Friday, December 28, 2012


Afterschool (2008)
Prejudge independent & art house cinema all you want (its slow, it’s pretentious, it doesn’t make any sense) but filmmakers within that scene have been exploring violence, detachment & desensitization among youth (a problem that's worse than ever these days) masterfully for decades. Do movies hold all the answers (or any for that matter)? Not really. And this is ME saying this. But there are some important films out there that can bring about some good dialogue & discussion better than any impulsive or irrational facebook status update. Although they are the two biggest issues, Gun control & mental illness (along with ways to spot, handle & properly treat mental illness) aren't the only issues of concern regarding all these mass killings & violent outbursts where we usually see a young person behind the trigger
Elephant (2003)
After Larry Clark squeezed absolutely everything he could out of the "youth of America gone wild" genre, highlighted by Kids & Wassup Rockers, it was time for new territory to be explored. Times were changing. Teens doing drugs at parties, driving drunk, getting pregnant too young, etc, will always be a concern but there were other issues that weren’t being addressed on the big screen like the Internet, the impact of television, senseless violence, easy access to disturbing viral videos and the negative effect all of that could possibly have on young minds if sponged up in excess. Youth were (and still are) downloading & file sharing snuff videos, going on chat roulette and videotaping school fights with cell phone cameras and posting them all over the Internet. Bigger films like American Beauty tried to touch on this with the Wes Bentley character (the awkward, emotionless teen who went around videotaping plastic trash bags floating in the wind), but not only did American Beauty just graze over issues of desensitized youth but it also kinda insulted youth with this unrealistic & silly portrayal (lets be real, teens with video cameras aren’t going around filming plastic trash bags. They're videotaping school fights and bully sessions). While American Beauty continues to get praise for being "daring" & "controversial", other films were (and still are) lightyears ahead in dealing with relevant issues. In 1992 Michael Haneke gave us Benny's Video - a film, loosely based on the true story of a young boy who filmed himself killing a young girl just to see what it would be like to kill (I’ve kinda simplified the film but that’s the basic premise). Naturally a piece on desensitized youth written by yours truly is gonna mention Todd Solondz (a master of representing teens in my opinion), and his 2001 feature; Storytelling, where Paul Giamatti plays an aspiring documentary filmmaker who follows an apathetic average teen around for a film project. In 2003, Gus Van Sant gave us the columbine inspired Elephant about two isolated bullied teens who go on a shooting spree in their high school. In that same year Olivier Assayas gave us the strangely awesome Demonlover which ends with a nameless teen in "Anywhere America" stealing a credit card out of the pocket of his father to buy a membership to a hardcore S&M porn site where the models are brutally tortured. As that final scene unfolds we see the teen watch this torture porn with no emotion on his face at all. In recent years Ezra Miller has become somewhat of a poster child for desensitized youth in film appearing in both; Afterschool (Antonio Campos' 2008 drama about the death of two teen girls caught on the cell phone camera of a fellow classmate) & We Need To Talk About Kevin (another Columbine-inspired story about the aftermath of a high school massacre told from the perspective of the mother of the student responsible for the killings). Actually, We Need To Talk About Kevin is the ONE film in the bunch I have some form of reservation about including (Kevin clearly had problems long before his teenage years)
There's also "2nd tier" works like; Paranoid Park (also directed by Gus Van Sant in a very similar style as Elephant), Water Lilies (which is more about sex than it is about violence and the Internet) & Mean Creek (which is pretty average & "sundancy" but it’s still kinda relevant to this write-up). I’m sure there’s a film or two I may have missed but I feel these select few pretty much cover all the bases of what I wanna touch on in this write-up.
Benny's Video (1992)
Even though the key films I just mentioned come from completely different directors with completely different backgrounds, experiences & upbringings, they all feature a lot of the same elements. First of all, with the exception of We Need To Talk About Kevin & Storytelling, the presence of parents & adults in these films are at a minimum. This is an element that I feel comes from the cinema of Larry Clark. In all of his prominent works that focus on youth (Kids, Wassup Rockers, Bully & Ken Park) the adults & parents are either absent, barely seen or out of touch and have no idea what’s going on with their kids. The only two prominent adult figures in Van Sant's Elephant (that we only see in two scenes) are the high school principal and a father of one of the main characters. Benny's parents (Benny’s video) are barely seen for the first half of the film and only really make their presence known towards the end. The parents in Storytelling are too caught up in being suburbanites to realize how completely fucked up all their kids are (especially their youngest who comes off like a young tea party member). John C. Reilly is the epitome of the clueless parent that doesn’t know his kid in We Need To Talk About Kevin. Or was his character just in denial? When the parents in these films finally do step up to be the adults in a situation that requires them too, they're either too late or make shitty decisions. At the start of Elephant, the only parental figure is drunk and it’s his son (who probably doesn’t even have a license) that has to drive himself to school. The parents in Benny's Video try to do what they think is best by covering up the murder their son committed. In the end it’s Benny that does the adult thing and turns himself in. Desensitization is somewhat a reflection of parenting. On a certain level parents (that are around) have the power to control senseless violence or the amount of blinky/flashy things their kids watch and the number of “screens” they put their face in. When kids can easily access (or produce & upload) footage of other teens fighting in the back of a high school, 2 girls 1 cup or a Serbian military be-heading there needs to be a parent or a parental figure for those that may not have parents to encourage their kids to socialize, read a book or go outside and get away from all the screens (TV, computer, ipads, iphone, etc) and interact with other kids outside of a social network and actually get in touch reality. Talk to your kids, be a part of their lives and know what’s going on. Benny's parents had no idea he watched footage (on the expensive equipment they bought for him) of animals being murdered non-stop but I'm sure they thought they were model parents with perfect children. Kevin's father had no idea he was a violent kid plotting to massacre his fellow classmates. The two teens that shoot up their school in Elephant were so unsupervised (we only see their parents for seconds towards the end of the film) that they were able to purchase guns online and have them delivered to their front door! Afterschool takes place in a private school, so right off the back the presence of parents shouldn’t be expected. Furthermore, Antonio Campos films all the adults, teachers & parents either from the neck up or out of focus giving the adults a detached almost inhuman-like presence. In one scene the main character, played by Ezra Miller, is talking to his mom over the phone trying to explain how isolated and lonely he feels and the only advice she gives him is to take medication or to just suck it up & deal with it.
Beny's Video
The next thing all these films have in common is that the main characters are white male teens (I'm sure you've noticed by now that none of the teenagers in the images used so far of any other race). From columbine & aurora to the recent shooting in Newtown, all the shooters pretty much fit the same description (two of the shooters were in their early 20's, but still...). All these recent tragic events echo elements of Haneke's 71 Fragments Of Chronology Of Chance (the follow-up to Benny's Video) where the film ends with a college student snapping out of nowhere and shooting up a bank full of people then himself. This moment is immediately followed by random television clips of the news, game shows and other various television programs which are obviously meant to drive home the (possible) danger of television and how it can affect us. Desensitization & detachment was a common theme in Hakeke's early work. 71 Fragments was eventually followed up by Funny Games - a comment on violence in television & film and how pointless & formulaic it’s. Afterschool, Elephant & Water Lilies are the only three films in the group that show things from the perspective of teen girls. With the female characters in these films the desensitization is towards sex as opposed to violence. I do love most of the films in this group. Even stuff I find problematic & flawed like We Need To Talk About Kevin & Mean Creek are still important works. But the one major issue I have with just about all the (good) films concerning youth today is the what seems like exclusive exploration of white male teens with every other demographic playing the background or not really being represented at all. I guess Haneke gets a pass as his early films are based out of Austria where I imagine there aren’t many Blacks, Latinos, Asians and other races, but for American filmmakers who claim to be progressive or make progressive films (lets not kid ourselves, they may not right out call themselves progressive, but that’s their goal as filmmakers) I expect a little bit more diversity. When you see the real life shooters responsible for Columbine and other high school shootings or violent incidents involving teens it’s understandable that the films influenced by those events will focus mainly on young white males, but they aren’t the only ones to go to high school, or show signs of detachment & desensitization or are affected by violence. Just sayin’ – it wouldn’t hurt to add some color.
The emphasis of "the screen" is another important element in all these works. Once again, each of the aforementioned films features at least one key scene where our main character is zoning out in front of a screen (computer, television, tablet, whatever). Films like We Need To Talk About Kevin (which I did have many problems with) heightens this key scene by putting an emphasis on the lighting of the screen as it bounces of the blank zombie-like face of our character (similar to what haneke did in The Seventh Continent). Benny's Video shows our main character totally zoning out with hardly any emotion on his face while rewinding the same scene of a pig being shot in the head over & over. Benny's Video, along with Afterschool & Mean Creek, show things from a voyeuristic point of view. A good portion of these films are shown from the perspective of a camcorder & cell phone camera within the film. This gives off a cold almost soulless & detached feel - little to no music or dialogue and just an overall polarizing feel. Antonio Campos' Afterschool is very much Altman influenced (single take shots where the camera slowly zooms in without any cuts, little intricacies in the background that you have to pay attention too, etc)
Benny's Video
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
Watching stuff like Benny’s Video almost feels like watching a warning sign. Although it was made in the early 90s before facebook, tablets, twitter, violent viral videos and other void filling distractions, the issues in that film are more prevalent now than they were 20 years ago when it was made. Am I saying parents should sit their pre-teens or teenagers down to watch some depressing Austrian film or a low budget American indie that only film nerds like me remember? Of course not. I’m suggesting that these films be checked out by people capable of comprehending the messages in them so they might have a little better understanding of what's going on today. Very few films have ever really painted youth as the complicated individuals that they really are, making Elephant (an American film dealing with American issues that got more respect in Europe than in its own country), Benny's Video, the earlier work of Todd Solondz and Afterschool rare gems that shouldn't be looked at as just typical movies.


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