Is there really any way you don't already know whether you want to see Jackass, especially in 3D? Either you're a long time fan who relishes the thought of Knoxville, Steve-O, Bam, Pontius and Wee-Man (among other alumni) enduring traction-inducing trauma for the amusement of the masses or you are probably the dismissive type that finds their brand of crudely juvenile shenanigans too retrograde to waste your time on. The person that likes the Jackass films because of their narrative flow, their soul-stirring deconstruction of the human condition or their often groundbreaking utilization of the vérité aesthetic probably doesn't exist. Or at least I'm as close as it gets.
I've always been somewhat conflicted about the Jackass oeuvre, going back to the original MTV series. I've seen all three films now and every time it's always the same reaction. Guilty laughs, but laughs none the less. I feel like Joe Bowers in Idiocracy as he's watching Ass: The Movie -- which consists of nothing more than an hour and a half long shot of a bare ass, farting -- except I'm one of the people in the crowd laughing at the lowest possible common denominator of something that can still bear the name cinema. It levels the playing field on all of us.
I suppose what sets Jackass 3D apart from the others, aside from the opportunity to see homo-erotic highjinks and the sometimes messy results in an extra dimension (used to superb effect with gags like "The Heli-cockter") is that it was the first time I've seen a Jackass film with a packed house and I've got to say the on-screen consequences of Knoxville and the gang's coprophilic antics don't need the extra dimension to become all too real when the guy sitting behind you starts audibly gagging. Rocky Horror-style audience participation could get taken to a whole new and disgusting plane, and when a film starts working on the level of meta-vomit, one has to reconsider what the term "genius" really means.
That dance with fate occurred during one stunt that finds Steve-O with a cup full of Preston Lacy's milky ass sweat, harvested after they've encased the 300 pounds-plus Lacy in a plastic wrap suit with a funnel on the business end to collect the combined drippings. Steve-O doesn't make it though one sip and the sounds coming from the guy behind me as he saw Steve-O lose his lunch in 3D had me tensed up on a whole different level (I've seen too many people vomit on film for it to faze me anymore).
But that's why we are all there. We validate each other's enjoyment as Pontius ties his dick to remote controlled helicopter to demonstrate the spatial depth afforded to the viewer through the miracle of 3D (the shot, I've come to learn, that got the film greenlit by the studio) or as he camouflages his bare ass amongst a foliage laden model train set to create his own brand of volcano. As long as everyone else is laughing that must mean succumbing to the crassness of it all is OK. Perhaps a film such as Jackass 3D could bring people of differing social, religious and political stripes together (in either mutual admiration or disgust)? Everyone loves the pie in the face gag. These guys just gave it hydraulic power and bodily fluids.
But it's not just the child-like fascination with the scatological that (reliably) elicits laughter in Jackass 3D, but the age old fascination with "what if?" Like what if we played tetherball with a nest of pissed off Africanized bees? What if we play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with a real donkey just to get some idea of what an instant hematoma looks like? What if we dressed up as Santa Claus and climbed to the top of a gigantic fir tree to be immediately felled on the side of a mountain or send ourselves careening over our backyard hedge and down the side of a rugged embankment on a waverunner? We admire them for giving us the catharsis we're too afraid to court for ourselves.
It's worth noting at this point that all of these boys are really no longer boys. Some are fathers or nearing their 40s.
They also made this movie sober. Jackass 3D, looked at in that light, is perhaps the most genuine of the Jackass films. Clearly it takes more stones to pull off some of these stunts with a clear head rather than by substance fueled bravado (and despite the lack of artificial courage they perform admirably). But they know they can't go on forever. The films closing credit sequence (shot at a thousand frames per second for a hyper-detailed slo-mo effect) tips its hat to that knowledge as the crew is literally flushed away like so much human feces.
These guys don't have any illusions about what they do, but they have fun doing it. Who knew that yanking someone's tooth out with a Lamborghini could be a metaphor for how to live life? Do it your way. It can't be worse than going to the dentist.
When my colleague Joshua Peck and I were sorting out who was covering what this week and I decided I was writing about Jackass 3D and Catfish, his typically wry observation was, "You get a movie with no plot and one where you can't talk about the plot." It made me think about where criticism breaks down. After all, if you are a fan (or not) of something like Jackass than what I have to say about it probably tells you more about me than the film. I'm not changing anyone's mind.
But something like the Sundance sensation Catfish presents a different set of problems because the film is truly best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. That's how I went into it and not being 100-percent sure of where the film was going was the main reason I was pulled into its strange story as firmly as I was. Catfish is one of the more organic documentaries in my recent memory.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman begin to document Ariel's brother, Nev, a New York-based photographer who receives a painting in the mail based on one of his published photographs. The painting is by an 8-year old prodigy named Abby, from Michigan, and Nev and Abby strike up a friendship through Facebook. Over a period of months Nev befriends Abby's mother and brother and an older sister, Megan, a gorgeous musician and animal lover, who Nev quickly becomes romantic with. As these relationships deepen, and become weirdly complicated, Nev -- while on a shoot in Vail, Colorado -- decides to make the trip up to Michigan with his documentary crew to pay a surprise visit to his virtual friends.
That's where I have to leave it because it is the organic nature in which the story tangibly unfolds that provides the most compelling moments in Catfish. The questions that it raises about the nature of social networking; the ways its anonymity engenders all sorts of avenues that funnel how relationships can be formed, trust cultivated and emotions allowed to manifest themselves all while never having been in the same room as the other person, contrast a virtual world where the bar seems to be lowered for taking people at face value. More disturbingly, if one is honest about the silicon nature of online relationships, it calls into question the veracity of the very emotions themselves.
The narrative of Catfish answers some of these questions in an unexpectedly optimistic way, but what makes the film come across as so timely and unique is that sense that modern life has finally gotten us to the point such a film could be born of pure technological zeitgeist, revealing a very different facet of the "chicken and egg" dilemma. Everyone has a camera now, reality TV has been a staple for well over a decade, and an entire generation has been raised to not think twice about documenting themselves for all to see. Nev, begins the film by complaining about how un-documentary worthy his life really is. Whether by design or fate, it doesn't turn out that way, and who's to say things would have gone in the direction they did were he not being filmed as a matter of habit?
Directors Joost and Schulman unwisely insert themselves into the events at times, which adds a slightly exploitive tone that mars the sincerity of what they are capturing, but otherwise their approach is lucid and personal. Shot with a few hand held cameras, the directors inject the sometimes rough visual edges with some neat stylistic flourishes that incorporate internet iconography like Google Earth searches to establish events and locations (and also the years second most inventive re-working of the Universal Pictures logo after Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). It's a low-fi film to be sure but one that's compelling narrative is more than enough to forgive the cinematic loose ends.
In the end, Catfish has an indefinable quality that feels like an indictment and an affirmation of trust in the digital age. It's an indictment because trust can be so easily trivialized in a virtual environment, debasing what relationships really stand on, but still an affirmation of the recognition that the strength of that trust, no matter how it developed, tends to appeal to our better angels even when it's broken.
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