The Dirties (2013), dir. Matt Johnson

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Elephant (1989), dir. Alan Clarke

Elephant is deliberately minimalist, stripping away dialogue and context to provide a brutal depiction of the Troubles in Belfast during the late 1980s.

It remains chilling viewing, yet I somewhat prefer Gus Van Sant’s approach. Clarke asks the audience to come to their own conclusions based on the stimulus on the screen, to spark a conversation about the “elephant in the room”. He kind of did: the film received heavy backlash upon its broadcast, especially from viewers in Belfast. (The extract from Open Air on the Blu-ray, interviewing Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle after the broadcast, is essential viewing for this background.) Whereas Van Sant’s approach was to speculate multiple reasons as to why the school shooting was carried out, leaving the audience to determine which factor they deem the most important or influential; both are thought pieces that leave ambiguity. The main difference is that Van Sant gave every character a background: both the killer and the victim. Here, everyone is a blank slate. The shooters pass for everyday people in casual dress.

But it’s clear the use of Steadicam influenced Van Sant, although here it reinforces the POV of the killers, building up to the suspense of who they may kill next. In Van Sant’s film, it built up suspense from the POV of the victim, leading up to what they may discover in the next classroom. Van Sant limited himself to a school and teenagers killing fellow students and teachers. The IRA don’t discriminate. Anyone, in any corner of Belfast, is not safe.

What is perhaps most impressive is the use of sound: despite the sparse dialogue, there’s an uneasy atmosphere from dogs barking to cars revving. Yet despite a sea of cars, there are no human voices to break the silence and raise the issue. The issue is as it appears on screen.

Elephant is worth watching, but it is a conversation starter, rather than the final word on the Troubles.

Elephant (2003), dir. Gus Van Sant

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Elephant is a curious film. A semi-remake of Alan Clarke’s film of the same name, but set as a fictionalised version of the Columbine massacre.

Producing the film for HBO, Van Sant takes full advantage of the TV movie format: the Academy aspect ratio frame, much like the 1:1 frame in Mommy (2014), captures the focus of each individual within their own world, passing by the world of every other person, whose adjacent narratives we view from different perspectives as the narrative develops. Even when we are looking at a group of characters, the focus remains on one person within that group. Because that is the message that high school relays: individual achievement. Universities relay a similar message too. It is the actions of the individual which resulted in the shooting. The way the narrative is told, as a series of vignettes focusing on individual characters and their roles in the hours leading up to the shooting, seems perfect for the film’s division into ad breaks.

This idea of individual achievement questionably stems into effect theory. Eric plays a computer game on his laptop, shooting an endless stream of identical characters (with bloody results), seeing no distinction between them. Later, Alex and Eric compare tallies of how many people they killed – like the number of points on a videogame. But the school system is run in exactly the same way: individuals are graded into numbers and bands of achievements. This isn’t positioned as a solitary motive either: Van Sant ensured that he didn’t tie the characters down to there being an explanation. There’s too many factors: Alex has yogurt thrown at him in class; suffers from mental illness, hearing voices in his head, that goes recognised by nobody; the two boys are left alone at home, unsupervised by parents.

The film criticises how easily obtainable firearms are, ordered online with one-day delivery. When the UPS guy turns up at the door, he doesn’t question why Alex and Eric aren’t at school, just says “lucky you” and thanks them, making no effort to get answers. When John warns people not to go in the school, he’s largely ignored.

But the film also alludes to the shooting as a reaction against homophobia. There’s an often unspoken sense of Bonnie and Clyde between Alex and Eric, barely evident in their mannerisms towards each other, but we see them kiss in a naked shower scene. Some of the victims of the massacre we see taking part in a class discussion over whether you can tell if somebody is gay based on their appearance. We’re never given a sense of these characters being queer (besides the tropes of the loner kid, often channelled into the gay narrative) – thus partly inviting the audience to question what they see, rather than making an immediate assumption of who these characters are.

In part, it reaches to the comedic: Alex plays classical music on the piano, as if an embodiment of the melodramatic Phantom of the Opera. He watches Nazis parading with Hitler on TV with Eric. Yet, from another lens, these are also the qualities of a model student: Alex draws comic book art, plays the piano well and watches history documentaries; he’s the model of masculinity, using logs as a shooting range. He meets expectations set upon him, yet has no way in which to channel these publicly, finding the school environment destructive compared to his home environment, yet isn’t home schooled.

In part, it acts as a mystery. The film doesn’t point us in any immediate direction towards Alex and Eric being the killers, before John sees them entering the school in faux military gear and becomes suspicious. John has an alcoholic father, catching the attention of the principal by arriving at school late; Elias wanders around the park before school, taking photos of a punk rocker couple out of nowhere. It misleads us to question that any of these people could have taken the same path. The idea of a loner turned killer could have been uncomplex and cliched, yet our focal characters throughout the film are loners. Even I can project my high school self onto Alex: being bullied in class; finding the high school environment deafening and so on. But this stops when he shows any hint of intent to massacre. I can project myself onto Elias too, taking photographs and awkwardly walking up to strangers, and onto Michelle, spending her time in the library and feeling body issues.

In many ways, the film’s presentation of high school is mundane. This isn’t the high school of Clueless (1995) or Mean Girls (2004). In many ways it depends upon tropes: the loner, the slacker, the photographer, the jock, the insecure girl, the bitchy girls obsessed about boyfriends, and so on. Yet it deals with these characters realistically, not as cartoons. Because this is what high school is: a mundane bore, where people don’t really learn stuff, and have odd conversations leading in a million different directions (notice that the conversation about boyfriends is only one part of the girls’ conversation).

Much of the film is spent in silence, with characters walking around the school, followed by a one-shot camera in a restricting frame. Yet the mundane can be interrupted in an instant; diverse lives with potential, like with photography, or just a life the same as everybody else’s, can be taken away in a instant.