Tuesday, April 2, 2013

My Favorite Scene: American History X


American History X has always been about more than the grand surface themes it depicts. While this isn’t to say the film gets the themes of gang warfare, racism, Nazism, and prison survival wrong, the film, to me, is chiefly about boys seeking approval from their fathers.

It’s about family legacy, and how, when mixed with assumption, honor and approval, proves to be toxic. Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) wants nothing more than to please his dad (who, in flashbacks, is revealed to be a pleasant family man, dedicated firefighter, and ardent racist). When his dad dies, Derek honors his memory by heightening his father’s rhetoric, because, in Derek’s eyes, that may have been what daddy secretly wanted. When Derek is sent to prison, his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong) attempts to continue the family legacy for Derek (who is a father figure to Danny in many ways). It’s a vicious cycle of young, underdeveloped, angry men attempting to be what they assume others want them to be.

American History X is a film typically remembered for its honest and devastating physical violence, but look closer and you can see the emotional turmoil that provokes the violence. The seemingly innocent dinner table conversations that fuel the confused hate. And, inversely, the quiet living room chats in which the characters realize the hate they created has taken on a charge of its own.
This is all best realized in the brief yet telling scene in which we meet Derek for the first time in the present. After serving three years in Chino for killing two black men, Derek returns home a changed and cautious man. While he was away, Danny, I assume, worked to keep the Vinyard name in tact with the Disciples of Christ (aka DOC, the fictional neo-Nazi gang that Derek soldiered). Danny stood proudly in the shadow of his brother and, once reunited, hopes to gain Derek’s approval.

But prison changed Derek. Through torture, guidance and acceptance, Derek has been reformed. So it breaks his heart (and, intentionally, the audience’s as well) when he takes a good look at Danny and notices a mirror reflection – the shaved head, the white entitlement, the overall elitist attitude. Danny has done everything he can to become his older brother, much to Derek’s dismay.
The scene in question takes place when Danny arrives home from school the day Derek has been released from prison. The two meet in the living room of their tiny home, hug sheepishly, separate, and share a moment of terror and confusion. Watch the way Norton gently pats the top of Furlong’s head, looking at it in disappointment and horror. The way he swallows nervously, shifting that enormous Adam’s apple of his. Danny proudly shows Derek his forearm (which director Tony Kaye ingeniously frames from below, showing only Norton’s stunned face, Furlong’s pale arm, and the claustrophobic ceiling incasing them both), revealing Danny’s DOC tattoo. Derek disapprovingly asks where Danny got the mark, and Furlong’s reaction, in which he silently expresses, “I thought you’d be proud…” fucking kills me.
The way in which Derek asks where Danny got the tattoo is not unlike any older brother criticizing his young sibling for getting a tattoo prematurely. But this is no ordinary tattoo. It’s a stamp of hatred that changes everything. For Derek, it seals the notion that he needs to reverse the cycle of racism that has plagued his family. Now, at any cost. For Derek, his brother’s reaction conveys, for the first time, that this is not what was meant to be.

Though, perhaps, they both realized it too late.



16 comments:

  1. This was a great scene! Watching American History X now really makes me mad that Edward Furlong essentially threw away his career.

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    1. Furlong's career (or lack thereof) really is a shame, isn't it? Glad you like this scene though, he was in top form here.

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    2. Yeah, the way Furlong's life and career went is quite sad. The ending of this movie always has some added poignancy given Furlong's situation in real life. On a selfish note, we might have got some decent Terminator sequels if he was still able to act in blockbusters!

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    3. Just browsed through Furlong's Wikipedia page... it reads like a horror show. Really too bad. With AHX and Animal Factory, he showed real promise.

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  2. great writeup. Love this film and yeah, this scene is always jarring. Wish Tony Kaye gets back on track and makes more films.

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    1. Thanks man! Whenever I end up talking about Kaye, I spend the next hour or so digging back and reading accounts of his behavior during the post production of this movie. Really quite fascinating. I hope he makes great stuff again too.

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  3. My favorite Edward Norton film. I am really glad to have discovered your film blog... it's always a pleasure to meet a fellow cinephile. Btw, please take some time out to visit my film blog. Here's the link:

    http://www.apotpourriofvestiges.com/

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    1. Hey man, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad you dig AHX, and I will be sure to visit your blog!

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  4. It's definitely a great film although I found the story behind the scenes to be more interesting though it definitely hurt Tony Kaye's career. That scene is perfect to establish a man seeing how far his younger brother has descended.

    What the hell happened to Edward Furlong?

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    1. Imagine if everyone involved agreed to participate in a candid documentary about the making of this film. Damn, that be some thrilling shit.

      Glad you enjoy the scene, and I agree, what did happen to Furlong?

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  5. Great analysis of a terrific scene. These guys were at their best in this film.

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    1. Thanks man. I agree... their very best.

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  6. Brilliant post! I love your analysis of this film as being about boys and young men seeking the approval of their fathers (or father figures), and the scene you chose is perfect. What a gut-wrenching moment.

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    1. Thanks Steph! This scene to me has always been precisely what the film is all about. A gut-wrenching moment indeed.

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  7. I thought for sure you were going to go with Avery Brooks delivery of "Has it made your life any better?", but this is great as well. Norton really needs to be doing roles like this and fight club and 25th hour. Avery Brooks really should've gotten more roles, he was one of my favorite T.V characters with his Capt. Sisko on Star Trek. It seems he's just settled with being in theater and teaching now, ah well. I love it in one day you can go from top G-rated films... to favorite scene from American History X.

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    1. Definitely a close call between those two scenes, that Brooks line delivery is just perfect. A succinct summation of a life's faults. I agree that Norton may need to take slightly better roles, and Brooks needs more roles period.

      G-rated to AHX... I write whatever pops in!

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