Monday, April 20, 2009

School Shootings in the Movies

In April 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on their shooting rampage at Columbine High School, I was 17 years old and in grade 12. That meant, I was the same age as the killers – had I been more in Littleton Colorado, I could have been their classmate. For whatever reason, I was darkly fascinated by the case. While I understood their rage at being an outsider, I couldn’t fantom the reasons they had for doing what they did. It seemed so wasteful, so hateful to me.

I have always been more drawn to the dark side of humanity than to the good side. Call it morbid, call it sick if you like, but school shootings, as well as other mass murders and serial killings have always held a fascination to me that I’ve never fully understood. Perhaps it is because I am by my own nature a very non-violent person, but it fascinates me how people can be so cold, so uncaring about the people around them.

Columbine was hardly the first school shooting in America. Wikipedia starts its coverage in 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed the bell tower at the University of Texas in Austin and killed 17 people. Since then, there was a shooting listed every couple of years until the 1990s, when it became a much bigger problem. Since 1991, they list at least one and as many as four school shootings in America a year. Columbine attracted the most attention because it had the most victims, and also because Harris and Klebold left behind more evidence. In the wake of Columbine, the biggest school shooting has been the Virginia Tech Massacre, which has the highest death toll of any school shooting.

We have not been immune to these shootings in Canada. Our most famous shooting is obviously the Massacre at Montreal Polytechnique in December 1989, which we remember every year on December 6th as national Violence Against Women day.

What this piece is really about though is the movies that have happened since the Columbine massacre that have dealt with school shootings. They range vastly in terms of quality – some are masterpieces, and some are mere exploitation films, but all attempt to deal, on some level, with the issues raised by Columbine. The films I’ll look at are: Duck: The Carbine High Massacre (1999), The Life Before Her Eyes (2008), Home Room (2002), Dark Matter (2008), American Gun (2005), Polytechnique (2009), Zero Day (2003) and Elephant (2003). I figured I’d start with the first, and worst of the films, and then move by up the quality scale, ending with the best one.

Duck: The Carbine High Massacre was the first film about school shootings to come out after Columbine, appearing less than 6 months after the shooting. The film certainly feel the most like exploitation of any of the films, not least because of its release date. Were the bodies even buried when they started working on the movie? The film is ultra low budget and has the look and feel of something a high school student would make. It deals with two outsiders who are tormented and looked down on at their school, who eventually decide to carry out a school shooting. It is also a comedy, a satire, and a bloody horror movie. The movie looks at all the glib reasons the media gave for the shooting – ineffectual parents, music that drives people to kill, neo-Nazism, movies etc. , as well as takes on the media for its portrayal of both the killers and the victims. Everyone with the exception of the killers are one-dimensional characters, defined only in the broadest of strokes. This is a choice to show how the media portrayed them. The killers, while certainly not portrayed as sympathetic, are given a more in depth treatment to show how being outsiders, looked down upon by everyone, and affected them.

Unfortunately for directors William Hellfire and Joey Smack, what matters is not the intentions they had – which I believe were honorable – but what is on screen. Neither of them seem to have much talent – as writers, directors or actors (they portray the killers), and to be honest, had I not watched the interview with Hellfire – who seems intelligent and thoughtful – I would not have quite understood what the hell they were trying to do. The movie mocks everyone and everything, and when the shooting happens, it goes so far over the top in terms of gore and blood, that it’s impossible to take seriously. It also does a disservice, as this is the only movie on this list that makes the shooting seem like “fun”. They certainly tried to do something interesting here, but the movie is a complete and utter failure.

The major motion picture that I think comes closest to exploitation was Vadim Perelman’s 2008 film The Life Before Her Eyes. Based on the similarly exploitive novel by Laura Kasischke, the film does not really concentrate on the school shooting itself, nor does it present the killer as anything more than a minor character, who we glimpse only in a few scenes. What the movie is really about is two teenage girls – Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maureen (Eva Amurri) – who are best friends who are confronted in the bathroom by the killer on the day of the shooting. He tells them that he will kill one of them, but it’s up to them to decide who. The movie flashes both back and forward from this time – to show the year in the lives of Diana and Maureen leading up the shooting, and a day in the life of an older Diana (Uma Thurman) as she deals with her husband and daughter.

Why I think the movie exploits school shootings, as well as abortion which I won’t go into here, is because the film uses it only as a plot point. Yes, you can make a film concentrating on the victims of school shootings, and not the perpetrator, but the film doesn’t deal seriously with that either. What it does is the use the shooting as a mystery to be unraveled. What happened in that bathroom is a question we do not find out until the end of the movie. That the performances by Wood and Amurri are so good doesn’t really help the movie, but simply serves to underline how facile the movies treatment of their characters are (the less said about Thurman’s disjointed performance the better, although to be fair to her, she didn’t really have a role to play). The film is a pretentious mess.

Paul F. Ryan’s Home Room (2002) is an earnest attempt to deal with the aftermath of a school shooting. Its problem is that it is too earnest. The film concentrates on two students – Alicia (Busy Philips) and Deanna (Erika Christensen), whose classmate walks into their homeroom class and opens fire. Alicia was the shooters friend, and the only one who didn’t try to run from the room, inciting debate that maybe she played a role, or at least knew, what was going to happen (since the killer kills himself, they get no answers from him). Deanna is one of the victims – she a bullet rip through her skull – but survives. Now in the hospital, this once popular girl now has become a pariah. The other students don’t want to be reminded of what happened, so they ignore her. Alicia goes to visit her, as she is the only survivor, and it’s suggested to her. What forms is an unlikely friendship between the two girls.

The film is a lot of talk between the two girls, who on the surface couldn’t be more different, but underneath are more similar than they would like to admit. Alicia is the dark, goth outsider, Deanna the pretty, popular teenager, but they bond in their suffering. The film is enviable in that it tries to seriously deal with the after effects of a shooting on the victims, and the people who witnesses everything, which The Life Before Her Eyes does not. But the film is too pat, too predictable, and too earnest to truly have the effect it wants on us. Plus, it doesn’t reveal Alicia’s big secret (which is really no big secret after all) until the end of the movie – deliberately withholding the information to generate suspense that was unnecessary to the movie. It’s an okay film, but not much more.

I reviewed Shi-Zheng Chen’s Dark Matter (2008) just last week, so I won’t go into too much information about it. It is about Liu Xing, a Chinese student at the University of Iowa, who comes to America with dreams of studying under the brilliant Professor Reiser in the origins of the universe, has initial success, until crushing failure sets in, and he lashes out on the people he feels wronged him.

No other movie on this list was more sympathetic to the killer. No other film tried so hard to understand him. But the effect this has the movie is, I think, the opposite of its intent. Because we truly begin to like Liu Xing, and understand him, we don’t believe that he would do the things he does at the end of the film. The shooting itself seems to spring from nowhere. The film, in fact, might had been better had it not included the school shooting at all, but simply remained a portrait of cross cultural alienation, which is what it was best at. The fact that it is based (loosely) on a real incident only adds to my uneasiness about the film. There are real victims here, and the film doesn’t really deal with the issues it raises.

Aric Avelino’s American Gun tells several interlocking stories about guns in America, including some that dealt with the aftermath of a school shooting. In the film, Marica Gay Harden plays a single mother struggling to raise her teenage son in the year following her other son’s Columbine like massacre in his high school. Now her surviving son is the same age, and she worries about what he’ll do. She faces ostracism and criticism from the community around her, and worries that her son will as well if she cannot afford to keep sending him to private school, and instead has to send him to the same school his brother shot up. Also in the film is Tony Goldwyn as the first cop on the scene of the massacre, who deals with guilt and criticism for not acting more swiftly and decisively, and perhaps could have saved some more lives.

American Gun is, like Home Room, a little to earnest, talky and well meaning, yet it really does hit home harder than that film does. Harden gives an excellent performance – torn about by guilt over what her son did, and worry about what her other son will do, she struggles to try and simply go on living day to day with the constant criticism and media coverage who warps her words, and makes her sound heartless. Christopher Marquette is also quite good as the younger brother, who is simply trying to live a normal life, but has to deal with the constant pressure of being “his brother”. Goldwyn is effective, and in many ways mirrors Harden’s character – torn by guilt and portrayed negatively in the press, he struggles to go on. The film is an honest depiction of the aftermath of an event like this, and how sometimes there are more victims then we realize. It is not a great film, but it is a good one.

The most recent entry, and only Canadian film, in the genre is Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, about the massacre on December 6th, 1989 at Montreal’s Polytechnique school of Technology. The shooter is portrayed briefly as a troubled, misogynistic young man, but the film mainly concentrates on the events of that day from the point of view of two other characters – one of the women who was shot, and a male friend. The film is perhaps the most difficult of all the films on this list to watch, and the shooting is portrayed in sickening detail – the blood feels real, and gunshots deafeningly loud. Shot in stark black and white, the films drains all the “glamour” that is a danger in these films away from the shooting, concentrating on the sadness and horror of that day. The film, I believe, makes a crucial misstep in the final act, flashing forward to show us what ultimately became of the two students whom we see the most of in the movie. The film tries to come up with sort of meaning to what was a meaningless, selfish act by a crazed, lone gunman. But overall, Polytechnique is a hard hitting, difficult film to stomach, yet an important one.

One of the least seen, yet best, of the school shooter films is Ben Coccio’s Zero Day (2003). The film, based on Columbine, is about two teenagers Andre and Cal, and follow them in the year leading up to their ultimate attack on their school. Shot almost entirely on camcorders, the movie takes the form of the video diaries that the Columbine shooters left behind. The film is made up of many scenes of Andre and Cal talking directly to the camera about their intended actions, and how exactly they intend to accomplish it. The shooting itself is portrayed on security cameras, much like the footage we saw from Columbine.

The film is very low budget, but unlike Duck: The Carbine High Massacre, this film is intelligent, thought provoking and chilling. What makes it so is the two great performances by Andre Kriegman and Calvin Gabriel, who create fully realized characters. Andre is obviously the leader of the two – the stronger one and the planner, whereas Cal is more of a follower. One of the things I admired about the film is its refusal to provide easily digestible answers or dime store psychology. Instead it focuses on the kids and their actions, making them believable, without being overly sympathetic. The film is chilling, and that’s the way it should be.

By far the best film made based on school shootings is Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant. The film won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year, and is far and away the most haunting film on this list. The film concentrates on the day of a Columbine like shooting carried out by Alex and Eric. For the first half of the film, Van Sant’s film follows the students of the fictional high school as they go about a normal day, unaware of what is going to happen to them. The film is a series of long tracking shots, as it follows these students as they argue, bicker, gossip and do everything that normal high school students do. The film opens on John as his father drunkenly drives him to school. When John takes over the driving, the responsibility from adult to teenager has been passed in the film.

The second half of the film concentrates on Alex and Eric, as the plan out the attack, get guns and then start shooting. Van Sant checks off all the reasons why the media gave for the attacks – violent video games and movies, Nazism, music, sexual confusion, only to find no answers. That the two kiss in the shower is not really a sign of their homosexuality, but of their loneliness. Alex is the dominant member of the duo, who uses and exploits Eric. Eventually, Alex will kill Eric before continuing his rampage, which chillingly ends with him reciting Eeny Meeny Miney Mo to a couple of students as the film fades to black.

What impresses me about Van Sant’s film’s more than the others is that he doesn’t try to explain the actions – he doesn’t look for meaning or try and provide answers. He simply observes the actions of the students on that day. His use of the long tracking shots is brilliant, as it strips the film of traditional film grammar, and instead forces us to watch. We realize just how conditioned we are by movies in their use of shots and editing by watching Van Sant’s stripped down approach. The film, in short, is nothing less than a masterpiece.

This is hardly an all inclusive list. Films like Uwe Boll’s Heartland and the highly acclaimed American Yearbook are unavailable to me, and I never did see the critically praised TV movie Bang Bang, You’re Dead with Ben Foster. As well, I didn’t go into older movies like Lindsay Anderson’s if (1968), or Basketball Diaries, which was blamed in some circles for Columbine, or for that matter Brian DePalma’s Carrie, which is essentially a school shooter movie with Carrie using her psychic powers instead of guns to carry out a massacre.

And there will certainly be more movies made. Just today, I learned that Lynne Ramsay will be directing an adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s brilliant novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton for release next year. What I do know is that in the ten years since Columbine (I did not realize that I was doing this piece on the 10 year anniversary until today), school shootings have continued to happen. They continue to be dark chapters in American history, and they continue to fascinate us. The film listed above were some example of how they have affected our culture. I will continue to watch the films, because they hold an eerie fascination to me. Nothing can explain why these kids do what they do, but these films are all a response to them. In that way, perhaps all of them deserve to be seen.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, I couldn't remember the name of HomeRoom, and your blog really helped me out, Lol... I been searching for the last 8 months... well... searching on and off... Thank you so much. Nice blog too.