Monday, 11 April 2011

American History X (1998) - Addresses the reality of racism, rather than simplistically saying 'oh those racists are just stupid'

Viewing Context:
Recorded off of Film4 and waited for a time to watch it with Tasha. This is the first re-watch I have undertaken in some time; I hadn't seen it since I was about 14 so it was interesting revisiting it from a completely different point in my life.

Directed by Tony Kaye, who I am not familiar with and haven't seen anything else from, but Black Water Transit is an intriguing offering. Written by David McKenna; a seemingly eclectic writer, who wrote the screenplays for Blow and SWAT, as well as taking a foray into the digital world of videogames with the screenplay for Scarface: The World is Yours

What Happened:

Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is a big racist. He kills a few guys, goes to jail and sees the error of his ways. Meanwhile though, his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) is becoming deeper ingrained in the white supremacist gang. Derek is determined to keep Danny off the same self destructive path he created for himself.

What I liked:
Spectacle: The brutality was convincingly hard hitting. It was precisely this spectacle that drew me to the film when I was younger. Further, the film was stylised, yet in a way that amplified meaning within the text rather than used for flashy aesthetics. i.e. the use of the wide lens really enhances the social claustrophobia.

Transformation: Derek's transformation is handled fantastically. The symbolic use of black and white when looking back to his pre-enlightened past emphasised how narrow and easily polarised his view was. The sincerity of the transformation was aided by the pace at which new information is revealed about that past.
Rooting for racists: What tells me that the film is well constructed, whilst also being somewhat troublesome, is the way it had me rooting for the white supremacy guys during the basketball game. The music, the pace of editing and the use of slow motion all instructed and manipulated me to want them to win; I had to sort of snap out of it. This seemed the intended response and perfectly captures the way an organization such as their's appeals to what the subject needs to see or hear in order to induct them into their narrative. I emphasise that this doesn't mean that I liked rooting for them, just that I liked that the film was constructed in a way that made me a little appalled at myself for doing so in this instance.

What disappointed:
Editing: The editing is shocking. This could not have been intentional; there are so many minor continuation errors and even some very blatant ones. The one that really took me out of the narrative was when Derek was arrested. The cop grabbed him from behind with his left arm in order for his hand to perfectly and symbolically cover the swastika on his chest. It then shot to Danny's reaction, shot back and it is now his right arm over Derek and not covering the swastika at all. Shot back and back again, it's back to his left hand. I don't usually notice these things, but this one is a howler.

Addresses the reality of racism, rather than just saying 'it's bad': The film investigates those small and seemingly insignificant social factors that create such polarizing and extreme views; that are then used to attract perfectly intelligent people to their way of thinking. It shows how it isn't only delinquents and idiots and therefore steers clear of the usual 'liberal' thing of saying 'this racism stuff is stupid and they're all idiots'. It acknowledges that there are very real social factors that harbour the situation; a situation that isn't logical and doesn't make anyone any happier or fulfilled, but is perfectly real and comes from real circumstances. I.e. It can only be stopped when the seemingly insignificant social infrastructure is addressed, rather than shutting one's ears to the real issues and saying 'oh well people shouldn't be racist'.

Performance of the film:
Ed Norton: For his transformation pre, post and during his jail time. It is impressive how he can be so convincing in both roles in the same text.

Scene of the film:
Winning the court: the basketball scene explained above, for the reasons I gave. Although just a little extra, the whole jail sequence really elevates it and makes it everything it is

Double take:
Different to my usual final word as this is my first revisit post. Although I enjoyed the film this time around, it didn't quite have the impact it had when I saw it originally. It is possible that I have seen more complex films since, or maybe a lot rests on not knowing what happens in the final act. Whatever this may be, I just didn't quite enjoy it as much as before.

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