How 'Jackass' Became a Cinephile Obsession

With a marathon at New York City's venerable Museum of the Moving Image, we explore why dedicated cinema lovers gravitate toward 'Jackass.'

jackass cinema
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

This week, cinephiles are gathering at the Museum of the Moving Image, the respected institution in Queens that celebrates the history of film. They will watch men fart into tubes, puke, put items up their butts, and get nearly mauled by bulls. Yes, the place where you can catch a Peter Bogdanovich tribute and a series of Buster Keaton shorts is also hosting a Jackass movie marathon to honor this week's release of Jackass Forever.

But it's not the first time Jackass has been feted at a museum more likely to showcase undiscovered 1930s gems than anything that originated on MTV. Back in 2010, the guys premiered Jackass 3D at the Museum of Modern Art—the same spot where Van Gogh's Starry Night is on display. Like Van Gogh, Johnny Knoxville and his pals are now considered "official artists" in MoMA's archive. The movies' director, Jeff Tremaine, admits "it's ridiculous" that his work has been canonized in this way. "We've never intellectualized what we do," Tremaine says. "It's really just, 'Does this make us laugh?'"

Plenty of people have intellectualized the work of Tremaine and his buddies, which started as an outgrowth of pranks in the pages of a skateboarding magazine and among goofs in suburban Pennsylvania before turning into a cultural phenomenon. The Jackass films have been wholeheartedly embraced by cineasts who have exalted their use of consumer-friendly digital video technology as well as their continuation of traditions pioneered by everyone from the Three Stooges to performance artists. This was never Tremaine's intention, even though he loves how it has been embraced.

"For good reason, there was a lot of skepticism about what Jackass was: It started at a time of MTV dominating culture, and it was sort of bro-y," says Eric Hynes, MoMI's curator of film. "But if you were paying attention—and a lot of people were—from the very beginning, there were notes of, 'It may be super dumb, but there is actually something to this in terms of moving image and in terms of comedy."

jackass moma
Spike Jonze, Johnny Knoxville, and Jeff Tremaine at the MoMA premiere of 'Jackass 3D.' | Jim Spellman/WireImage

Rajendra Roy, who holds Hynes' position at MoMA, was one of those skeptics. When Jackass first premiered, Roy, who is part of the same generation as Tremaine and Knoxville, didn't really identify with the culture it was representing. He wasn't a skater, and he wasn't "one of the white boys." But when he finally gave in, he realized just how self-referential the material was and, ultimately, how it fell in line with the work of other great pratfallers and physical comedians. "When you start getting into the cinematic history of it all, you start getting into that element of Keystone Kop slapstick humor—the real physical comedy, where there is the inherent risk as well," Roy says. "There's that kind of thrill aspect to it, where Keaton and Chaplin and Bert Williams and all of those early physical comedians were more at risk at that point. That element of innocent violence, let's call it, is also something that's very cathartic as a viewer."

Chaplin and Keaton are easy analogs for what Jackass does—there's a lot of falling down, for instance—but the allusions went even deeper when the film criticism and listings site Screen Slate published a zine in 2017 to coincide with Jackass: The Movie screening on 35mm during a series celebrating films captured on standard-definition DV formats at Anthology Film Archives in downtown Manhattan. In the zine, edited by Patrick Dahl and Tyler Maxin, there are essays linking Jackass to Bugs Bunny and performance artist Chris Burden. Maxin's piece draws connections between the skate videos that inspired Jackass and English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, one of the first people to capture moving images.

The way the first opus in the Jackass franchise used the technology is why Jon Dieringer, the editor-in-chief of Screen Slate, showed it alongside works by Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Lars von Trier (Melancholia), Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy), and Agnés Varda (Cléo from 5 to 7). "It's kind of avant-garde, in a way, to be able to go to a multiplex and see a movie that was shot on consumer digital video and it's just people doing these goofy stunts that reflect the types of things you might do with your friends," he says. The Jackass guys were using the same types of cameras as the Dogme 95 pioneers, and Dieringer, who worked in preservation, recalls that video artists were big fans of the series. "I just think whether it's in cinephile circles, the art world, academia: Everyone loves Jackass," he says.

Of course, as trends in cinematography evolved, so did Jackass, culminating in Jackass 3D, which was how MoMA got involved. Naturally, the museum had a relationship with one member of the crew: Spike Jonze, who was making waves as an auteurist indie wunderkind with movies like Being John Malkovich at the same time he was dressing up like an old lady to do stunts alongside Knoxville. ("I love that he's involved because it kind of drags his artful name through the mud in a way," Tremaine says.) Jackass 3D, as Roy recalls, came out right in the thick of the modern 3D revival, arriving just a year after James Cameron's Avatar. "There are really two North Stars in that moment in terms of artists and the technical medium coming together in a perfect way. One was Wim Wenders' Pina, the documentary about Pina Bausch with fully immersive 3D dance," Roy says. "And Jackass 3D, where the physical comedy took something that was always kind of great on its own and took it to the next level of, 'Of course I want to see that dildo flying in my face."

jackass the movie
'Jackass: The Movie' | Paramount Pictures

As with most assessments of Jackass, you can make all the highfalutin comparisons you want, but much of the appeal boils down to just watching these guys be dudes in a way that is somehow tender despite the self-inflicted pain. It's a flip of expectations that is somehow bizarrely empowering. The preservationist Caroline Gil wrote in the Screen Slate zine that "despite its white-boy weiner-centrism, Jackass was also a vehicle for young women to observe and take in male bodies slinking about, bound, tasered, bitten, bruised, scabbed, slapped, and cavorting in the wild." The Jackass ethos might not be intentional—none of it might be—but it's powerful nonetheless.

"It's a subversion of maleness and is an embrace of—in more academic terms we call it homosocial bonding," Roy explains. "The guys aren't necessarily gay, but they're also not homophobic at all and they understand the power of male bonding and male intimacy and male vulnerability and all the things we kind of hope for in a 21st-century man. And it's super-fucking-fun." Well, fun for most people. Roy still can't live down the time his cinephile mother-in-law came to the 3D premiere only to find "shit flying at her."

For Roy and fellow curator Josh Siegel, premiering Jackass 3D wasn't a "gimmick." "We weren't trying to undo it. We weren't trying to elevate it. We were just trying to honor what we thought was a miraculous accomplishment," Roy says. It's with that same spirit that MoMI is mounting the marathon.

Tremaine, for his part, is psyched. "It just seems so small to me that we're making these stupid things, and then when they get put up on a big screen…," he trails off. "It's so great and funny to me. How did that turn into that?"

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.