I was a ten, maybe 11 and I was about to see a grown man eaten alive. My friend and I, along with at least one of my siblings, were watching Jaws on TV while the adults chatted it up in the kitchen. I was scared out of my wits, but I loved it. What I saw, of course, wasn’t really a man getting eaten alive. I was watching a man playing in the water. He was literally pretending to be fighting for his life with a giant toy shark. But that didn’t matter. I was wrapped in the story and in the moment. His acting, the camera work, the props, the fake blood—it all worked on me.
We all know that in movies we aren’t really seeing what it appears that we’re seeing. And there are moments that we talk about where we saw a scene and it got to us. Those that really do this well are the ones that draw our imaginations in and make us think we’re seeing something that we’re not. American History X has a scene like that. Another movie famously has a human head in a box in the story (For those of you who saw the movie, you know. For those of you who haven’t, I won’t say which one it is so as not to spoil). Many viewers will swear up and down that they saw a small glimpse of the head. But they didn’t. Their mind tells them they saw it, but that doesn’t change what is actually shown on screen. Others who have watched the movie more than once will insist that the reason why so many people think they see the head is because a blonde hair or two blows in the wind, peeking up out of the box. But nope. That’s not there either. The psychology in the storytelling is so powerful that we are duped into seeing what’s not there.
Sometimes I think our difficulty with seeing certain scenes in movies is more about us than about what’s in the scene. I mean, it is true that a lot of movies are immoderate with their depiction of violence or graphic situations, but the ones we all talk about that freaked us out are often ones that show considerable restraint. The arm in 127 Hours. The ear in Reservoir Dogs. The shower in Psycho. American History X is not the easiest movie to watch. It makes you face things you’d rather not face. It’s not enough to simply say, “I can’t handle that.” It’s important to ask yourself why you can’t. Talk about the subjects that these movies expose us to. Learn more about the subject. Learn more about yourself.
And for anyone who would say, “How can you watch stuff like that? Why open yourself up to that?” I like to respond the same way everyone did to me for years when they learned I enjoyed professional wrestling. “You do know it’s not real. Don’t you?”
Congratulations American History X. This is your week.
And the Oscar goes to…
Best Actor: Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard in American History X.
Best Quote: “My son is dying, and I’m broke. If I don’t qualify for Medicare, WHO THE HELL DOES?” — Denzel Washington as John Q. Archibald.
Again, just to confirm, I do agree that there are many movies that seem to wallow in their own gore and/or shocking content. But movies that not only fit the description above, but also have something important to say to us today should get a pass. Or at least a chance.