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3D in the 21st Century. "Jackass 3D": The Sad Masters

On the very skillful and precise emotional fibrillation of "Jackass".
"Because of the feeling, fixed by social example, that (Violence) was the only quite correct, the only really decent relief for wounded honor—the only one which did not imply some subtle derogation, some dulling and retracting of the fine edge of pride, some indefinable but intolerable loss of caste and manly face.” —Wilbur Cash, The Mind of the South
The first thing we see either in the show or the movies is the fabled warning about the stunts that are about to be performed—which indicates a priestly marking off of sacred space. These are priests or something or other. Only they can do this. This most High Tomfoolery. So there is always that, but what makes Jackass 3D unusually moving, even pathos-ridden, is it’s clear this is a sort of Last Hurrah. This is a movie of wheezing, ancient man-child priests, like Jean-Luc Godard. The gang are clearly getting ‘too old for this shit’ in any dimension. Except for the late Ryan Dunn, of course, who in apotheosis becomes the guardian angel, the Lady Di, of Reality Television.
Here is the nagging question: why exactly should the exploits of our gang of happy masochists crush the decade that bears their name? The Jackass Decade, which began with the national wound of 9/11 and ended a hair early with the fiery crash of Ryan Dunn on June 20th, 2011 was a shamanic displacement of war trauma onto what looked to the untrained rationalist eye like idiot clowns, but who in fact were voodoo medics for the whole of American culture. I put the secret symbolic effectiveness of Jackass down to a certain combustible mix of  cracker nostalgia for male honor and a need to express and expiate victory-in-defeat. It certainly wasn’t much coming on the official screens of the War on Terror. With a simple, almost mechanical structure, the segments of Jackass alternate between felt humiliation, the collective derisive laughter which completes and suspends it, and then a trial by ordeal—where everyone redeems themselves through enduring suffering and crucially “shaking it off.” And of course repetition, the absolute hallmark of both performance art and magical ritual. Lower case “h”eroism in the non-threatening key of victimhood. The victim as culture hero. That “story” is surely more interesting and subversive, maybe, than most “movie-movies” out there.
“To look at what we’ve done on Jackass sorta created a false impression that we were invincible somehow. We’ve gotten away with so much life-threatening crazy stuff you just can’t imagine us actually not surviving something.” —Steve-O’s memento mori moment.
And there is doubtless a growing disconnect with the original audience (the show first aired in 2000) that are staring at their kids’ school lunches every morning and have sundry other quotidian tasks like feeding the sad-eyed hamster named Preston after one of the Jackass cast principals. They who most have the need of victim-heroics no longer think the joke, or more importantly the spiritual effort behind it, is that funny. Even Jackass co-creator and star Johnny Knoxville, looking like a skeletal version of James Dean, has symbolically become the oldster archetype, The Bad Grandpa. Is that even a joke, or is it real? I don’t know anymore. The truth comes through prosthetics.  
Contrast, for example, the committed, moral, spiritualized celebration of masochism of something like Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, widely seen and dismissed as a Schönbergian bummer, and the joyful, feckless apparently empty katharsis-lite of Jackass. It’s not just the latter’s pop songs and the carnivalesque dressing. The triumph in Jackass is somewhat in the editing; it’s comedic scopophilia shortchanges Alexandre Aja-esque (see his Piranha) or Gaspar Noé-tic sadistic impulses (the body count too paltry, the laughter too fake eager and hearty, the suffering too quickly elided). There is almost nothing in the film for the out-and-proud masochist, for whom anticipation rules. But—and yet, people spend a lot of time with “the cast”—they are undeniably beloved and precisely human figures. So much so, that the tortures and punishments are occasionally tailored “narratively” to the quirks of each personality. The triumph is in density, too. There is something uniquely bonding and yet strikingly odd about repeatedly watching the same people suffer humiliation, pain, fear and revulsion again and again. It is very much like impossibly watching Cassius Clay morph into Muhammad Ali and then into the Parkinson’s Guy and then back again. Everyone, actor and spectator alike, is bound in an inescapable ritual. It’s a special case that Susan Sontag never touches on in her book on the subject, On Regarding the Pain of Others. Whatever required distance is acquired in the “regarding” of these real documentary actions is made up in the fictional practice of repetition, which generates pesky and viscous blobs of empathy that you then have to reject for the laughter to come. Jackass combines the cinema of attractions-era of the virtuosic, heroic comedian with the built-in pathos of the real-life sports figure. That is why you watch a Jackass movie: a very skillful and precise emotional fibrillation.
This is unfortunately where 3D in its current form and transitional moment often fails to generate anything of interest. This isn’t exclusively a problem of Jackass 3D. But it is most evident here. 3D is a devil’s bargain. The translation problem of 3D is analogous to that of CinemaScope at home in the 50s and 60s—how do you make something visually interesting in two so incompatibly different venues? If you do something daring or interesting in 3D inevitably it will seem stupid and pointless in 2D. So if you decide for creative or aesthetic reasons to maximize the plastic effects of the process (say, in some theoretical version of Jackass 3D where you emphasize the Rabelaisian grotesques—think of Touch of Evil or Ivan the Terrible in 3D—and explore the distorted looming bodies, the etched faces like dead planets in space, where one uses the dismal 3D space to truly mock, inhabit, and mortify the body, not just play at it...) then you lose the translatability and consumability of the thing. We rightfully resent the ghost-traces of the 3D experiments when watching them flat. And subtle effects, which can be fantastic in the theatre, are lost altogether. Jackass is meant to be re-seen in its pieces, watched and shared again and again. In its way, it is absolutely in touch with the time. 3D, on the other hand, is seen by bloodthirsty cineaste-businessmen-impresarios like Crispin Glover, as an easy way to “eventify” and preserve “venue specificity”; to add “value” and control distribution. So, the default mode in this turf war is: get a tight rein on your stereographer (if the film has not been post-converted) when they want to do something outside of the blandest convention, don’t let the 3D become too distracting, etc. Everything to protect the 2D value of the property. But you can’t truly “protect” for 2D—the remainder is worse than the old misery of pan and scan.
The solution to this aesthetic impasse (so everyone at Samsung and Sony hopes) will come with glasses-less multi-D “fishtank” TV. Even if Multi-D TV should become the standard—there will always be large numbers of refuseniks who will be irritated (constitutionally or aesthetically) by the aggressive artificiality, the poetics, of 3D. This is a metaphysical problem masquerading as a technical one. This opens up a glaring and fundamental contradiction between the reality TV aesthetic and 3D. This is why Jackass 3D, like any 3D documentary with realist aims, is a fascinating formal exercise in cluelessness. The ultimate version of ‘form follows function.’ Or of subversion. 3D failed in the studio era, and will always fail because is it basically surrealist. In a mediated world, Reality (the beloved and hygienic window effect) must be hegemonic, holding its flat victory parades each day. Let be clear about it: a 3D world means the end of the realist hegemony. 3D equally turns newscasts, video games, terrorist carnage and poor tsunami superstars and sports events such as mining disasters into McLuhan’s stoner symbolist poetry at the entry level of perception. Will our mad masters really allow that?
Part of the Notebook's critical supplement to BAMcinématek's "3D in the 21st Century" series, running May 1 - 17, 2015. Jackass 3D will play on May 16.

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