MovieHype00579 – Teenagers Kill
What I want to do is look at movies that deal with overt violence. I’m not talking about regular movie violence, the kind you can find in any action movie, but rather the personal kind.
Before I do that, let me clear up two things: First, I am not giving away important plot information by talking about these movies this way. The films I have selected are not about violence itself, but rather about people’s reactions to violence. Where important I’ll steer away from specifics, but it is essential you understand what movie you’re getting yourself into. In other words, if you watched ROMEO AND JULIET, you’d want to at least know it was Shakespeare’s play and not two hamsters dancing, right? (Note: if you’d rather watch two hamsters dancing than Shakespeare, please do us all a favor and take surgical steps to ensure you can never reproduce.)
Secondly, there are people who get mad at any violence. This is simplistic reasoning. Violence is part of the human condition, arising from the fact that we have free will and desires, and other people want other things. This doesn’t make violence “right,” or “acceptable,” but it’s as big a part of humanity as pain, love, laughter, and any of the core human traits. To ignore it arbitrarily is myopic.
I’ve long argued that a movie isn’t what it is about so much as how it is about it. This is especially true for movie violence. If violence is put in a movie just for violence’ sake, that’s not too great either. What makes violence in a movie acceptable or not is why it’s there, what purpose it serves, and how you, the viewer, is expected to react to it.
I’m splitting this up into two parts. Today, the movies we’re looking at involve violence with teenagers. The films I’ll be talking about:
BANG BANG YOU’RE DEAD
UNITED STATES OF LELAND
BANG BANG YOU’RE DEAD and ELEPHANT
Both of these films deal with school violence, but I don’t think it would be possible to find two more different movies. In BANG BANG YOU’RE DEAD, Trevor Adams (Ben Foster) walks into high school a pariah, having been expelled last year for blowing up a garbage can and threatening to kill the jocks. Parents are up in arms that this kid is allowed back in their school, and everyone is watching him. Trevor wants to be left alone, but he also recognizes a certain celebrity that comes with his new dark image (at the very least, it’s a far sight better than his “loser” image of before), and plays the part of it.
Trevor’s drama teacher (played by ED’s Tom Cavanagh), is sure there is good in Trevor, and convinces the boy to play the lead in the school play, which is about (drum roll), a boy who kills his classmates. As you can imagine, most parents are even more upset about this.
That’s the set-up. The story plays out a little like an after-school special, with too much moralizing and easy explanations for the Rubik's Cube that is school violence. I did some research and found out that the play within the play (“Bang Bang You’re Dead”) is actually performed in high schools all over North America. That’s a good thing.
And despite the sometimes clichéd answers BANG BANG has to offer, this is a worthy effort into trying to get at the heart of what makes certain kids turn violent towards their classmates. It’s earnest, well thought-out, and nicely acted by all parties. I think that this subject is so gigantic that no mere movie could cover every aspect, and so you can’t fault the filmmakers for taking their position and running with it.
Conversely, ELEPHANT goes out of its way to take no position at all. Made by Gus Van Sant (GOOD WILL HUNTING, FINDING FORRESTER), ELEPHANT follows several students around on a typical school day. Except: this isn’t’ a typical school day, because two of the kids have decided to kill everyone.
ELEPHANT is so close to the events of Columbine that it’s almost a Roman à Clef, a transparent attempt to make a documentary in disguise. But this isn’t the real Columbine, so it’s not a documentary.
Nor is ELEPHANT a drama, as nothing is dramatized. I don’t know how to explain this. Try this: Van Sant wanted to act like we’re just sneaking a peak at a high school without anyone noticing or acting for the camera. The film goes out of its way not to provide dialogue or drama, and for very long stretches of the movie nothing happens at all; we just watch. The goal is to build mood until the final events take place.
The other main goal, I think, is to say that there is no explanation to why these things happen. Sometimes they just do. I partly applaud this approach. We live in a world where we’re desperate to make sense of things, and nowhere is this more true then when teenagers (from good homes) rise up and kill their peers. “Why?” We ask desperately.
There are always reasons why, but they never fully explain. Sometimes these kids are abused. Sometimes they are extremely anti-social. Most often they are taking hard-core amphetamines, and they always have access to weapons.
But that explains nothing. There are (sadly) hundreds of thousands of abused kids out there who don’t kill anybody. Many kids are anti-social in some way, all without dropping students in the cafeteria. Many kids take drugs without graduating to blood-spattering violence, and many many kids have weapons in the home without ever reaching for them in anger. In fact, many kids have all these circumstances going on, and still all but a few of them go their entire lives without killing.
When it comes right down to it, there often is no explanation for why that particular kid picked that particular day to kill someone else. That’s scary.
And yet, even though that’s ELEPHANT’S clear message, this film infuriated me. I know many (if not most) critics lauded it to the hills, and ELEPHANT won the grand prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, but I think these people had the minimalist wool pulled over their eyes.
ELEPHANT was so boring. I’ve been to school, and can’t argue that’s often what happens in a typical day. Van Sant follows several students around, each with their own darkness, and since we know this is a school violence movie, you keep waiting for something to come of it. And until we meet our “Eric and Dylan,” nothing ever does.
That’s his point: this could happen at any school to any student. Maybe that’s correct. But the fact remains it doesn’t happen. School violence is incredibly unlikely. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the year before Columbine, 15 kids were killed in school shootings. Fifteen kids die every two days in their own homes. Or, to put it another way: kids die outside of school 99.6% of the time. For the sheer amount of time spent at school, that’s an amazing number.
But that whole argument is a separate column; maybe two of them. What ultimately infuriated me about ELEPHANT is that they offered no motive, no explanation, no answers, and sat back and felt smug about it. This is supposed to be genius. Big deal. If I wanted nothing I’d sit there and stare at the wall. For all its flaws and sentimentality, at BANG BANG YOU’RE DEAD was trying.
THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND
In the first two minutes of THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND a retarded boy gets stabbed. I break my usual protocol here because A) this is literally a first minute occurrence and B), it’s essential you know this before you decide whether you want to see the film.
With that backdrop, THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND begins its quest to figure out why this happened. Or, maybe not. There is some Indie-film pretentiousness going on; you know the type, where every voice-over is profound and beauty comes in the simples things. But overlook that and move on.
There is also a cast with waaaaaaay too many people. Just from quick memory I can name Don Cheadle, Lena Olin and Kevin Spacey. These are all A-List actors. Add in Chris Klein, Jena Malone, Michelle Williams, Martin Donovan and Ryan Gosling as the titular Leland, and you have a movie over-brimming with characters. Everyone does a good job, but some of these fine thespians are maddeningly small-used. At times it seems like a waste of wonderful talent.
I’m actually putting that wrong. The real reason it was frustrating is because all of these characters were extremely interesting. I just got glimpses of their lives, but to a person wanted to know more. I could wish that THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND were a six-hour mini-series, so I could figure out what’s going on, and why people are acting the way they are.
But try to look at the glass half-full: better to wish for more than repeatedly look at one’s watch and wonder when it’s over.
Don Cheadle plays Pearl Madison, an “aspiring” writer (according to Pearl, to be an actual writer one has to be read by other people, a pain I know all to well), who works in the “Special Handling” section of a juvenile detention center. Pearl comes upon Leland, whose brutal crime has everyone in shock. Pearl smells a possible book, but also comes to genuinely care about Leland, who seems so gentle and so sad, so unlike anyone who could stab an innocent boy repeatedly for no reason. The other fine actors play various family members of Leland and the boy he killed, and they all have issues coming into this tragedy, which are only put under the microscope by the terrible strain. I wish I could spend 5000 words writing about all of this, but I just don’t have the juice to pull that off (read: enough of you who would actually read it and care). Just a couple of hints: Jena Malone is the sister of the retarded boy, a heroin junky, and, oh yeah, broke up with Leland just a couple of days ago. Kevin spacey is Leland’s father, a world-famous author, recognized prick, who has sent his son all over the world rather than actually have personal contact with the boy. The dad has flown in from Paris to support his boy, or perhaps he just smells a book too.
Even though I won’t give you a laundry list of subplots, I don’t want to minimize how essential they are to the film. That’s because the movie seems uninterested (or incapable) of fully delving into why Leland did what he did. In some ways, Leland is a Zelig-type character. For those who have never heard of ZELIG, it’s a Woody Allen movie about a guy who has no personality himself, and blends into wherever he is.
I don’t mean that Leland is void of self, but it does seem that how people view him (both before and after the murder) is more a reflection of how they see themselves and the world than how they view him.
So what’s going on with Leland? In a way this is the movie’s major failure, since virtually no progress is made into what’s going on with this kid. Ryan Gosling plays the 16 year old with a quiet dignity, but at times he seems more like a writers’ conceit than an actual person. Perhaps that’s the point.
Reading over what I’ve written, I realize I can’t explain why I like this movie. In every area (except the acting), the goals of complete storytelling are not met. And yet, I’m drawn to a line oft-repeated in the film, that you have to believe that life as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Somehow the failures all work together present a movie I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Another line from the film, voiced by Leland over the opening: “You want a why. Well, maybe there isn’t one. Maybe it’s something that just happened.” That’s a cop-out when it comes to explaining a murder, but quite apt when explaining how this movie gets into your blood.
Overall, each of these movies are interesting in their own way. BANG BANG YOU’RE DEAD offers a take on what turns kids into killers, and what might be a solution. ELEPHANT is perversely fascinating for its refusal to ever budge on its Nihilistic world-view (it would make a great back-to-back with BANG BANG YOU’RE DEAD). Finally, THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND does a bit of both, refusing to give easy answers, but trying nonetheless to show us the inner workings of people in pain, and how more lives are shattered than just the victims in these horrific situations.
February 18, 2005
Thanks to Stacy
Thanks to Cracker
Part 2 of the violence series will deal with domestic violence. And we also have theme columns in the pipeline on movies with a twist and one on actors, as well as the annual Oscar preview
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