White and Dark

The scary power of skinhead art.

American History X
Directed by Tony Kaye
New Line Cinema

Life Is Beautiful
Directed by Roberto Benigni
Miramax Films

Conversion narratives–tales of evil, reactionary, or addicted people who reform–share one complicating trait: Their protagonists tend to be more compelling in the throes of their particular depravity than after they “come to their senses.” In rare cases that irony is underlined, as in Drugstore Cowboy (1989), in which the title character (Matt Dillon) stops using drugs and seems suddenly smaller and more vulnerable–and easy prey for the freaks he had previously dominated. But mainstream cinema, which insists on heroes who are both square and hip, has a tough time exploring the paradox that virtue is a great charisma killer. It’s certainly unexplored in American History X, in which Edward Norton plays a racist, homicidal skinhead who’s never more mythically transfixing than in the seconds before he stomps on the neck of a prone African-American car thief. When he returns from prison to his Venice Beach, Calif., home, with his hair grown back and his bloodlust replaced by an air of wary contemplation, both he and the movie shrink to the proportions of a TV set.

Some of American History X is sharp, red-meat melodrama, with sensational acting and scenes of violence at once thrillingly kinetic and revolting. But the film has the soul of a guidance counselor, and whenever it seems poised to go where no commercial American picture has gone before–to a place where our responses are gummed up, where we can grasp simultaneously the horror and the allure of the white supremacist movement–it snaps back into easy moralizing, demonization, and naive notions of how people change. It’s a frustrating piece of work–much too vivid to laugh off, too psychologically elided to take seriously.

What it has is Norton, who is a stunning pictorial object. In the opening, black-and-white sequence, his Derek Vinyard gets interrupted in the throes of animalistic sex with his girlfriend Stacey (Fairuza Balk) by his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), who tells him that two black men are stealing the family’s van. Clad only in boxers and boots and with a huge, thick swastika tattooed over his heart, he snatches a revolver and charges into the street. The camera hugs his long torso and ropy muscles; starkly white against the black of the sky, he seems stripped down to pure hatred.

Norton is an amazing actor, a hot-dog whose delight in transformation is infectious. Here, he curls his body into a sneer, and he’s probably the only white man in movies who’s wiry enough to trounce a bunch of black guys on a basketball court and not leave the audience snickering in incredulity. Better yet, Norton gives Derek a mind as keen as it is caustic. Confronting his mother’s liberal Jewish date (Elliott Gould) at the dinner table, he drives home the point that Rodney King was a multiple felon high on PCP who could easily have run over a child before the Los Angeles cops stopped him on the highway. You say black people need affirmative action to overcome historical injustice? “Lincoln freed the slaves 130 years ago,” he inveighs. “How long does it take to get their act together?” Compare Norton to Tom Cruise in the early scenes of Born on the Fourth of July (1989), in which the actor telegraphs like crazy that his character’s jingoistic declarations are bull. Norton rants convincingly, like a man whose rage has taken on a runaway life of its own.

He is meant, of course, to be a lost soul. Derek’s father was a fireman killed by a black drug dealer while battling a blaze in a crack den. Now, the young man has found a substitute dad in Cameron (Stacy Keach), a glowering fount of white supremacist hate literature who uses his protégé to enlist and incite other youths. American HistoryX reaches a pinnacle of ghastliness when Cameron sends Derek and his fellow skinheads into a Korean-purchased supermarket, the new owner of which has allegedly replaced “real Americans” with cheap, illegal immigrant labor. The assault–an orgy in which fixtures are smashed, workers pummeled, and a Hispanic cashier pinned to a conveyer belt and doused with milk (“She looks white!”)–is terrifying not just because it’s sadistic but also because its sadism is suffused with righteousness.

Sequences of Derek as a skinhead are flashbacks and shot in febrile black-and-white. The present is in (less arresting) color, with a framing device that’s groan-inducingly earnest. The day before his brother is due to be released from prison, the now-skinheaded Danny responds to a high-school assignment to write an essay about a civil rights leader with a paper on Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The scholarly, patrician black principal (Avery Brooks) threatens the boy with expulsion unless he delivers a substitute essay the following day: an analysis of his brother’s crime and its impact on both their family and society. A paper! Assigned by a fair-minded black principal with two doctorates! Can we skew the case any more, please? Brooks, the bulwark of liberal humanism at the furthest reaches of the galaxy on the stultifying TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is too comfortable dropping high-toned pronouncements such as “Your rhetoric and your propaganda aren’t going to save you.” And when Derek gets out of prison, we see that the principal has reached him, too–that he’s ready to exchange a dark white father for a white dark father.

For the movie’s writer, David McKenna, and director, Tony Kaye, the universe consists of white supremacists and liberals, with no one of note in between; and the protagonist’s prison metamorphosis from one pole to the other is the natural consequence of falling afoul of some big Nazi white guys and getting tight with a garrulous, congenial black inmate (Guy Torry) during laundry detail. I wish it were more complicated and that the Mr. Nice Guy who gets out of prison had more to say than “How did I buy into this shit? I was pissed off.” The struggle for his kid brother’s soul turns out to be no struggle at all. And, in light of his conversion, Derek’s former supremacist chums obligingly turn into hissing vampires, snarling at his expressions of tolerance as if they’ve just been flashed the crucifix and sprayed with holy water. Kaye clinches the case by showing Derek in the shower having a vision of himself and his brother as innocent children on the beach, staring in wonderment at seagulls.

A Brit who made his fortune with glossy commercials, Kaye was apparently unsatisfied with the cut of the picture he turned in, and at last report was holed up in the Chateau Marmont issuing proclamations of the film’s inadequacy. I don’t know what he originally had in mind–or whose idea the garish, inconclusive ending was–but American History X isn’t that bad. Kaye has a punchy way with montage, and the script has at least one card up its sleeve: the climactic revelation that Derek’s revered fireman dad (William Russ) was himself a racist who urged his son at the dinner table not to get too cozy with niggers or their literature. It’s a testament to Norton’s utter immersion in the role that he can even halfway connect the dots between this fundamentally sweet, brainy kid and the magnetic, white trash monster who’ll haunt our minds long after the movie’s liberal pieties fade into static.

L ife Is Beautiful, written and directed by and starring Italian Roberto Benigni (he starred in Down by Law, 1986), has won international acclaim for wedding sentimental, Chaplinesque slapstick to a story that finishes up in a concentration camp with Jews being gassed and roasted. In principle, I’m all for flouting hobgoblinish rules of consistency, and I think that farce–a violent genre that feeds on desperation–is often wasted on trivial conflicts. Dario Fo’s play Accidental Death of an Anarchist proved that the Grouchoesque clown could be an anarchic avenger, driving fascists to apoplexy; and Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties (1976), however gross and ham-handed, at least suggested that a concentration camp could function as a legitimate setting for a black-comic parable about a parasite’s struggle to survive at all costs.

But Benigni’s movie made me want to throw up. He has cast himself as a prankish Jew who wins the heart of a pretty maiden (Nicoletta Braschi); fathers a cute, skinny boy; and gets carted off by the Nazis to a death camp. The conceit is that Benigni tries to keep the 5-year-old from realizing what’s going on by pretending that the whole thing is a game and that if the boy gets through it without crying or complaining he wins a tank. In an essay in the New York Times, Edward Rothstein refers to the “enchantment of fascism” being “undone” by “other spells, some recalling the innocence of childhood”–and, indeed, Benigni’s routines are sometimes childishly liberating, conjuring up Fo, Harpo Marx, and Danny Kaye in his double-talk mode. It half-works right up to the point where people start getting gassed, and then Benigni’s moist-eyed heroism and tenacious faith in his own irresistibility start to seem like a monstrous ego trip–a clown’s megalomania.

Jerry Lewis–speaking of megalomania–tried something similar in the ‘70s, with a film about a clown who leads a group of laughing tots into the death chamber. The picture reportedly ended with a shot of black smoke coming out of the stack–but we’ll never know because The Day the Clown Cried was judged too obscene to be released, and Lewis went back to parading doomed kids across the TV screen in telethons, while Americans goggled at his stamina, and senators nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. I wish Life Is Beautiful had fallen into the same black hole. Its subject isn’t the power of “enchantment” but the power of Benigni to celebrate, Jerry Lewis-like, his own beautiful martyrdom. Imagine Harpo Marx giving the hot foot to a pompous official, who takes out a machine gun and blows him away: That’s how cheap Benigni’s hash of farce and tragedy is. It’s a gas, all right.