AMERICAN HISTORY X AND THE PARADOX OF CINEMATIC AGEING
Any discussion about cinematic ageing must of course begin with the acknowledgement that it’s virtually impossible to have an enlightening discussion about cinematic ageing. In part because so much of criticism depends on time and place, and what was original, what was clichéd. Something considered revolutionary in the thirties was different to what fulfilled the same criteria in the 60’s or the 90’s. Tropes change and evolve, as does the perception of what ‘quality’ is. And in a way I have no right to dispute whether a film was a classic of its time, or the reviews that said as much, because it is impossible for me to comprehend that time and place in its detail and complexity.
Having said that, there is a sort of poisonous critical trend to not question what your daddy tells you, so to speak, in which classics of the preceding generation are lauded unquestionably and proudly, and if you don’t understand the acclaim, or even if you like them on a more conditional basis, then you have to find a reason why your bias didn’t allow you to appreciate this film’s brilliance. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a critic in the 70’s, having all this creativity exploding around you and yet still have to be told and accept for the sake of credibility that Citizen Kane is the best film ever made? Nothing against Citizen Kane, it’s a film that deserves to remembered in a lot of ways, but I think what got it the reputation it has was perhaps its blazing originality in its structure and tone.
But here’s the thing, if you’re discussing a film’s legacy; If you’re discussing its ability to stand the test of time and have decade after decade still view it as a masterpiece, then nothing matters less than originality. Because that originality will be cannibalized, be imitated and absorbed into filmmaking culture. Revolution becomes the new status quo and when I watch Citizen Kane I see that biopic formula that has retroactively been turned into cliché. I don’t see it as anything new. Removed of this context, it suffers. And while I can still see it’s a terrific piece of filmmaking, it doesn’t feel timeless; it doesn’t feel spectacular or ascendant. Not like Casablanca does, or Vertigo does, or It’s A Wonderful Life does. That critical stubbornness that kept trying to insist upon it has been unfair to the film, not allowing it to age the way it was supposed to and thus leading to 90% of viewers having a disappointing experience, in spite of its quality. It’s not that it’s a bad film, but more that it’s been surpassed, by a subsequent 70 years of incredible filmmaking, and pretending that it hasn’t just makes everyone resent it.
And that’s the problem with the hand-me-down critical principle, each generation isn’t allowed to pick its own masterpieces, and it isn’t allowed to refute the ones already stood in line. This brings me to American History X, the film that brought up this whole issue for me. Upon its release it was met with pretty much unanimous critical acclaim, Oscar nominations and a film that to this day sits very, very high in the IMDB Top 250 list (#37). But this is a film that will age badly. Many people I know and whose opinions I respect were surprised by how much I liked it and it leads me to think that this is a film that will be seen in a way that is worse than it probably deserves, because we now live in an environment where smart movies have to be restrained and there’s no doing for them otherwise.
I’m not here to exonerate American History X, there are things about it that don’t work and things that feel trite and overwrought, but there are also some spectacular things too, and as far as I’m concerned these far outweigh the concerns and stumbles. But what it does do is commit that unforgivable sin that no film post-1990 can commit. It’s not subtle. Serious dramas of this ilk are expected to be low-key, low budget stories where no one says anything, and politics are to be talked around in lieu of their human consequences. Films about hot-button issues even more so, expected to be solely about those consequences and not the causes, the what but not the reasons why, and this has always left me confounded.
I’m not quite sure when it became sacrilege to include either a political or sociological perspective in cinema, but it sure as hell did. And that’s part of what makes American History X so compelling: it flies in the face of this. The white supremacists of the film have reasons for their racism that goes beyond insanity, ignorance or simply being evil. It comes from anger, from frustration and disillusion. A desire for that lost America that never really existed anywhere but on TV. This is an earnest film, one that unapologetically wears its heart and its beliefs on its sleeve. Tony Kaye isn’t the subtlest of visual directors, and plays the thing out like an opera, full of soaring emotions and visual intensity. This ‘dial it up to 11’ strategy does lead to a couple of moments to be overcooked. Such as the Blacks vs. Whites basketball game, or the neo-nazi assault on a supermarket. But it also leads to some spectacular scenes, such as a Vinyard family dinner that descends into violence or the scene in which a character kills two people trying to steal his car. These moments make for incredible cinema, and there are aspects and moments in the film that are spellbinding.
Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard in particular is a fiercely intelligent and articulate character, someone whose personal pain and tragedy lead to him to buying into the wrong bullshit. The most engaging monsters on screen are usually intelligent people fuelled by stupid ideas, and he definitely is cut from that cloth. Brought to life by Norton, he is in equal parts terrifying and soulful, repulsive and engaging. I’d pretty comfortably call this Norton’s best performance, Fight Club included, and it’s also two-thirds of one of the best characterizations in modern cinema, tragically let down by the final act. Which somewhat undercuts the whole thing. Because Derek was a character of such conviction in his hate, his redemption was going to be doubly difficult to pull off and having a Chris Tucker type inmate's excruciating joke-telling be the thing that pulls him back from his madness isn’t just unconvincing, it falls dead flat. The funny thing is, I like much of the final act once this happens, Norton is as terrific as reformed Derek and his scenes with his family have a wonderful unspoken regret to them. It’s just the seeing the light moment is so badly fumbled you can’t really forgive it, and it certainly prevents the film from being the all-time classic it perhaps could have been otherwise.
I think because of its balls-out nature people confuse this for a dense film, but it’s a fantastically intelligent discussion of race beneath all of its bluster, a film that doesn’t make excuses but doesn’t demonize, and isn’t afraid of saying what it means. It’s also a wrenching tragedy in a way, seeing hate as a virus that contaminates everything around it. But it is a film that, as time passes, people will be drawn to its faults as opposed to its strengths, because that’s the decay that springs from whitewashed praise. Film, it seems always has to be one thing or the other, a spectacular success or resounding failure because that’s easier to understand, and it’s easier to say. But like Citizen Kane, American History X is a terrifically daring film with some moments that are legitimately breathtaking. It’s just not perfect. And because too many people said it was, now too many people will say it sucks, simply to balance the scales.
By Louis Baxter
Illustration by Richard Manders