Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On the Passing of Ryan Dunn

by C.T. Heaney

Philadelphia summers are full of humid, muggy days, unfit for most living things, and I found myself at a friend’s house with nothing to do on one such hot Sunday last summer. We made a run to Wawa and decided we’d check the offerings at the movie theater the next block over. While neither of us had a strong desire to see any particular film that was playing, merely standing in the oppressive combination of sun and Delaware River vapor steeled our determination to enter the theater for whatever was available. The only movie we could agree on – which neither actually wanted to see, but which neither had a strong opposition to – was Jackass 3D.

I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I’d never seen the MTV show and knew little about Bam Margera except that he was a prankster with a pretty shitty band and a nightclub in the Philly suburbs. I soon found that I had shelled out fifteen dollars to see a ninety-minute, R-rated YouTube video highlight reel. The Jackass aesthetic is a short step up from “Scarlet Takes a Tumble” or “Grape Lady Falls” and a long step down from The Three Stooges; it is physical comedy taken to its simplest, nastiest, and most brutal extremes. That is not to say I did not enjoy it at all, although I do not think any sane person can say that he enjoyed all of it; no one except the pathological, I am convinced, genuinely enjoys watching diarrhea rectally ejected skyward. I think I rather enjoyed it more than my companion – he said afterwards that he had to look away from the screen several times to keep from throwing up, while I did not have any trouble with my alimentary canal (and I can barely keep down three beers).

Jackass 3D did not inspire me to watch any more films or episodes in the franchise, but I think I understood its purpose fairly well without the need for much further study. The point of most Jackass skits is to induce vomiting (in the cast, crew, and audience, as shown in skits like the one where Steve-O drinks a cup of Preston Lacy’s sweat) or giggling at the misfortunes befallen by the team members – a pre-teen’s schadenfreude, built around pratfalls, crotch kicks, and fart bombs. Most, but not all. What I consistently enjoyed most about the film, and what kept me from writing it off as entertainment only for children who are not allowed to see the film without their parents, were the skits that showed inventiveness and ingenuity in their shock – the ones that left the arena of mere cruelty for cruelty’s sake, and evinced thought processes more along the lines of true daredevils or comedians, both of which the Jackass kids are sometimes generously called.

The film’s first skit (after the opening 3D sequence, which is sincerely the most impressive use of the technology I’ve seen outside of Avatar) hints, however obliquely, at such intricacy. The team builds a gigantic, spring-loaded padded hand in a doorway, then lures people through the threshold and smacks them with it. This is funny because someone unexpectedly gets flung back five feet, and it is funny because of repetition (they do it at least a dozen times to different people, and sometimes the same people over and over). But it’s also a fairly complex prank – it required obvious construction and planning, was very large and difficult to hide, and yet was still successful. The fact that any of these people can still prank each other is perhaps in itself impressive; you’d think, by this time, they’d be so wary of each other as to never let their guard down.

Several other sequences also demonstrated elevated levels of engineering insight, comedic savvy, or both. In one, a male and a female midget sit at a bar full of normal-heighted customers. A third midget walks in and picks a fight over the girl, and a brawl breaks out on the floor between them and several more midgets, as the other patrons look on in horror. Soon enough, a brigade of midget police come through and begin arresting the scufflers, and an injured participant is carried away on a stretcher by a team of midget paramedics. This elaborate scenario could be taken at surface level, as carney spectacle on the level with dwarf tossing, but it readily invites deeper analysis. It’s a brilliant use of the reality format, capturing candid reactions by the puzzled clientele trying to decide if what they’re seeing is real or fake, and whether they should see it as hilarious, depressing, frightening, or bothersome. Academics, or rights groups, could doubtless spin it as a Randy Newmanesque fable about the social separation between short and tall. In their own way, it could be argued, Wee Man and his associates in this skit bring awareness to such issues as much or more as Newman, HervĂ© Villechaize, Verne Troyer, or Little People, Big World. I will not argue this…but it could be argued.

In another, a feather-bedecked Ryan Dunn is catapulted into the air and shot with paintballs in a real-life re-creation of Nintendo’s Duck Hunt. The skit required two stuntmen to leap from a cherry-picker onto a huge air pillow in order to launch him. But my favorite scene in the film begins with Ryan Dunn sitting in a nice leather chair, with a suit and sunglasses on, directly in front of a large stereo speaker. As the music swells, a wind kicks up, until Dunn and his chair are sent flying offscreen by the immense force of the current. The scene cuts, and it is revealed to the audience that Dunn was not blown back by the force of the speaker, but rather by the thrust of an airplane’s jet engine placed in front of them. A montage follows with various people and items being thrown into the air stream, including one where a football pass is attempted, but the ball goes sailing hundreds of yards off.

Ryan Dunn is dead. He drove his Porsche off the road at 3:30 on the morning of June 20, and we do not yet know how or why. Alcohol appears to have been a factor, as it often is in such matters. Montaigne wrote that the character of a man’s life should not be judged until after the manner of his death is known, and perhaps it is too soon to do so in this case; but I think it safe to say that Dunn died as he had lived, dangerously, recklessly. Given that some scenes in Jackass 3D openly discuss the legal imbroglio that would ensue if the crew tapes a stunt that results in an accidental death, it’s perhaps most surprising that he didn’t die as a result of injuries sustained during a prank gone awry. He was not much older than I am, not much older than, in all probability, most

of the readership of this site. In some ways, he accomplished much; he was part of a cadre of enormously successful entertainers and businessmen whose work was known worldwide and who were familiar to millions. He died in a Porsche. But in other ways he accomplished very little; what does it mean to be famous for recording videos of yourself shoving a toy car into your rectum and visiting a proctologist? Was he merely “famous for being famous”, someone who had no real reason for being in the public eye other than outlandish behavior? Was his a life well-lived if he left as his sole legacy a stubborn, open refusal to enter adolescence, let alone maturity?

Did Ryan Dunn contribute something worthwhile to society in his short timehere? As someone whose patience for the sophomoric is legendary, but whose patience for the scatological is quite thin, I am nevertheless inclined to say that he did. Humor is a notoriously fleeting quality; it is the very essence of ephemera, difficult to catch and keep, harder to understand when called upon from beyond its own era. The more sophisticated it is, the less likely it will survive to be appreciated by later generations. This fact may make Jackass some of the most enduring comedy of our era, for better or worse; its simple, raw physicality will translate easily because it works at some of the most basic of human levels. It is a populist humor, one that gleefully micturates upon the heads of high art and elevated entertainment; perhaps that makes it postmodern, although prehistoric is probably a more apt descriptor. (And if prehistoric humor still translates among today’s audiences, does that make it timeless?)

However, the moments when I found Dunn and the Jackass crew most entertaining were when they constructed simple skits that required real intelligence in conception or execution. Running in the path of jet engine exhaust is a simple idea– but who would have thought to actually do it? And who would have gone to the length of renting an airplane, setting up the cameras, and firing up the turbines? There’s tremendous comedic potential in this thought, and it’s being exploited by folks who play-act as the dimmest of bulbs. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to come up with the human Duck Hunt, but you do need a good understanding of physics to make it work, and you need some keen insight into what makes physical comedy so enduringly funny, while social satire, parody, irony, cultural referencing, and other comedic devices fade so quickly. Any five-year-old gets the humor in Three Stooges shorts and old Warner’s cartoons, but it takes advanced degrees or a plethora of footnotes to understand why Washington Irving, Miguel de Cervantes or Joseph Haydn were considered such wits in their own day. And it’s not because the slapstick or the cartoons are simple-minded, or at least not just because of that; it’s that they’re also effective, and well-crafted, in ways that are not immediately apparent.

Dunn and his friends became famous for doing three types of stunts: things that many people wanted to do but were afraid to (such as going offroading with golf carts), things that very few people wanted to do (such as using superglue as a depilator), and things that no one thought to do before (such as sit in a wheelbarrow and slingshot oneself down a Slip-‘n-Slide, over a ramp, and into a kiddie pool). They succeeded in doing all three of those things, and thus, in some small and self-consciously absurd way, they expanded what we think of as possible in human endeavors. That’s what daredevils do, and while I called them daredevils and comedians above with a qualifier, I think I owe them that credit on both counts.

I only had a glancing encounter with Ryan Dunn’s work. In some sense, his entire life was his work; the way he lived was his performance. There was no separation between the stage persona and the private life. Dunn was cavalier with his life on-camera, and off-camera, too, we have just learned. Because of this fact, he wasted the better part of it, the forty or fifty years he won’t get to live. Dying so young is always a tragedy, and it certainly casts a pall on the Jackass skits as I look them up on YouTube again. In light of the context, they fade as comedy, and begin to feel more like a powerful memento mori, a reminder that we must not be cavalier with our lives, because they are much more fragile than the young imagine them to be. If Montaigne was right, then it's a shame Dunn did not see fit to take more care, and die better than he had lived.

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