Wednesday 27 July 2011

American History X (1998)


Racism… feel the eerie chill that runs through the room when the subject is brought up. It’s an old issue, but still holds all of the power to antagonise and divide today. Some people believe it’s a simple issue of perception; others believe it to be one of, if not The most complex and thorny subject in society. It’s a heavy topic and, in the tradition of the artist’s need to explore the many problems of society, it has been the focus of so many works, from novels to films to music to painting to sculpture… like I say, it’s a big one. In 1998, another film was released to explore this subject: American History X.

A brutal skinhead named Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is tried and sent to prison for the murder of two black men who tried to steal his truck. When he gets paroled three years later, Derek emerges reformed, but finds that his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), who grew up idolising his brother, is following him down the same path. Derek resolves to save his brother from the same fate.

American History X had something of a tortured birth. It was the first script from writer David McKenna and the first film for director Tony Kaye. The story has a good central conceit and Kaye certainly seemed to have an idea of, at least, how he wanted to the film to look. The problem came much later on, during the editing process. Kaye, who was editing the film himself, was taking a while to finish. New Line Cinema, who were behind the film, didn’t like his version and made several suggestions as to what they wanted from the final cut. Kaye begrudgingly then came up with a second, much shorter version of the film. New Line apparently rejected it right away and took the task of editing away from Kaye, bringing in editors Jerry Greenberg and Alan Heim (who got final credit) and Edward Norton to come up with a new version for release. Angry at this decision, Tony Kaye disowned the film and tried to have his name taken off of the project. However, because he openly spoke about his reasons for doing so in Variety, he violated the rules of the Director’s Guild of America and was not allowed to remove his name. Kaye then sued both the DGA and New Line for violation of his right to free speech. Pretty messed up, isn’t it?

I suspect the reason that Kaye was taking so long to come up with his best edit of the film was because he saw a problem with it that he was trying his best to cover, which pretty much seems to exist at the scripting stage. In the chronology presented by the film, Derek starts off as a teenager in high school, intelligent but naïve. We see that the beginnings of his hatred, or at least mistrust, of people of other races rests with what his dad taught him at the dinner table. Derek’s father was clearly a big part of his life, as he alludes to how important he was to him. However, we really only have this one scene to show what the father is like and how that inevitably leads to Derek becoming the skinhead we meet at the film’s opening. It does make a kind of sense, but it still seems like quite a leap, especially since this is the only time we see the father. We already know that he was killed when he was shot trying to put out a fire in black neighbourhood, which Derek immediately takes as being clear evidence that black people have no respect for law, property or life. A couple more scenes would perhaps have helped sell this trajectory more, but as it is, it’s a lot to hang on a single scene.

Also, there is a constant shift in narrative perspective, though this is made easier to handle due to Kaye’s decision to film past events in black and white and present events in colour. Most of the film is told in flashback, narrated by Danny as he tries to write a paper on his brother. He recounts the big moments that he was present for in Derek’s growth into the skinhead leader, which serve for some powerful scenes. However, because all we can see of the past is what Danny saw, we don’t get answers for some questions that would have been very interesting. For example, how did Derek fall in with Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), the man who fed him the white supremacist stuff, to begin with? This is a hugely significant moment of Derek’s life and incredibly important to our understanding of his development, but since Danny was not privy to this, neither are we. It just happens. Even then, there are some slight holes in this point of narration, such as his mother talking to Murray outside their home. Then we have the moments of the present, which are free of narrative constriction, so we can go where we want, follow whomever we want. Under these conditions, we split our time mainly between Derek and Danny, with the occasional deviation into glimpses of other characters. Then there is a second, more extended flashback sequence from Derek, telling Danny about his time in prison. So, within the film, there are three shifts in perspective. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave the whole feeling a bit disjointed.

Ultimately, the problem with the script is that it tries to do too much. It wants to open a debate on racial politics, it wants to meditate on the nature of hatred, it wants to show the brutal actions and the more brutal consequences of these characters, it wants to scare, it wants to educate, it wants to offer a small glimmer of hope… the script simply can’t do all of these things in a concise and erudite manner. As I said, I think that’s what Tony Kaye was trying to compensate for in the editing suite. He saw that some scenes were not really carrying the full impact that they should have, and tried to work around it. Not that the edit we see is without problems. Often, characters are ignored when you really feel they would have had something to say. For example, there’s the scene where the Vinyard family are at the dinner table and Derek’s father is telling him not to swallow all of the “affirmative black-tion bullshit”. This scene seems to exist only for Derek and his father… but the rest of the family are present. Don’t they have any thoughts on this? We know Davina, Derek’s sister, would disagree, but she stays silent. There isn’t even a shot of her during all this. Why? Again, this seems like the kind of thing that results from a script that hasn’t been properly conceived and a direction that hasn’t been properly focused. Saying that, there is report that part of Norton’s input in the editing process was to give himself more screen time, which could also explain such a problem.

So, yes, I do think that there some problems with the film on a basic level of conception, but this is all stuff that speaks to, for lack of a better way of putting it, my filmic intellect. If I ignore the problems of narrative or plot, what does the film do on an emotional level? It’s a very emotive subject, so it would be foolish to ignore the impact that emotion has. I find the film very disquieting and unsettling, but I say that in a good way. The film may seem more like a string of scenes on some occasions, but these scenes do have power to them. This is pretty much thanks to some excellent performances onscreen. Edward Furlong often gets relegated to simply watching events happen, being that he is the conduit for the viewer, but he does carry himself well in the role. He shows that Danny isn’t really a believer in all of this neo-Nazi crap, but goes along with it because it gives him a sense of being and a social life, not to mention because it makes him feel closer to his brother, whom he clearly admires. Ethan Suplee’s Seth is a repulsive individual, offensive in almost every aspect, even to his own friends, who put up with him only because he’s so intimidating. Avery Brooks is a firm and dignified presence in the film as Sweeney, one of the few people willing to meet Derek and engage with his ideals. Guy Torry gets overlooked a lot, but his is a rather important role. His Lamont is Derek’s first real interaction with a black person as equals, which only happens because Lamont wins him over with humour. If he wasn’t convincing, there would be a real weak spot to Derek’s story. Beverly D’Angelo also gets a rather overlooked show in the film, but is rather touching as Derek’s much put-upon mother. However, this film belongs to Edward Norton. He’s a force in this film, both emotional and physical. He comfortably carries the early Derek’s slightly unsure teenage self; through to his rather scary incarnation as an instigator of hate (the look of pride on his face after he murders two people is very unsettling); and finally to his reformed and repentant self, trying to severe his connections to his past life for the good of his family.

American History X is a good, but flawed film, which holds some great performances, especially from Norton. However, there is something that stands in the way of it being the really great film that you know it wants to be. There are small technical issues with some of the camerawork, but the structure of the film remains the biggest the obstacle to overcome, which sees the final message maybe a little hard to nail down. Nevertheless, I do like the film. It’s provocative and deeply unsettling and doesn’t really offer a clean conclusion. I’m not sure it makes its point as powerfully as it wants to, but it does at least try.

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