validity of this (no doubt grossly oversimplified) view of the juvenile male psyche. But however misguided my fears may have been, some nightmare version of them is now being projected multidimensionally onto the big screen in Jackass 3-D (MTV Films). This is the third cinematic outing for Johnny Knoxville and his merry band of former skate punks and other assorted lunatics—men who Manohla Dargis, writing about the first Jackass movie back in 2002, called "the nation's stupidest non-elected white guys." Their stock-in-trade, practiced since their MTV show first aired in 2000, is to envision and then put into practice stunts that push every boundary of safety, taste, and the basic human instinct for self-preservation. For me, watching Jackass 3-D was like being plunged into a Hieronymous Bosch painting of hell, yet this very reaction attests to the franchise's primal, diabolical power.
Essentially, a Jackass gag falls into three categories. There are the pratfalls (two dudes dressed as Santa and an elf climb a 40-foot pine tree, which is then sawed down, hurling both to the ground); the gross-outs (a man is buckled into a Porta-Potty full of human excrement, then bounced high in the air on a bungee cord, creating a kind of shaken shit cocktail); and the Candid Camera-style pranks. (Two midgets pick a fight with each other in a bar. One of them calls in reinforcements—a gang of midgets—and the brawl is finally broken up by cops and ambulance drivers, all midgets.)
I did laugh at the invasion-of-the-midgets gag, if not as convulsively as the Y-chromosome-bearer to my left. The boys' forays into public performance art can accomplish their goofy mission of subverting the social order by discomfiting as many onlookers as possible. But the less successful public stunts just reflect that discomfort back onto the perpetrators. One bystander who's also the film's only black man gets asked to take a picture of a man apparently making out with his own granddaughter, and as the mark struggles to extricate himself, the expression on his face speaks for a portion of the audience that includes me: Whatever these crazy white people are up to, I don't want any part of it.
The scatological gags, in turn, accomplish their mission of making everyone within a 3-mile radius want to barf—including the cameraman Lance Bangs, who makes innovative use of the 3-D camera by losing his lunch on it during several scenes. The really hard-to-watch stuff is what these sadomasochistic frat boys get up to when there are no outsiders around to see. As they rip one another's chest hair out with Superglue or encourage a pig to eat an apple out of the obese Preston Lacy's ass (perhaps the most Bosch-ian tableau of the lot), this band of brothers cackles with an unforced glee I can only envy.
Watching a human body hit the ground at high speed, headfirst, in slow motion, feels stomach-churningly awful to me; whatever region of my brain is supposed to guffaw at the other guy's misfortune is, for better or worse, chemically inaccessible. Watching these elaborate hijinks, I couldn't stop thinking about the damaged people behind the star-spangled helmets and padded body armor. Steve-O, a clown by training and one of the crew's most boundaryless members, has undergone several well-publicized stints in alcohol and drug rehab, and Bam Margera has displayed his marital problems in a reality show. Obviously, the instincts that compel these men to roller-skate in a buffalo herd (to the soundtrack accompaniment of the Roger Miller song warning against just that activity) are the same ones that drive them into addiction and exhibitionism.
In its latest incarnation, Jackass has been given an aesthetic upgrade. The first film was essentially an extended TV episode, shot on crummy-looking digital video. But Jackass 3-D takes full advantage of fancy 3-D technology, with crystalline cinematograpy by Lance Bangs and a palette of candy-like primary colors. The movie, directed by Jackass co-creator Jeff Tremaine and co-produced by Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville, and Spike Jonze, seems at pains to convince that this whole panorama of cruelty and suffering—yanking out a tooth by tying it to a Lamborghini, throwing your snake-phobic buddy into a pit full of hissing cobras—is just boys having fun. And judging by the howls of laughter at the screening I attended—not just from men, though let's be honest, the attendance skewed heavily in that direction—maybe it is fun. With all due respect to the half of the human race that comes up with this stuff, I'm really glad I had a girl.