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American History X (1998)

About half of “American History X” is a good movie – the first half.  Despite director Tony Kaye’s pretensions (he also credits himself in the opening sequence as Director of Photography, just so you know that all the overly artsy slow motion shots of beaches and sunsets are HIS and no one else’s) “American History X” tells a compelling story of how a young man might become a white supremacist gangbanger.   Edward Norton plays a tough, charismatic young man who turns to violence and Nazi ideology after his father, a fireman, is murdered.  Edward Furlong (a few years post “Terminator 2”) plays his younger brother.  When Norton is sent to prison for killing two black teenagers who are trying to steal his car, Furlong picks up where he left off in the neighborhood and the gang.

But the problems really crop up right about the middle of the film; apparently Kaye knew exactly how to lead his characters into trouble, but has almost no idea how to lead them back out of it again.  Norton gets out of a jail a reformed man, convinced that all this racist propaganda is manipulative BS. He sits down with his younger brother to explain, through an extended, black-and-white flashback, how he went from the leader of the neo-Nazis to a champion for civil rights.  And it’s not the least bit plausible or convincing.  And then, based on this one late night conversation, his kid brother tears down all this swastikas and KKK posters.  Which also isn’t plausible or convincing.  Suddenly, this hard-edged and captivating movie has all the weight and intensity of an after school special.

“American History X” is famous for its problems it post-production.  Ultimately, because he did not control the final edit — in a bizarre and unorthodox move, Edward Norton himself stepped in and was a part of the editing process–  Tony Kaye disowned it, so it’s hard to know if the movie he envisioned was better or worse than this one.   If you’re interested in the guys of Hollywood and the process of moviemaking,  you HAVE to read this column, written by Tony Kaye himself, about the making of American History X, and some of his other crazy exploits to boot.  It’s the best, funniest, realest thing I’ve read in a long time.

One final note: it would be interesting to watch this alongside “Fight Club.”  Beyond the fact that Norton is at the center of both films, they are also both about a young, charismatic leader who is able to gather other men like him — men who feel powerless and frustrated — around an ideology only he seems to fully understand. I’ve always enjoyed “Fight Club” and the way it gives the middle finger to middle class, suburban malaise, but I think it takes a film like “American History X” to show me just how evil and dangerous Tyler Durden really is.

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