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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Skinheads in the Cinema & This is England

Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper, Edward Norton in American History X, and Ryan Goslingin The Believer.  Three career-making, brilliant performances from three of the finest working actors and all of them played charismatic, handsome neo-Nazi skinheads.

What is it about this particular group of hate-mongers that is so fascinating to us as viewers?  And what is it about these people that has brought out some of the finest performances of the past decade?

There is no doubt that evil and the understanding of evil is one of the biggest reasons why we want to see these films and the performances by Crowe, Norton, and Gosling helped give us someone to navigate through these murky waters.  I personally enjoy watching these films because I love the moral quagmire it puts my mind in.  It makes me question why I would be rooting for someone so despicable.

There is a scene in American History X where Edward Norton instructs his band of skinheads to go into a grocery store and humiliate the immigrants who work there.  He delivers a monologue so beautifully that it’s not hard to understand why his cadre of lost souls would hang on every word and heed his advice.  Then when you see the reality of those words brought to life, it startles you with how quickly words can cause real physical pain.  After that scene, I was positive that Norton could no longer be the hero of this film because he had done something unforgivable.

Later on, there is the sequence where he is in prison and befriends a black man and we are able to see the humanity in him once again.  I cannot give him enough praise for his performance for being able to make that turn.  The hardest thing to do as an actor in a film is not to play a mentally-challenged person or an alcoholic or any other role where you can use a crutch, although those are the types of roles that often win awards.  The hardest thing to do is to convince the audience of a genuine change in the character; to make a despicable person someone that we come to respect and care for and it is to the credit of Mr. Norton that he is able to convey that change convincingly and sympathetically.

I think that this is why I love these types of movies and these types of performances; because these are not easy things to digest.  It is not a simple black and white situation to look at the face of evil and see a human being staring back at you.  These movies, when done well, stay with you.

Having said all that, This is England and the lead performance by Thomas Turgoose are worthy additions to the above list.  Whereas those other movies are about the smooth-talking, good looking skinheads who lead, this is a movie about a twelve year-old awkward looking kid who follows.  This is the story of how someone gets sucked into the world of being a skinhead, how a series of events can cause someone to slowly grow into a different person.

Turgoose plays Shaun, a pre-teen kid in 1983 England.  He lives outside of London with his mom and they are struggling to get by, especially since his father died in the Falkland’s War.  He gets bullied every day, but he’s a strong, stubborn kid who isn’t afraid to throw punches at men twice his size.  This usually results in him getting beat up a lot.  One day, walking home from school, he meets a group of older kids who take him under their wing.  They all have shaved heads, wear Ben Sherman shirts with suspenders and combat boots, but they don’t really buy into all the ideology.  After all, one of the kids is black.  They’re really more punks than skinheads.

Shaun instantly takes a liking to Woody, the handsome leader of the group who treats Shaun like his little brother.  Woody gets Shaun a girl, buys him a shirt, takes him on trips with the guys and even Shaun’s mother is appreciative of what Woody does for Shaun.  Then the gang’s old leader, Combo shows up and he expects everybody to fall in line and continue a tradition of Nationalism.  Most of the gang doesn’t want any part of being racist or militant, they just want to have a good time.  Woody winds up leaving the group behind, but Shaun has found a father figure in the quick-tempered Combo and things take a turn for the worse.

The film is written and directed by Shane Meadows and it is based on his own experiences growing up and that honesty really shines through.  This film feels gritty, raw and real.  There is a lot to laugh at, especially in the beginning, but when it turns ugly, it gets really ugly.  The nuances of adolescence gives the film a verisimilitude that keeps the audiences grounded while Shaun begins to spin out of control.  Meadows has directed a few other films, including24/7 and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, but they felt a bit cold to me and the key difference for this film is the performance by Turgoose.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a performance by someone so young that felt so vibrant and real.  The key to Turgoose’s performance is that it doesn’t feel like acting.  He is not a cutesy, Haley Joel-Osment type.  He is an abrasive, stubborn, strange looking kid and that’s what makes you take notice of him at first.  He won me over with his tenacity and the way that profanity comes spilling out of his chubby cheeks in a voice an octave higher than one might expect.

When Shaun harasses a Pakistani shop clerk in the beginning of the film, before he falls in with the skinheads, it is almost humorous because this kid is acting like he’s entitled to do whatever he wants.  After he finds his new family and he goes back to the Pakistani shop clerk, it’s no longer a laughing matter and he’s no longer acting like he’s entitled, he believeshe’s entitled.  But, it’s a credit to his performance that we never hate him for it, we just hope that he will eventually reach a point of understanding.  And it’s a careful balancing act by Meadows, in he never makes Shaun a sponge of hatred rather someone who is just angry at the hand he’s been dealt.  We can relate to Shaun and that’s what makes the changes he goes through truly terrifying.

The film’s last half hour falls apart a bit as it tries to juggle a few too many supper characters’ subplots when all we care about is Shaun’s struggle to find the right path.  Still, it’s worth a trip to the theaters if you can find it playing near you.  Perhaps one day, we will look back at this film and remember it as the first time we saw Thomas Turgoose and just like those three others, he was playing a skinhead.

– Noah Forrest
July 31, 2007

Other columns by Noah Forrest
07.26.07 – The Frenzy on the Wall
07.28.07 – Siena Miller: Good or Evil?

Noah Forrest is a 24 year old aspiring writer/.filmmaker in New York City.

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Frenzy On Column

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon