In one scene in Godard’s La Chinoise, Guillaume (played by a Godard favorite, Jean-Pierre Léaud) tells an anecdote concerning a young Chinese student who has his face covered in bandages during a protest in Moscow, yelling and screaming while he denounces the truculent violence of the Russian police. The press rushes over and as the student removes his bandages and those around him expect to see a cut or battered face, they instead find that he is perfectly unharmed. Guillaume goes on to argue that in their angered frustration the journalists failed to realize what had just taken place. It was theater. Real theater. A “reflection on reality, like Brecht or Shakespeare.”
Matthew Johnson is producer, editor, actor, and director in his debut feature-length film The Dirties, which delves into meta-linguistic territory and centers itself on the well-known postmodernist trope of blurring the line between reality and fiction. It chronicles a few weeks into the lives of two high school kids, Matt and Owen (played by Matt Johnson himself and Owen Williams). While Matt’s maniac hyperactivity is contrasted with Owen’s soft spoken boyish shyness, they are both bound together by the fact that they only have each other as friends. At first glance, The Dirties works within the structure and boundaries of the found footage genre, going so far as featuring an opening disclaimer as to how the footage we are about to witness was not tampered with in any way. It soon becomes apparent however, that the third party, the supposed cameraman, functions more as a formal cinematic mechanism than a real lifelike character (apparently, in an earlier cut of the film, this third element was featured as an actual character; I’m glad that somewhere along the line the choice was made to remove him from this position).
With their bedrooms littered with pop-culture references, the two film-obsessed main characters are directing a film for a school project. While The Dirties (the school project) references the world of Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, and other similar fan favorite directors in the teenage movie nerd demographic, The Dirties (the feature film) is as much indebted to Godard’s formalist satire as to Haneke’s reflections on voyeuristic violence (minus the annoying moralist undertones). The film that Matt and Owen are making for their project is built upon a series of homages and references to recent cinematic history as it tells the story of their revenge on The Dirties, a gang of bullies in their school. Their creation is both an empowering and frustrating experience since, when it’s all over and done with, The Dirties have not disappeared and it only leads to further violence and torment towards the duo. Matt gradually sinks deeper into his revenge fantasy, increasingly blurring his cinematic project with an actual plan to murder his high school tormentors. This may all sound very dark and bleak, but The Dirties truly excels in its dark humor and in presenting the two main characters in a surprisingly empathetic — even if not necessarily relatable — light.
One of the most striking aspects of the school shooting phenomenon is at how quickly it evolved into a social institution, that is, a socially expected outcome and configured response to a certain experience. It is no longer an exceptional situation that consumes weeks of CNN on the clock coverage. And gone is the time when school shootings could be dismissed as a freak occurrence, an unparalleled act carried out by “mentally unstable kids.” It has evolved into an institutionalized response to a complex and critical social issue: intolerance and bullying. Johnson skillfully explores this idea through Matt’s increasing obsession in attempting to perfectly reconstruct the clichés and stereotypes behind the act of performing a school shooting. In one particularly significant moment, Matt tries on different t-shirts and clothes, wondering which one would be best suited for carrying out the mass murder of his school peers. As he asks for the opinion of the mystery cameraman (i.e. ourselves, the spectator) he adds, “You have to picture how it’s going to look like covered in blood.” Likewise, Matt at one point also suggests they check out all copies of The Catcher in the Rye from the library because, you know, it’ll be funny since that’s what crazy killer sociopath killers do.
Johnson knows he’s dealing with a difficult subject matter and never once does he hide behind ironic detachment, instead using these tropes and references as a way of bringing his characters to life and to invite us to relate to them via our own fantasies of cool aestheticized violence. Unlike the aesthetic experimentalism of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, The Dirties examines the personal and subjective path its characters tread before they reach a final desperate moment of extreme action. Whereas Owen slowly seems to find his place in the harsh world of high school social acceptance by means of his romantic crush, Matt is increasingly frustrated and cannot find a way out of his victimized situation. He sees himself as unjustly ostracized, unreasonably tormented by the “bad guys.” The solution is handed out to him through of an individualized, gun-obsessed, hero-centered, revenge-fetish culture in which the response to bullying has already been solidly paved out by those who came before him.
Even though the funny and the tragic are intertwined just as much as the lowbrow and highbrow, there are some truly dark moments in The Dirties and Johnson skillfully navigates his way through a stack of cinematic references in what could have otherwise turned out to be a disjointed schizophrenic mess. Filmed with a shoestring budget and with a cast mostly comprised of amateur actors, The Dirties is an inspiring example of just how much can be achieved with so few material resources.