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Tony Kaye made his name in Europe by directing television commercials, and in the U.S. by foaming at the mouth about how studio philistines and one stupid actor ruined his first feature film, American History X. Such artistic outrage is nothing new, of course, but Kaye is a hypemaster of the first water and, by all accounts, a bit of a psycho to boot. The studio claimed that Kaye’s version was hollow and TV-movieish, not that it was unreleaseably modern. Kaye’s claims that he was this close to reinventing film for all time sound as self-serving as those Oprah Winfrey interviews in which she gives a breathless account of watching the dailies with Beloved director Jonathan Demme: “Have you ever seen anything like this in your life?” she natters. “No, no one’s ever made a movie like this.” Really, people. No one’s making movies like you’ve never seen except Chris Marker and Guy Maddin, and you don’t see those, either.
The final cut of American History X argues in favor of the judgment of the studio and Edward Norton, who was asked to meddle in its arrangement sometime between Kaye’s directorial dissatisfaction and his flipping out entirely. It’s a jumble of contradictions: pretentious but thoughtful; arty and passionate, yet in love with itself and with the freedoms the script defends; as powerful an exegesis of neo-Nazism as any that ever copped out to movie-of-the-week cliché. Flashbacks are filmed in ravishing Nike-ad black-and-white, the present-day story recounted by two different narrators in color. Little narrative red flags of doom are planted at even intervals along the way, in case you’re in the bathroom for the climactic ending. An essential psychological transformation takes place over a few minutes. Those are the film’s flawsdirectorial choices all. Perhaps the real kudos for innovation should go to screenwriter David McKenna and the magnificent actors.
The flashbacks piece together the ideological arc of Derek Vinyard (Norton), a scruffy teen whose inchoate frustrations and sorrows coalesce into a dedication to the white-power movement that is as hard and cold as bone. Puppeteered by Cameron (Stacy Keachyou’ll see why he wore that mustache for 20 years), a local racist with dreams of building an army of skinhead youth, Derek becomes the leader of the Venice, Calif., neo-Nazi cell whose beliefs culminate in a dreadful murder.
Meanwhile, in color, Derek is released from prison (note to studios: please make a movie that does not begin with Edward Norton being released from prison) to find that his little brother Daniel (Edward Furlong) has picked up the racist baton. Derek is no longer the same man who was sent away for a crime of monstrous violence, and now he must extricate Danny from Cameron’s clutches and douse the racial tinderbox he helped heat up three years before.
The bare facts can’t convey how beautifully Kaye photographs the ugliness, and Norton’s ferocious intensity is just as blistering even after his character’s conversion, a slow, convincing redemption also shown in flashback. When the movie begins, the brothers’ racism is drawn as heroic, a legitimate response to black troublemaking on the tattered fringes of Los Angeles. The boys have nerve and resilience; they are totally fearless, walking into any situation without a tremor, heads high. Kaye sides blatantly with them, playing Napoleonic martial music to rouse our admiration when the skinheads beat the black kids in a battle for the local basketball court. He shoots Norton in sensual slow-motion, lingering on his fierce tattooed body as the muscles shift under his skin.
This is audacious stuff, but Kaye is an ideologue, too; he forces the viewer to sit still and listen while Derek reels off spools of well-reasoned racist claptrap to beguile punk-rock layabouts and horrify his family. The dedication of an intelligent and basically decent young man to this social horror show is totally consistent, even if Kaye does throw in some unnecessary familial precedent by way of psychologizing. When Derek gets out of prison, he is still violent and impulsive, a smart talker with fists of stone as uncowed by the threats of the neo-Nazis he amassed as he was by the Crips he shot. Derek is worshiped like a god among the thuggish white kids, and even his own familysick, listless mom (Beverly D’Angelo) and scornful liberal sister (Jennifer Lien)can’t escape the glare of his charisma.
But it’s Daniel whose future is at stake, and it’s in Daniel’s characterization that the film falls apart. When he turns in an essay on the subject of “civil rights” defending Hitler as a great promoter thereof, his history teacher (Elliott Gould) turns him over to Principal Sweeney (Avery Brooks), who vows to take over Daniel’s education with a one-on-one course called “American History X.” Daniel thinks that Derek’s release will release him from having to toe the tolerant line in schoolhis first assignment is an essay on his brother’s experience.
The brothers’ ideologies contrast in their level of intellectual engagementDerek’s outbursts, despite the horrific content, are articulate, passionate, and full of spurious but impressive statistics and quotes; Daniel is a vessel aching to be filled with some empowering cant. At a party at Cameron’s the night of Derek’s release, the skinheads figure out that the joint has played with Derek’s head; all the information in the world can’t save him from his ex-colleagues and from the local gangbangers bent on revenge. In prison, Derek has managed to see something that none of the white punks or black drug dealers have seen: how real life works. Unarmed with either weaponry or human backup, he’s just as fearless and just as dedicated to living his new life as he was to his old one. After the party, he recounts to Daniel exactly how the joint played with his headin flashback for uswhereupon the two of them go to Daniel’s room and take down all the posters. Literally overnight, Daniel turns his life around; he’s got an adoring new girlfriend and is itching to turn in the new essay to Mr. Sweeney. From here on, the conventions of Boyz N the Hood and a million TV-movie scripts kick in.
American History X is no messremarkably for a two-hour feature, it doesn’t sprawl and never rambles (although it does a lot of lolling about in slo-mo)but it is beset by too-easy details that oversell the story. Still, it’s risky and complex, daring to take into account every possible point of view, even that of Derek’s prison-laundry partner, an easygoing black man who treats Derek’s tattoos and skinhead affectations as trivial and amusing; it has never occurred to Derek that there is more to life than taking sides. His prison conversion is no epiphany of tolerancehe’s disgusted by the white racists because they traffic with Mexicans and take drugs. “They didn’t believe in anything,” he says with wonderment. But despite the film’s flaws and the hype surrounding its release, that revelation is a subtle one. It pulls away from the matter of conflicting ideologies and focuses the story on human behavior: Lack of belief, too, can be used for good or for evil.CP