December 1998
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American History X

By Jessica Brandt

Okay let me get this out of the way right now. I am one of the world's greatest Edward Norton fans. Not only do I think he is our generation's greatest film actor, I think he is totally, incredibly, hot. I am not one to gush, but Ed makes me weak in the knees. I'd go see any movie he's in. I'd like to kidnap him and keep him in my bedroom. We could practice some "method acting" together.

Okay, end of gushing.

Luckilly for me, Edward Norton is beginning to be recognized as our generation's best actor by viable sources, and he is also quite picky and intelligent about the films he chooses to be in, so I will never be disappointed by one.

Little did I know that when I purchased my ticket for American History X, it would be accompanied by a ton of bricks. The subject is so heavy, and the acting heavy as well, that I was glued to my seat even though I had to go to the bathroom from the time I walked in the door.

As usual, I was highly impressed with Norton's acting-- he even went so far as to add 30 pounds of muscle to his somewhat thin frame to bevome the rageful skinhead, Derek Vinyard. As in Primal Fear, Norton had to portray two types of characters: the skinhead king, and the reformed, concerned older brother to Danny Vinyard (played unimpressively by Edward Furlong). Equally impressive in this film was Avery Brooks, who played the concerned principal of Danny Vinyard and mentor to the reformed Derek. Scenes with the two of them were quite powerful and contained a lot of meaning.

The cinematography of the film was a tremendous boost to the film's powerful message about hate and skinhead gangs in America. Silver-colored flashbacks to Derek's life as a socially aware and rage-ridden skinhead really drove home the image of him as a hero to his younger brother and skinhead peers, and the MTV-ish camera action let the viewer feel the craziness that is the neo-Nazi skinhead mind.
The plot, in some ways, fell flat. While trying to capture the tremendousness of the problem at hand (hate), some aspects of the plot were left to question, like why exactly the Vinyard family is suddenly living in a run-down apartment when just before Derek's inprisonment they resided in a affluent Venice Beach neighborhood. Also left out is any mention of the Vinyard sister, Davina (Jennifer Lien) until a third of the way through the story, which left me guessing who this "other woman" might be. The elder Vinyard's turnaround was expected, but somewhat quick. However, there's not much you can do about that given the 2-hour time limit most movies that aren't Titanic have.

Edward Furlong's performance was a little overdone as the worshipping younger brother. He provided much of the narration, and his voice left me cringing, as though he couldn't sound more apathetic and prophetic at the same time.

American History X is a tough movie to watch. You feel yourself feeling sympathetic towards the unreformed Derek and his causes, which will make almost anyone uncomfortable. Some scenes are quite violent, as well. But these features add to the powerfulness of the subject, which can't be ignored in an accurate portrayal of neo-Nazi skin gang life. Norton's huge muscles adorned with various Nazi and white-power symbols (most notably, the gigantic black swastika which covers his heart) will make anyone cringe.

When I went to see this movie, the crowd was small, but mixed. I observed anti-racist teens, little skinheads, and stupid teenagers who took to giggling at the opening credits (Just the names. I didn't get the joke.) There was a black couple, and a few WASP-y types, and me, who fit somewhere inbetween. Towards the beginning of the film, acts of violence towards African-Americans and other minorities were cheered, but as the film progressed, everyone sat tight. Walking out of the theater was like a funeral procession, and I was satisfied to think that everyone who had seen the film that night came out with a lot of things on their minds, which is how it should have been.

I highly reccomend this film, but not to just anyone. Those of you who view films purely for the entertainment factor, be forewarned. It's sort of a documentary, sort of an intellectual discussion, sort of a bad plot. If you are interested in anti-racism, neo-Nazism, gangs, or psychology, this is a great film for you. I have always been very interested in the minds of these sort of thugs, but was previously only in tune with the goings-on of the Midwestern sort, ie disgruntled farm boys. This movie shows the skinheads as more of a gang, or even a cult (with Stacy Keach as their leader). This film is deep in many ways, and I even reccomend seeing it alone, as I did, because it will leave you sort of messed up (like Saving Private Ryan) and confused on just where you stand.


(Extra credit for the many shots of Ed Norton's ass, chest, and even a few extra inches...)

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