The image above has been making the rounds recently, and at first glance, it looks like it could just be the creative mutterings of a bored comedy writer. Jackass 3D as a serious Oscar contender… seems like a kind of easy, ironic joke, above even The Onion’s standard for humor. It’s funny because it’s impossible: in what world would a 3D movie about hurting yourself and pranking others be (FAVORABLY!) compared to the surrealist works of Luis Bunuel?
The answer is this world. And the reasons why kind of beg some questions about why people do film (and art) criticism in the first place.
You see, the quotes supplied above are not fake, comedic tidbits. Those are real quotes from real reviewers, reviewers who probably fancied themselves as pretty clever for performing an ironic deep analysis of this movie.
Because it’s not a movie that begs this kind of deep analysis. The movie itself is basically what it says on the tin: a bunch of jackasses doing jackass things to themselves, to strangers, and to their friends and family. It’s actually pretty fun and sometimes clever. But there’s pretty much no question that it’s aspiring to nothing more than… jackassery.
But in these trying times of irony and sarcasm, no simple act of stupidity goes un-vaunted. Reviewers really did laud the movie using the flowery language above. And it was all in the name of being clever. Bad things are never just called out as bad anymore. Instead, mediocre things are called bad, and bad things are called remarkable. Things that have really unsophisticated aims are treated with sophistication, but as a joke.
With Jackass 3D, none of the above viewers has taken the most easily defensible position: this film is stupid and has very simple aims, but it achieves those aims remarkably well. To say that a film as unsophisticated as this one is at least good at the unsophisticated things it tries to do is ACTUAL praise, something useful for thinking about film as an art form. But these critics, in the name of a joke, have decided to pretend that the movie has high aims and nuance.
And that joke leaves us in a weird position. Because if legitimate reviewers all speak highly the film and offer nuanced praise of it, AND large audiences liked it, then isn’t it kind of guaranteed a best picture win? Would it be fair to give that award to a movie that some critics would call mediocre and a lot of people didn’t see, when we have a movie with a solid track record of (ironic) praise and huge audience appeal?
I’m not actually suggesting that Jackass 3D should win an Oscar. But I wonder: should criticism ideally be more than just entertainment? It seems to me that critics should be explaining what they like and don’t like about art, hopefully aiming for something of a consensus about what art is important and what isn’t. When critics aim for entertainment first instead of actual critical thinking, don’t they lose some of their legitimacy?
I don’t know that I’m arguing against arch and entertaining movie reviews. It’s just interesting to note that, at the end of that self-congratulatory irony-tunnel isn’t a utopia of better films. It’s still a cesspool of mostly inane entertainment that discourages real critical thinking. It’s a Bradbury-esque touch that “critics,” with just a dash of irony, can become the enemy of “criticism.”