March 14, 2008

American History X

American History X is a more important film than it is a good film. Its political attitudes are more important than its storyline- something that places it beneath films with a message that work as films. The mastership of a craftsman like Bergman was that he was able to say something and tell a story- American History X cannot do both. It has one central character who is realised fully- Derek Vineyard- a Nazi skinhead who becomes through the course of a prison sentence a more tolerant and humane individual. Its the story of him attempting to rescue his own brother from the same cul-de-sac that leads through the white rights culture down into the morass of prison and resentment, of hatred and fear and curses and death. Its a nasty subculture that the film portrays, a nasty, unpleasant, horrible and vicious culture filled with darkness- and in this case a particularly excruciating scene.

That culture comes under the microscope here- together with the reasons that some people might enter into it. The culture on the streets of America as portrayed in American History X is violent and brutal- its filled with bullying gangs and rife with problems. From murder to single motherhood in poverty, every blight on the urban landscape of modern America is here and there is little chance of redemption. These characters are locked- often accidentally locked into a cycle of violence, deprivation and poverty and Naziism gives them a reason to throw out their hatred to the world. Racism in the film is a scream from those who are deeply cut to their cores, whose brothers are murdered, who are forced off basket ball courts and beaten in the gent's toilets. In such deprivation it is easy to develop hatred and to develop not the better angels but the worst of our nature, it is easy to turn resentment into the hard currency of slogans and fear, into the harder coin of murder and violence.

As a political thesis, that has much to commend it. Of course support for extremism is much more complicated- I have dealt with some aspects of it myself in other places. The real point though about this film and one that it makes fairly and well is that those feelings are real. Those feelings of hatred and fear are central to the way that some people experience their lives. The fascist characters apart from Derek and his brother here are cardboard cutouts- but there is no denying the reality of the thrill that fascism gives to their lives- that it gives to their wandering egoes. Nor can there be any doubt that liberalism, personified here by teachers, is weak in dealing with these problems- a world in which there are simple problems is also a world in which there are unfortunately no simple answers and the complicated, nuanced points of a liberal can sound like blethering.

Ultimately American History X comes down to make a simple and important point- a point that I think has a lot of merit to it- which is about anger. Anger can be productive- it can lead us to build schools and hospitals. But it can be unproductive and if it takes over lives and obliterates sympathy it can be very unproductive and lead to real disaster. Anger can corrode our sentiments for our fellow human beings- we can end up so angry, so embittered with our situation and the world, that we never take a step forwards. To some extent anger in this way becomes a counterpart to depression, a mood that inhibits the natural cycle of human life, the natural attempt to build something for the future, for your family, for an ideal of goodness. Anger however directed feeds on itself- Derek makes the point continually that anger in this film is something that devours but never satisfies. Political anger is a kind of philosophical masturbation- it never satisfies, never produces anything but an itch to do it more and more- it might releive the instantaneous tension but can never supply an answer.

This film is preachy, it lacks subtle characters and there is a bit too much caricature for my liking- its quite possibly a bad film with a good message. Even the message could be improved- there are more things to be learnt and curiously for a film against racism, many of its black characters are even more cardboard than their white counterparts. But its a film from a point of view and it does succeed in conveying that point of view. More than that, it is a film about an idea and whatever we think of the stuttering delivery, the idea about the psychology of anger and the way it feeds extremism is a useful analytical tool. Its expression here is limited to the way that anger feeds off poverty, and the conversion of its leading characters is managed too easily- most neo-nazi teenagers don't take a night to convert back to tolerance- but its a worthy effort.


Ario said...


Your film analyses make always for a good read and I don't really mean to quibble here, but there seems to be an odd tension within this post: it seems you cannot quite bring yourself to pan American X for the bad craftsmanship it so obviously is. Personally I think American X is an opportunity missed because of that.

The problem with any art is - I think - that it cannot rely on the (good) ideas alone (and how do you define what's a good idea - that's possibly even more subjective and/or contentious than the perceived quality of a work of art).

Good ideas still need to be executed well in a film, novel, painting or poem. If not - they end up just being grating adduncts, an excuse for bad characterisation or the sense that a particular piece was a good opportunity missed. As in this case.

But I think you know that...:)

Gracchi said...

Ario I do and I agree one hundred percent. There are ok moments in American History X but its just really disappointing as a film. I was probably too charitable to it- the craftsmanship is appalling- though I think Norton is actually ok in the leading role. It is such a missed opportunity and I should have brought that out more! Its difficult because I want to get to the point of the film but it is undermined- I think at some point I'll come back to it and think a bit more about how its undermined- I think its because actually the director isn't very good at presenting characters, he just wants to make the argument and because of that the argument isn't as good as it should be.

KC said...

I enjoyed the film, however there were many scenes that made me cringe or cover my eyes. Thumbs up from me