Don't Know Much About History

American History X, a hard-edged look at American neo-Nazis, arrives in theaters with a lot of behind-the-scenes baggage: First-time director Tony Kaye has engaged in a protracted, high-profile battle with producer-distributor New Line Cinema over the film's final form.

While Kaye may have a justified grievance, this is not as clear-cut a case of Ambitious Artist vs. Evil Bean Counters as was, for instance, Terry Gilliam's celebrated struggles with Universal Pictures over Brazil 13 years ago. Gilliam had met his obligations with a version the studio rejected, despite the director's contractual right to the final cut. Kaye, on the other hand, was granted extra editing time without producing a version with which he was pleased. After being denied yet more time for fine-tuning, he went public with his dissatisfaction; ironically, he was denied the right to take his name off the film.

From the outside it's hard to judge whether this is a case of heavy-handed studio interference or of petulant antics by a publicity-hungry filmmaker. (The two are not mutually exclusive.) In Kaye's defense, his characterization of the studio's version as "preachy" is on the mark. At the same time, unless there is missing footage that is wildly different from what is now on screen, it's impossible to imagine what sort of tinkering could have elevated this manipulative, steamroller-subtle melodrama into something worth fighting over.

Edward Norton stars as Derek Vinyard, an allegedly intelligent Venice, California, youth whose father, a fireman, is murdered by gangbangers while putting out a blaze in the ghetto. Derek already has a racist bent; his understandable fury over his father's death is quickly exacerbated by Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), a slimy neo-Nazi looking for a way to expand his power base among the young. Derek, a natural leader, becomes Alexander's lieutenant, organizing pathetic losers such as the slovenly, imbecilic Seth (Ethan Suplee) into a gang of white-power, skinhead thugs.

When armed blacks try to steal Derek's truck, he kills two of them, and as a result is sentenced to three years in prison. While he does time, his little brother Danny (Edward Furlong), motivated by Derek's martyrdom, starts to emulate his older brother, much to the dismay of their mother (Beverly D'Angelo) and sister (Jennifer Lien), who inexplicably appear to be kindly liberals.

The film's main time frame -- which is intercut with numerous black-and-white flashbacks -- is the 24-hour stretch after Derek is released from prison. Danny's history teacher (Elliott Gould), a Jew who has, not coincidentally, dated the brothers' mother, is enraged when Danny uses an assignment about the civil rights struggle to turn in a paper about Mein Kampf. After Danny makes the case that Hitler saw his struggle as one for civil rights, the school's wise and patient black principal (Avery Brooks) demands that he write a second paper -- this one about Derek. The paper gives the filmmakers an excuse to indulge in flashbacks and voice-over narration.

As soon as Derek arrives home, however, it is clear that he has changed. His behavior shocks Danny, Cameron, Seth, and Derek's animal-like girlfriend (Fairuza Balk, whose characterization runs the gamut from rabid to rabid): He's acting almost like... well... the enemy. (While Mom and Sis are understandably pleased, it's never clear why they appear totally unsurprised.)

Yes, Derek has had a major, life-changing experience in prison, one that causes him to repudiate everything he previously believed in. In a 25-minute flashback that starts roughly 70 minutes into the 118-minute movie, Derek explains to Danny how his life has been turned around. At least that's what he's supposed to be explaining. If only! Because we know from the beginning that Derek is a changed man, the film builds suspense by withholding just how that change occurred. When we finally find out, the answer is neither compelling nor convincing enough to justify the wait.

It is at this point that the movie's failure becomes apparent. Derek's transformation is so unbelievable that Kaye might just as well have created a pop-song montage showing Derek bonding sentimentally with black inmates. He learns that the prison's white-power advocates are simply self-interested hypocrites, while the black guys are, uh, nice. One might think this would double his resolve, that he would want to purify his Nazi ideology by purging its corrupt elements. (It might seem as if I'm giving away too much here, but the picture itself is so anticlimactic there is no harm in discussing such matters. And the story line is so revealing, in terms of the film's politics, that it would be irresponsible not to.) So for no very clear reason Derek's prison experience utterly changes him. Danny's own personality transformation, after one long talk with his brother, is even less plausible.

In essence, this is what American History X offers as a central theme: Aimless white kids with bad lives may develop fascist, scapegoating excuses for their plight, but when exposed to their victims' realities they can change and realize the errors of their ways. This is hardly a news flash. Still, when presented well, such a simple idea seems profound compared to what drives most current Hollywood movies. But it's not presented well; the film fails dramatically as well as ideologically. Granted, there is some emotional engagement, achieved almost entirely by bullying the audience. Rubbing our noses in depictions of rape, killing, and savage beatings is the cheapest way to enlist our emotional support.

Wait, I take that back. It's the second-cheapest way. The cheapest way is to pump up every confrontation with disproportionately melodramatic music, music designed to convince the audience of a scene's excitement and power. The score by British composer Anne Dudley does this repeatedly: A basketball game becomes the Battle of the Bulge. (Dudley has done some decent work in her time, but her recent, baffling Oscar for the totally unmemorable music to The Full Monty suggests that Academy voters think she wrote "You Sexy Thing," "Rock and Roll, Part 2," and the rest of the oldies that fueled that film.)

It may be difficult to deal with hot-button issues such as fascism without indulging in sensationalism, but it is possible. American History X bears more than a glancing similarity to Hubert Cornfield's neglected 1962 Pressure Point, in which black psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat neo-Nazi prison inmate Bobby Darin. (The scene between Brooks and Gould toward the beginning of American History X is too similar to Pressure Point's opening confrontation between Poitier and Peter Falk to be happenstance.)

True, Pressure Point has not aged well. It reflects the blind faith in Freudian psychology, the secular religion of its period. Even so, at every turn its ideas are more complex -- and its narrative and visual style more interesting and compelling -- than this counterpart.

While it could be argued that 35 years of desensitizing, on-screen violence has forced Kaye (or New Line) to bludgeon us in an effort to make points about political terror, New Line's own current-release slate refutes that assumption: American History X hits theaters mere days after another New Line film that handles similar issues in a far more complex, subtle, and -- yes -- entertaining way. I refer, of course, to Pleasantville, which on the surface couldn't be more different. But where American History X presents the most obvious notions about fascist violence in the most obvious way, Pleasantville manages to segue from a light pop fantasy into a story about the darker side of American history without ever preaching or dropping its basically fanciful conceit. It may not be perfect, but it succeeds in all the ways that Kaye's (or New Line's) film fails.

American History X.
Directed by Tony Kaye. Written by David McKenna. Starring Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D'Angelo, Elliott Gould, and Fairuza Balk.

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