Matt Johnson is a filmmaker of deconstruction. His most recent film, Operation Avalanche (2016), appears to deconstruct the conspiracy theories around the moon landing that fuelled Dark Side of the Moon (2002) and Capricorn One (1977), facing their unreality by creating its reality. The Dirties plays as a deconstruction of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003).
The Dirties starts out as a grindhouse, ‘film within a film’, made for a class project, as the viewer sits watching a film, shot as ‘found footage’, about the boys making a film, its premise transforming into reality. Their teacher denies them to tell the story of them as rogue cops hunting down gangs in the school, shooting him through clever editing and half-given consent; so they, purely by accident, end up making this fiction a reality.
Films are not fiction and films are not reality. Every film is a reflection of society; every film requires speaking words, something ‘real’ in itself. When a film enters my life, it affects me, and becomes a part of my own reality. Then the editing eats up reality as a new reality.
Van Sant’s film touched upon untouchable ground, recreating the events of Columbine only a couple of years after the tragedy, in close-up detail through the eyes of both students, teachers and the shooters themselves. Matt Johnson probably watched that film. Matt and Owen, the protagonists of this film, amongst their massive DVD collection, probably watched it too. Any viewer who goes into this having seen Elephant will perceive it differently than the viewer who hasn’t.
This film takes Elephant and cranks up the absurdity, whilst also questioning its identity as both fiction and reality. In some scenes, Matt wears a yellow t-shirt (with a black bull) and blue jeans, mirroring Alex’s outfit. Van Sant speculated many reasons as to what could compel a killer, and Johnson does the same here: an unending cycle of bullying, girls who refuse to talk to them, the easy availability of guns, the effects of media portrayal, the culture of masculinity, and so on. Matt and Owen are conflicted best friends, similar to Alex and Eric in Elephant. Van Sant hinted at their sexuality when they kissed in the shower on the morning before the shooting; here, it’s at a “that’s gay bruh” level. Matt hangs his testicles out as a joke, or stands around in underwear whilst recording foley effects.
But this does not make Matt an analogue to Alex. Matt, like Matt Johnson himself, represents the obsessive filmmaker. He is a parody of himself, consumed by the media he watches. He creates his own backstory based on pre-existing images of school shootings. He wears awful t-shirts, wondering what they would look like with blood on them.
The Catcher in the Rye, a symbol for disaffected teenagers everywhere in the depths of existential crises, forced to read it for their Eng Lit high school curriculums, is also the book read by Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley Jr and Robert John Bardo. The difference being, the fictional version of Matt is around the same age as Holden Caufield. But Matt also reads Dave Cullen’s oversized history of Columbine. The book stretches further: Stephen King’s fictional Rage (under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman), originating as a teenage fantasy on what he would do to the students he despised, was retracted from print after a number of school shootings through the 80s and 90s were carried out by students in possession of the book. An unreality made reality – yet again made unreality through the press creating their own narrative of events implicating the book, which may either be truth or mere coincidence.
In a moment of parody, Matt plans the shooting in plain sight. They easily acquire the plans to the school from over the counter at reception, pretending it’s for a school project. They tell a girl “we’re just here planning a school shooting”, as she brushes it off as a joke. He walks into school early thanks to a janitor, walking in with a far too obvious oversized bag (see Eric in Elephant). Where Van Sant created a serious world, this film finds humour within a serious subject.
The film’s closing scenes draws the closest resemblance to Elephant. The camera, held by the audience, implicates us within these events through the force of filmmaking outside of our power. We follow Matt from behind as he knocks over lockers, micicking the Steadicam of both Gus Van Sant’s and Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989), yet reduced to handheld found footage, perhaps one of the most derided methods of filmmaking. He installs Go-Pros above lockers throughout the school to capture the reality as film: just as the CCTV footage captured in the school filmed the reality of Columbine, albeit in black and white, or as Van Sant installed cameras throughout a school to create the fictional reality of those events, or as this film relies on the presence of cameras.
Over a decade and a half after Columbine, those once shocking, and once untouchable events, have descended into memory, as an unlearned lesson for the future. A teenager today, as with the characters of Matt and Owen within the film, probably wasn’t even in primary school when it exploded on the news. It lives on as a dramatised film (Elephant), and within David Cullen’s book about Columbine – as reconstructions of events.
Indeed, recently, Pure Flix, the Christian studio behind God’s Not Dead (2014), released a trailer to another film to add to the canon of Columbine films: I’m Not Ashamed, based on the diaries of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the tragedy. It remains to be seen whether the material was handled sensitively.