"American History X" is a powerful, vivid portrait of what are often called "hate crimes," yet its director, Tony Kaye, has been committing hate crimes toward his own bravura work.
Kaye wanted more time to massage his debut film, and when his request was refused, asked that his name be removed from the work. Bad-mouthing New Line Cinema and star Edward Norton, both publicly and in a series of eccentric ads in trade papers, Kaye may be obscuring the power of his substantial on-screen accomplishment. With almost every shot calibrated for maximum elegy or "kapow!," this crunchy melodrama is sensationalism with heart.
As Derek Vinyard, an articulate L.A. skinhead just released from prison for the murder of two young black men, Edward Norton is simply remarkable, giving a rare kind of focused, intent performance that is laden with star dazzle yet always in the service of the character. The drama unfolds as two parallel stories. The-present, in color, presents Vinyard with the dilemma of talking his admiring younger brother (Edward Furlong, fine as always) out of the beliefs he no longer holds. The past plays out in black-and-white, largely in thrillingly tight-in close-ups, to show how the two brothers got to where they are. Kaye's work as director and cinematographer has an unusual, bracing intensity, yet it dances with the danger of becoming merely didactic.
"I would probably say we went the other way," Norton says, toying with a bottle cap, "to be sure that the movie didn't overwhelm the message. [Even with] the power of the imagery, [we made] very, very sure that this guy, however heroic he may seem in the subjective memories of his brother, that the present tense storyline gives the lie to any kind of glamorization of him, any kind of suggestion that there's a positive outcome to this kind of behavior."
Up until the public brawling just prior to release, Norton says, the film represented one of the most productive collaborations of his career. "One of the things that Tony and [screenwriter] David McKenna and I all [said] very early on is that this guy should be the king of the skinheads. Tony used to say that with the first scene, the way you're introduced to this character, any skinhead kid in the audience would go, 'Oh my God, that's it, that's exactly how I see myself, how I want to be.' Then you proceed to entrap that [viewer]. If you can give that character a heroic dimension when he falls and goes through this process of transformation, you have to contend with [the tragic consequences]."
Kaye, who also dabbles in conceptual art projects as well as television commercials, often treated a day's shooting as a new "project," throwing out the rules that govern almost all commercial production. "He doesn't come from a narrative film background, he comes from a 'pure art' background, and he let himself get wrapped up in the perception of Tony Kaye as an artist with a capital A, [rather] than focusing on the more grounded job of making a film, delivering it and in a mature way, contending with the practical realities of making a film to a release schedule. I think Coppola said, 'You never finish a film, you just abandon it.'" Norton chuckles. "You can't be scared. You've just got to throw it out there and let it go. The irony is that the film he delivered to [New Line], the film everyone will see, is getting such a tremendous response. I just think he panicked."
With all this foofaraw about a movie about the limits of rage, doesn't Norton feel even a little anger? "No. Nope. Not even. Rage? we just made a movie about the consequences of letting your life being dictated by rage. It's not productive. I don't feel that way about Tony, and I'm really proud of this film. As in many cases, like 'Apocalypse Now,' do you remember all of what went on? The minute something comes out, it takes a life of its own and it exists completely on its own. Your average mainstream audience doesn't give a shit about any of this stuff we're talking about and they won't experience the film through the prism of it. We wanted to provoke thoughtful discussions about these issues and emotions and we've succeeded at doing that, whether Tony wants to claim it for himself or not. In as kind a way as I can say, not with anger, I think Tony is victimizing himself."
Norton believes that the chilling price that Vinyard must pay for his actions will rise above Kaye's contentiousness. "I should be really clear," Norton says of his director. "I don't have any negative feelings about the process of making the film. We had a very intense, creative, fervent, wonderful collaboration, with everyone supporting this process. If there's anything out of the ordinary that's gone on in the entire post-production of this film, it's how long Tony Kaye got from a major studio to edit a first film.
Eighteen months is completely unheard of. I've never heard of that kind of indulgence on a first film." Norton laughs, pocketing the bottle cap. "It was wonderful! The only thing that dismays me is that we all ought to be sitting around together, celebrating the impact of the film."