The Dirties (2013)

★★

The Dirties PosterDirector: Matt Johnson

Release Date: October 4th, 2013 (US limited)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams

His intentions are clear. Director Matt Johnson wants to create a film that tackles one of society’s most abhorrent problems, school shootings, in a way that is both original and impactful. He presents his piece as a documentary within a documentary; he and co-star Owen Williams’ first names mirror those of their respective characters; Johnson even looks to include elements of comedy, perhaps hoping that these moments will divert our attention away from more pressing matters just long enough for the film to cushion itself with added shock. None of it works. The Dirties severely lacks coherence, but that’s not the primary nuisance. Johnson and company probably don’t set out to be insensitive. Unfortunately, their film teeters unceremoniously along that edge.

A couple of high school mates decide to make a documentary about The Dirties, a group of bullies who terrorise their school. Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) bear the brunt of The Dirties’ abusive behaviour and, when their film is ridiculed in class, one of them resultantly gains a dangerous thirst for revenge. The other, though, becomes increasingly wary of and alienated by his friend’s behaviour.

There’s only one endgame here, and we know of it after five minutes. In truth, we’re fully aware before the film even starts. It doesn’t matter where Matt and Owen are — in class, at a secluded shooting range, around a bonfire — the only notion that consistently wears on our mind is gun violence. More specifically, gun violence in school. An at times imperiously weighty subject, school shootings have become one of humankind’s most despicable and perplexing habits. It’s a clichéd proclamation but, in an age when trolls linger all over the internet and online connectivity dominates our lives, school is supposed to be safest place for a child. There’s absolutely no getting away from the horrible concept, particularly when it’s regularly regurgitated on screen. The Dirties fails for that reason. The film takes something bluntly tragic and tries to be overly meta. Subsequently, plot holes appear quicker than a bee to honey, devouring any potential progress. There’s too much going on — are we supposed to take the film as just that, an overtly fictional piece based on true events, or is it attempting to be real life, paraded in a false documentary format?

Seemingly, Johnson endeavours to veil the piece as the latter. Shouldn’t it be a tad more serious then? Of course, its central topic is one riddled with sombre importance, but this is something The Dirties struggles to maintain. This absence of earnestness is down to how the film is presented, often flavoured by comedy and exotic normality. The cameraman — who we’re essentially meant to discard as a credible human being — follows Matt and Owen around persistently and becomes an agent of humour. At one point Matt passes over the popcorn in a scene that seeks to induce amusement but instead only serves to remind us of the film’s inconceivability and, therefore, crassness. When Johnson recalls the gravity of his material, he reverts to a gratuitous display of foreshadowing involving a Columbine book. We see this book more than once, its third appearance unsettling for all the wrong reasons.

Kevin Smith, whose production company was involved in the release, referred to this as “the most important movie you will see all year”. Smith owns and runs a comic book store in his spare time and his connection to The Dirties is apt given the film’s numerous movie buff references. I get a kick out of correctly identifying film trivia as much as the next nerd, but that sort of thing shouldn’t be on the menu here. By this point nobody really seems to care though: the filmmakers start adjusting rules to suit their own needs rather than those of the subject at hand. “Out of respect for the victims and their families, the footage has not been altered in any way,” reads a statement at the beginning. Numerous musical overlays suggest otherwise.

Having looked at it from a real life documentary perspective, let’s now consider The Dirties as a fictional account. Which it is, obviously. The screenplay is littered with inconsistencies, none more prevalent than our two main characters. Even though one of them eventually snaps, we never get into the nitty-gritty of his transformation. In reality, both boys relay fairly consistent characteristics throughout: quite cheery and upbeat despite the bullying. The biggest nonsense of all though, is the aforementioned cameraman’s role. (Or cameramen — it’s possible there are two males). Aside from getting away with always filming during classes, the operator(s) does absolutely nothing to prevent the inevitable atrocities. Devoid of explanation, this is completely unforgivable and lazy on the part of both Johnson and his co-writer Matthew Miller.

Besides, as simply a film, The Dirties is actually quite boring. For the most part the lives of our leading protagonists aren’t all that eventful. Interactions with girls turn out to be mellow rather than awkward, and they both get along amiably with the teachers at their school. Humorous injections reverberate out of rhythm too. There’s no air of disquieting callousness — the subject matter itself is intrinsically worrisome, but the way it’s communicated isn’t.

The Dirties tries too hard to be different when all its topic of debate warrants is precision. In the end, our feelings on school gun violence are exactly the same as they were when the runtime set off: shootings are horrifying and deeply unsettling. Our feelings on overly ambitious pseudo-documentaries shaped flimsily around said hard-hitting matter? In sharp decline.

Though there are better, more thought-provoking films out there, it is worth commending Matt Johnson for his willingness to engage in such a polarising and difficult issue, particularly given this is his first jab at directing.

The Dirties - Owen and Matt

Images credit: IMP Awards, JoBlo

Images copyright (©): Phase 4 Films

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

★★★★

Bowling for Columbine PosterDirector: Michael Moore

Release Date: October 11th, 2002 (US limited); November 15th, 2002 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; History

Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary, somewhat pithily christened Bowling for Columbine, is undoubtedly a seminal piece. For Moore personally, it gained the director an Academy Award and the chance to extend some sentiments splashed throughout his film to a plush Hollywood crowd in LA’s Kodak Theatre. (Some booed, some cheered, Tommy Lee Jones probably sat stone-faced.) It also smashed international box office records in places such as the United Kingdom upon release, becoming the financial brass ring to which other documentaries aspired — ironically, Moore would go on to eclipse himself with Fahrenheit 9/11.

Though, carrying more importance than these aforementioned amenities, Bowling for Columbine debates unavoidable issues that are still firmly rooted in the bricks and mortar of society. And Moore frequently wins. His film is a bit of ego-trip, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the chief’s unwavering histrionics often inject a tragically informative piece with a comedic edge. That being said, his manifesto is never relinquished in favour of entertainment. Notwithstanding the occasional needless tactic, Bowling for Columbine successfully eradicates the clouds that surround its thought-provoking themes. What’s presented, in turn, rains with disquieting reality.

Moore targets gun crime and, in doing so, uses the 1999 Columbine High School massacre as the seed from which each of his arguments grow. The film is a generally political, sporadically cultural and universally societal look at trigger-happy violence in America and its central question is: Why? Why did thirteen innocent people die at school? And why is America’s gun crime resoundingly higher than the rest of the world’s?

Each argument is an extension of the last, and his agents of remonstration spread fairly far. We begin down a bowling alley and conclude in the company of Charlton Heston. Moore strives to maintain a potent arc along his two hour discussion and more or less accomplishes this. He links each chapter well — the revolver road-trip stops off at a variety of places, from a rifle-offering bank to the house of a man whose participation in the Oklahoma City bombing was once in question — and, in doing so, implements a solid narrative structure. There are a few rocky detours that see some less-effective moments; an interview with a Lockheed Martin spokesperson is a bit flimsy. Moore disguises any unsatisfactory points though. He shrewdly converses with the right people as a means to substantiate his own agenda. Which is fine, it doesn’t negatively affect the arguments presented because an authentic base is already in place.

That base is Columbine. Although the film isn’t about the actual shooting — Moore’s decision not to stray down what would have been an easily rewarding path, in terms of emotional gravitas, is admirable — the tragedy is always lingering in the background. In fact, the director actually references the location of Columbine High School at one point, indicating that its direct centrality amongst discussion involving guns, bombs and violence isn’t simply metaphorical. Given the very real presence of the atrocity, notions of disgust and negativity towards gun culture are already firmly embedded in our minds. Moore’s numerous assertions against said culture, therefore, are instantly credible.

A particular sequence intended to give an overview of Columbine is inherently powerful, but not exploitative. There’s no argument-shilling at this point, only a picture of humankind at its most despicable. It’s so disgruntling that the subsequent scene might implore the viewer to detest one of cinema’s most iconic figures in a swift rifle-raising action and four contextually chilling words (“Over my dead body”) — just one example of Kurt Engfehr’s wholly astute editing that motions proceedings along at an engaging pace.

Music is also effectively enforced. The now infamous “What a Wonderful World” montage would be quite amusing if it weren’t steeped in such fraught subject matter. Indeed, Bowling for Columbine thrives on destitute comedy. One of the earliest examples sets the darkly humorous prerogative; Moore enters a bank and opens an account in order to obtain a free gun. After a few minutes where the staff aren’t paraded in a particularly flattering light, Moore exits, rifle aloft. The scene is too outrageous to fully comprehend — its authenticity has been disputed in one of many controversies since release — but the filmmaker doesn’t pass up an opportunity for funny. (“D’you think it’s a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?”)

The climate of fear is a prominent thread throughout. Does Moore blame guns? Not entirely. It’s the gun culture. The media scaremongering. Even the US government’s foreign policy hailing a bomb as a solution, according to Moore. These collectively add up to the main source of gun-related disaster in America. Today, over a decade later, Moore still flaunts this strongly asserted claim: “Guns don’t kill people — Americans kill people.” One of the film’s most compelling parts is an interview with Marilyn Manson, whose well-formed explanation in regards to media exploitation is practical and persuasive. (We hear that crime is down by 20%, but television coverage is up by 600%.)

It’s all going swimmingly until a K-Mart segment towards the film’s conclusion. Shadowed by two victims of Columbine, Moore leads his verbal assault against the store. It almost comes around in the end, but by then Moore’s ego is edging towards the spotlight. Only, rather than positively affecting proceedings, this time his overly aggressive personality is distracting. However it should be noted that the stunt’s positive outcome absolutely justifies the slightly crass piece of filmmaking from which it spawns.

Overall, Moore completes a stellar job of informing and convincing. Despite sporadically venturing down peripheral avenues, the film holds together tightly and is even genuinely funny at times. Ultimately though, this is a damning indictment on not just America but society as a whole, exposing us at our very worst. If Bowling for Columbine was evidence in humanity’s trial, we’d be guilty as charged.

Bowling for Columbine - Moore

Images credit: IMP Awards, WhatCulture

Images (©): United Artists