Sunday, September 26, 2010

American History X -- Where "X" Doesn't Mark the Spot

I just watched American History X, a 1998 film in which Ed Norton played a skinhead, Nazi white power guy who goes to prison for killing some guys (black) who were trying to steal his car.

He is sent to prison, where he learns to love and finally see life from others' perspectives, aided by a small, sassy-talking black kid with whom he works in the prison laundry. For, in prison, the impossible happens: the white supremacists aren't quite as committed to the cause as Ed Norton's character. He "disses" them because of this. And then horror -- they rape him in the shower to demonstrate that he shouldn't judge them.

Let me tell you -- I've never been to prison, but if I were in the shower, I'd not only have eyes in the back of my head, I'd sure as shit not loiter around when everyone else suddenly walks out. But Ed Norton insisted on having his Calgon moment, filmed as though it was going into a Calvin Klein commercial, with water drops flying around in slop motion and hyper clarity.

If prison rape provides the kind of clarity of mind portrayed in American History X, then I'm inclined to recommend it for every politician now in office.

When Ed Norton is not being raped in the shower or lifting weights in the yard, he works in the laundry -- hard-hearted at first, quiet and sullen, filled with angst and white pride. But his hard white heart is no match for a TV-stealing man/child who bends over backwards to sound natural and ghetto with his too-many "Ah-ight?"s.

The black kid spins the wisdom of the ages in rapid-fire ghetto-speak. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in heart. I wanted to vomit.

The writer and director of American History X got hold of a Big Idea. Worse, a Lofty Idea: racism is wrong, whether practiced by whites OR blacks.

What a revelation!

And with this fresh, never-before-thought-of truism in hand, the writer and director sought to make The Most Powerful Film Imaginable based Upon This Truth They Founded.


Clearly, the idea was too much for them, overwhelming them, drawing out their inner Martin Luther King, Jr.s, their latent Gandhis, their cellar-dwelling Mother Theresas, their closeted Nelson Mandelas.

On a practical level, the writer had Ed Norton's character orating with enormous speeches, literally quoting facts and figures, government budget sums, statistics, census data, while pumping up skinheads in a vacant parking lot before they raided and vandalized a Korean-run grocery store.

Elliot Gould -- he of the sad-eyed-liberal-of-the-lowlands -- was nothing more than a prop in this film. He was brought in as the history teacher to whom Ed Norton's younger, skinhead brother submitted a review of Mein Kampf as a work of civil rights literature. Gould is used only one other time, during a flashback to a dinner discussion -- when he was, of course, dating the skinheads' mother -- in which the Rodney King beating was discussed. Again, Ed Norton's character quotes facts and figures, sociological data as well as his own spleen.

Worse, the flashbacks when Ed Norton was an unrepentant skinhead were filmed in black and white. The present day, when he gets out of prison and is reformed and wise and benevolent and filled with love for the brotherhood of man, are filmed in color. It doesn't get any more heavy-handed than that.

If Ed Norton's speeches as a skinhead don't utterly rip apart the audience's willing suspension of disbelief, then the Great Showdown on the Basketball Courts does.

First, the skinheads have a guy weighing at least 600 lbs playing basketball on their court. Three steps and the guy would have died of a heart attack. But in the film, he's as spry as Spud Webb.

After an unkind hard foul takes place, Ed Norton rises to address the masses: keep the score where it's at, whites play against blacks (up to then the game had been integrated, which is impossible to believe given how rabidly racist the skinheads are portrayed), winner owns the basketball court, losers can never come back again to play.

And the white guys not only proceed to win, but they win when Ed Norton steals the ball on a bad pass, drives down the court and does a reverse two-handed slam dunk.

No. Fucking. Way.

Ah, but the Lofty Idea could not be denied, I'm sure the screenwriter would say. The giant roiling moral to be made could not be quieted.

The quiet hero of the film is bad, black, multi-PhD-holding school principal Dr. Sweeney. He his portrayed by actor Avery Brooks whose over-the-top oratory is simply too much. He plays the role like he's playing Othello playing King Lear. I was waiting for him to confront a racist skinhead by saying, "Doth protest too much!"

As veteran actor Elliot Gould was only used as a prop, so too was veteran actor Stacey Keach, who played the racist-in-the-shadows who groomed Ed Norton's character to be the Abraham Lincoln of the skinheads.

American History X is a perfect example why writers and directors ought to simply steer clear of Lofty Ideas. It's not that the Lofty Idea is an untameable beast, it's a strawman, a trojan horse grand on the outside, but filled with whiny platitudes, painfully obvious observations that aren't new to anyone, filled with hokum, overwrought, phony emotion, phony sincerity, ultimately landing flat and whimpering.

I came away from the film with only one thing: I now know what "curbing" is. Even that was horribly done.

A guy who's been shot is absolutely going to be finished off by Ed Norton the skinhead is not going to obey Ed Norton's order to "Put your mouth on the curb!" Death is coming, no matter what. Who the hell is going to make it worse and more ignoble for himself by putting his mouth on the curb? No one. What if the guy hadn't put his mouth on the curb? Ed Norton, by that time, was out of bullets in his gun, so he couldn't shoot the guy.

So, he'd kick the guy or pistol whip him. I'm no expert on street violence, but after seeing the end result of "curbing", I have to say that kicking and pistol whipping is preferable.

Here is another Truth I hope the makers of American History X tackle next: Money Cannot Buy Happiness.

Or, maybe this: Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover.

Or, Stealing is Bad.

Or, People Are Not For Sale.

Or, People Should Be Kind to People.

Or, Integrity!

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