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Friday, February 12, 2010

American History X

One of film's biggest mysteries has finally been answered satisfactorily (at least for me). That mystery, of course, is what happened to Tony Kaye? After directing, disowning and, finally, re-owning critical darling American History X Kaye basically disappeared from the cinema landscape. He briefly resurfaced (awkward pun intended) with the abortion documentary Lake of Fire, but has done nothing else.

After approximately 2 hours of intense detective work I believe I have cracked the case of Kaye's fade from the limelight. Like the drunken German tourist who rubs his feces on a Michelangelo at the L'ourve his photo is perhaps slapped over the entrance of every studio in Hollywood subtitled, do not give money for film-making. Not simply because of the legendary difficulties he provided the studio during the final cut of American History X but also because he made a pretty dreadful movie.

Part of me understands why American History X is so loved. The story is disturbing and attempts to explore a part of the human psyche few try to embrace. After all, Derek Vinyard a quasi-reformed, hate-spewing, Neo-Nazi, dash loving skinhead (played by Ed Norton) is not your typical movie hero. And, the black and white vignettes spliced into the story of Danny Vinyard (Derek's younger brother played by Edward Furlong) are often eerily transfixing and lend the film an, at times, classical feel. Some of the acting performances are even solid. Norton is much more believable as a raging white supremacist than as a bookish white equalist but his early-life scenes often make up for the forced timidity seen later in the movie. Furlong, is solid as his troubled younger brother and Beverly D'Angelo almost makes us see where Derek Vinyard's good side came from. Special mention should go to Elliot Gould whose character (brief as his appearances are) actually humanizes the targets of Norton's rage.

However, that about accounts for the good in this movie. The majority of the dialogue indicates that the crux of the plot revolves around people doing anatomical impossibilities to each other and their mother's, and after the fiftieth mother was fucked the movie just started making me feel stupid, like an adult made to hang around with junior highers at the bus stop. I get that I'm supposed to loathe these characters but it's hard to hate a cartoon character.

I did find some enjoyment in the humor of this movie. Not, the obvious jokes but the unintentional kind. In one of the black and white scenes Ed Norton and his skinhead pals head down to the basketball court to play some black (apparently they're Crips) gangsters from the right to home court. As expected Norton and his Neo-Nazi pals drop dozens of F and N bombs while hooping it up. Unexpectedly, movie Norton is the second-coming of Jason "White Chocolate" Williams circa 1998. He busts out spin moves, behind the back layups and sick revers jams while the skinheads in the audience chant D-Fense! Perhaps the scene was intended to make me contemplate the extremes of Norton's character but, when you ask the viewer to believe that Norton's sidekick - a 300 lb. white supremacist - has mad hoopz skillz, it's hard not to laugh. Throw in some equally ridiculous scenes involving shower rape and the white supremacist rock show and its hard to take this movie seriously.

Sadly, this movie requires that kind of devotion from its audience. I think one has to buy the central conceit of the story - a man seeking redemption for himself and hope for his family - to get past the terribly paced plotting and underdeveloped character arcs. How does a man transform from thoughtful high-schooler to a raging, curb-stomping, skinhead and then back into a reformed family man? I'm not really sure. If I'm to believe American History X's story then all it takes is an out of the blue comment on African-American literature (and subsequent death) of a father figure that has less screen time than the 300 lb skinhead Lebron James to cause the initial transformation. And all it takes to turn Norton back is a few months folding sheets with a guy that dropped a television in the wrong place. It's hard to believe simple explanations like these in such a heavy handed drama.

So, while the ideas here are solid the execution often falls into the realm of ridiculity. In closing, I, like Ed Norton at the end of American History X, will drill into your head the main lesson to be learned from the previous paragraphs - you know, just in case the deep symbolism escaped you. American History X is bad.


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