American History X – Form & Content

Thoughts On: American History X (1998)

A neo-Nazi, fresh out of prison with a new perspective, tries to turn his family’s life around.

American History X

I’ve seen this film a tonne of times – but not recently. The last time I saw American History X must have been around 3 or 4 years ago, and so I’ve always had a vision of this film as a highly impactful, symbolic, emotional and metaphorical movie – one that was basically flawless. In re-watching this film, however, I was shocked at the experience. Despite expectation, American History X came of as melodramatic with sub-par direction, editing, writing, sound design and performances. This makes utter sense as Tony Kay is notoriously considered a one-hit-wonder among the ranks of Camino…

… Kelly…

… and Myrick/Sanchez…

All of these films have signifiers in them of worse to come. With The Deer Hunter, we have the questionable writing of some parts as well as the pacing. With Donnie Darko, there’s the awkward tone – that suits this movie, but, idiosyncratically. And with Blair Witch, there was an awful lot of mystique that went into creating the horror and tension before this film was even seen on initial release. Like Cannibal Holocaust, this was a movie that fooled audiences into believing what they saw was real. However, taking this away from the movie, the experience is quite dull.

One of the greatest examples of this on-off direction can certainly be seen in Shyamalan. We all know his better works:


We all know his duds:


And, again, there’s signifiers of all that makes Shyamalan ‘the director who made The Last Airbender’ in even his best works. We delved into this when looking at Split. However, coming back to American History X, whilst I haven’t seen any of Kay’s other films, I can certainly see traits of a terrible director in this film. The coverage is incredibly awkward throughout with an excruciating over-emphasis on extreme close-ups. There are a few powerful images spliced into the narrative that utilise slow-motion – like the shower scenes and, of course…

… but, for the vast majority of the movie, when we aren’t forced into blundering extreme close-ups, there’s ugly handheld compositions that have an affinity for shitty actors/extras. And on the note of acting – not strong. Even Norton’s performance is mediocre in this film, and this is mainly because the material he’s given in the script is just… eh. He does a great job in portraying a changed and changing man/young man – with a lot of assistance from the hair and make-up department. However, McKenna does not track this change very subtly. Derek, just like Danny, endlessly spews cliched political statements, that, yes, are supposed to come off as self-righteous and grating, but, that tone is in every exchange (positive, negative, political or not) which leaves this film with a horribly preachy texture. All of this emphasises what is essentially a very contrived script. This contrivance translates to the direction, acting and awful editing. It may just be that Kay’s coverage is awkward, and so hard to edit, but the stitching together of scenes throughout sticks out from the screen like a sore thumb. And all of this ultimately comes together to produce a sometimes unpalatable, often melodramatic, consistently contrived and rather cumbersome movie.

However, I still enjoyed American History X and still felt that it had something of a punch. In fact, American History X reminded me quite a lot of Von Trier’s, The Idiots.

When covering this film, I essentially said that Von Trier took a shit on his script – which contains something of a great narrative – with his stupid philosophy of direction and cinematography called Dogme 95.

In such, Von Trier sullied the content of his film with his chosen form. This is what we see in American History X; this film has great latent content, but a horrible form.

As you could infer, form is everything that structures and projects a movie: direction, editing, cinematography, parts of the script – the style essentially. Content is then left to be the essence of a film that form tries to represent or project. So, on a formal level, American History X is a dud. However, lying deep in this film is an incredibly poignant idea of where racism, hatred and bigotry come from that is supported by the tragic resolution that simply says that life is too short, that hatred is too exhausting, for such a mentality. What me, 3 or 4 years ago (who wasn’t so immersed in film), then identified in this film was this essential quality. I think this is what most people who saw and see this film can identify too; they see past the horrid direction and are immersed in the story and emotions. Moreover, they see past the political rambling and focus on a family that are falling apart; a boy suffering at the hands of his up-bringing and a tragic circumstance.

What I then believe films like American History X, Donnie Darko, The Deer Hunter and The Blair Witch Project are expressions of is this Quentin Tarantino quote:

If you truly love cinema, with all your heart, and with enough passion, you can’t help but make a good movie

Whilst I cannot know if Kay, Kelly and so on truly love cinema with all their heart, it seems that there’s something in these films that they had to get out – something that suggests that maybe we all have one book, one film, one poem, one play, one painting… one piece of great art in us. In such, I believe that, if you dig deep, there’s something in you that will garner a substantial and appreciative audience. How do you find that? Don’t ask me. But, maybe it is enough to assert that it has to be there. Nonetheless, what my assertion following Tarantino’s suggests is that the content of a film comes from intent – your love of cinema, your yearning to say something.

Knowing this, I believe there is a powerful lesson to be learnt from a film like American History X. Whilst it isn’t technically sound, you get a sense of urgency and genuity that ultimately supersedes aesthetic contrivance and a sub-par formal approach. What this hopefully says to anyone who wants to make a film, write a book, paint a picture – anything – is that you have to go in for the right reasons and draw the content of your art from the right place. As suggested, this isn’t an easy thing to conjure and that something to say isn’t easy to find. But, maybe it isn’t impossible.

So, what do you see when you look back on American History X? Have you re-watched the film recently; does it hold up? Whatever your answer, is it still something of an inspiration to you?



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