Four-Color Revolution

In his introduction to this superbly illustrated compendium of underground newspapers, editor Geoff Kaplan channels the 1960s’ exuberant ad-hoc vibe by referring to his book as “Power of the People,” despite the title on the cover—Power to the People. The more inclusive of offers insight into the cultural power exuded by the 700 color reproductions gathered here, all culled from papers published between 1964 and 1974.

Kaplan posits that the brash, sometimes outrageous graphic treatments used by underground designers represented a “vehement challenge to the dominance of official media.” A revolution in information technology back in the mid-’60s made it possible for anyone to become a publisher — the only requirements were “an IBM typewriter with interchangeable typefaces, a lot of artwork (cartoons, photographs, drawings, illustrations) and an urge to express his or her social, political, or cultural point of view.” A confluence of history and demographics helped give rise to this onslaught of smudgy newsprint. The Baby Boomers were confronted with an unpopular war, and, as one essayist in the book points out, “the friction between draft age (18) and voting age (21).” Additionally, the use of LSD among many editors and designers “gave the social insurgency of the sixties, and the underground newspapers associated with it, their peculiar and distinctive stamp.”

With youthful fervor shaping the politics and psychedelic drugs driving the look of the underground press, readers expected, and received, visual invective: The New York–based Other Scenes depicted a naked woman’s rear end expelling the names of 1968’s presidential candidates — Humphrey, Nixon, Wallace — in curling, piled-up letters. Often just as polemical, the London-based papers Oz and The International Times featured complex typography entwined with vivid illustrations. Like Beatles songs, the graphics coming out of Swinging London were a mix of sterling talent and witty production—one Oz cover splattered red ink over the famous photograph of South Vietnam’s police chief executing a Vietcong infiltrator with a shot to the temple. (The caption ridicules President Johnson: “The Great Society Blows Another Mind.”) An International Times cover gave theorist Guy Debord’s seminal treatise, “Society of the Spectacle,” the comic-strip treatment, with a female character proclaiming, “Culture? Ugh! The ideal commodity—the one that helps sell all the others!”

From “Old Mole,” 1969

The authors of Black Mask (printed in Alabama in 1966) paid homage to earlier rabble-rousing manifestos with the proclamation, “A new spirit is rising. Like the streets of Watts we burn with revolution. We assault your Gods — We sing of your death. DESTROY THE MUSEUMS — our struggle cannot be hung on walls.” Stark black bars and a leaping Black Panther logo complement this ardent rhetoric. (Although Power to the People has been printed at lavish scale, keep a magnifying glass handy—the yellowed tabloids are necessarily reduced, but the text of the articles, by turns riveting and rambling, can often be discerned in these crisp reproductions.)

Some publications leavened politics with practical advice. The feminist organ Off Our Backs provided clear line drawings that in one issue explicated the proper insertion of a diaphragm and in another the correct way to change a tire — “a simple and gratifying task which has generally been left to men for cultural, not physical, reasons.”

There are sly layout Easter eggs scattered throughout Power to the People. In the upper left corner of one page, a splay-legged lass on the cover of the San Francisco Express Times welcomes the new year with a headline cribbed from “Sympathy for the Devil”: “’69 — ‘Pleased to Meet You—Hope You Guess My Name.’ ” In the lower right of the facing page, a New York Times headline reports “Free Concert Causes Huge Jam Near San Francisco,” an early dispatch from the Rolling Stones’ disastrous Altamont show that December.

“You may never have taken LSD,” Amherst professor Nick Bromell once observed, “but America has.” Power to the People concludes with stirring graphics from the Chicago Seed that reinforce this ’60s spirit. Railing against a senseless war, pollution, and police violence while celebrating the many social and cultural advances of the time, this passionate artwork, like Renaissance painting, crystallizes a spirit that is obviously dated, but also timeless.

Seven American Deaths and Disasters
By Kenneth Goldsmith
Powerhouse Books, 176 pp., $19.95

The first bulletin comes amid pop songs and advertisements for Thanksgiving turkeys. You can imagine a secretary looking up from her typewriter, a mechanic rolling out from under a car, a soda jerk’s hand stilled in midair: Did someone on the radio just say the president had been shot?

Poet Kenneth Goldsmith has edited and transcribed moment-by-moment radio and television broadcasts of seven traumatic events in postwar American history, achieving on the printed page something akin to the always surprising emotional wallop that Andy Warhol’s best “Disaster” paintings still pack.

Goldsmith begins with the JFK assassination, followed by the shooting of RFK five years later: “John . . . er, Robert Francis Kennedy died this morning at 1:40.” He employs different fonts for each tragedy—classy Roman for the gunning down of John Lennon, techie sans-serif for the Challenger space shuttle explosion—and although there are only transcriptions on the page, your brain begins supplying inflections and images that flesh out the deadpan format. As the second World Trade Center tower collapses, you can hear aborning conspiracy theory in two reporters’ on-the-spot observations.

“You’d almost think there was some type of secondary explosion.”

“Ugh! Oh! I mean that’s . . . that’s . . . that’s . . . ”

“That would . . . that would . . . that would . . . And you have to wonder how that . . .”

“Let’s just think about this logically.”

“There is no logic.”

“Oh my God!”

Add in the horror of the Columbine shootings and Michael Jackson’s pathetic demise and you realize that, through his keen ear, Goldsmith has discovered something roiling the hearts of those left behind: sorrow, bewilderment, maybe survivor’s guilt, and relief that, for now, your own bullet has been dodged.


Massacre at Central High

Dir. Rene Daalder (1976).
New kid exterminates bullies in this drive-in allegory—pitched somewhere between Animal Farm and High Plains Drifter—a treasured cult film made 20 years before Columbine.

Thu., June 9, 7 p.m., 2011


Ben X the Best Teen Movie Since Donnie Darko

The best movie I’ve seen about teen angst since Donnie Darko comes from Belgium? It’s also the best film about a bullied teen with Asperger’s Syndrome that I’ve seen from any country, and its blurred life-into-vidgame fantasy sequences makes it seem doubly topical. Ben (Greg Timmermans) spends waaay too much time logged onto a multi-user fantasy role-playing game, but what other consolation does he have in life? His peers torment him; girls won’t look his way; and his divorced parents seem powerless to help. On-screen, however, his pimple-faced avatar smites rival warriors and wins a comely princess (whose braces make her resemble a certain girl from his high-school class). Timmermans looks too old for his character, whose past-tense voiceovers portend a certain ominous, Columbine-style denouement, but director Nic Balthazar—adapting his own novel—has carefully constructed Ben X so that its twist ending isn’t borrowed or cheap. And the barrage of screen graphics, text messages, and cell-phone videos speaks to modern teens’ isolation-in-connectivity. “2 late 2 heal,” Ben texts his vidgame paramour. You don’t have to be Belgian to know that feeling.


The Life Before Her Eyes: Melodrama Attacks

Riddled with high concept, this florid adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s 2002 novel is a horror picture of sorts that plays off a Columbine-style high-school shooting from the victims’ point of view. But moviegoers may mistake The Life Before Her Eyes for an unduly long L’Oreal commercial featuring softly lit film stars moving languidly with swinging hair through overbearingly premonitory weather. All but derailed by director Vadim (House of Sand and Fog) Perelman’s fondness for the slow-motion sequence, The Life Before Her Eyes stars Evan Rachel Wood, shortchanging her considerable talent yet again, as Diana, a troubled small-town teen whose undisciplined appetites are tempered by her friendship with churchgoing good girl Maureen (Eva Amurri, giving her all to a thankless task). Fifteen years after the two friends are improbably commanded by the high-school shooter to choose which of them should die, Diana, played by Uma Thurman in various attitudes of vague distress, is living a golden life edged with portents of Something Amiss. A twist that offers fertile potential for subtle meditation on growing up, conscience, and roads not traveled ends up buried beneath insect metaphors, lurid flashbacks, and a thunderstorm that creaks with the climax to come.


Documenting Tragedy

Honorable, hardworking, and immaculately staged by its co-author PJ Paparelli,
is a vivid illustration of both the virtues and the dangers of theater that aspires to documentary status. Its last few scenes, which cover in detail the events leading up to the mass killings at Columbine High School in 1999 and the collective trauma they left behind, are inevitably devastating, and not just because the taped sound effect of the 9mm gunshots is forceful enough to set every armrest in New York Theatre Workshop’s auditorium vibrating.

As in the greatest tragedies, we know what’s going to happen, and know that it can’t be avoided. But in tragedy we know that what happens is both inevitable and fictive; history, especially history as recent as the Columbine killings, is a more fluid matter. We know that Medea will kill her kids, or that Hamlet will kill his murderous uncle and then die, because a poet drawing on a body of myth has told us so: Our interest is in seeing how it happens, and in what resonances the poet’s way of telling it can rouse in us. That there was a historical Hamlet who killed his historical uncle several hundred years before Shakespeare doesn’t matter much; Shakespeare had the story secondhand anyway, and freely changed it around to suit his poetic purposes. (There was a lot of shocked grumbling among American book reviewers in 1940, when James Branch Cabell’s sardonic novel Hamlet Had an Uncle went back to the brutality of the original Danish chronicle.)

Recent history, in an age when the sound and image of every recordable event are digitized for perpetual replay, limits the available poetic strategies. We know the facts. We’re stuck with them. Anyone can devastate us with their simple recitation. The challenge for theater artists is: What can you add to the facts to make an experience bigger and more meaningful than a simple assemblage of news clips?

The United States Theatre Project, the ensemble with which Paparelli and co-writer Stephen Karam have created columbinus, tries to answer the question with generalizations. The first half of the evening is a series of impressionist scenes of life for American high schoolers today: waking, showering, and dressing; classes; social tensions in gym, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways between classes; cliques, rivalries, and personality conflicts. The two actors who will play Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris often find themselves on the fringes of the group, shunned, mocked, or harassed by the others.

While not uninteresting to watch— especially since we know what’s coming—these vague washes of event are essentially unenlightening, not only because they’re so familiar but because their familiarity has no relation to the matter at hand. There has never been a high school without cliques and rivalries; if there’s one where students who are “different” in some way are not singled out for ridicule or persecution, it would be front-page news. That children can be brutal to their peers, and adolescents appallingly so, might be a shock to a hermit or to someone who grew up in a Skinner box, but not to anyone who has ever passed through the halls of an American public school. But thousands upon thousands of adolescents have survived four years of high school without confronting anything like the violence perpetrated by Klebold and Harris. Even urban-jungle high schools forced to resort to metal detectors and armed police patrols know virtually nothing like it. A crime is fascinating precisely because it is an exception. Kids are snobs who make fun of anyone who’s weird, geeky, nerdy, impaired, too bright, too dumb, too mannish, too effeminate, too uncoordinated, too tall, too short, too thin, too fat—you name it. And countless thousands of the ridiculed have nurtured fantasies of violent revenge, any number of which have found their way into books, plays, films, TV shows, rock songs, and comic strips. But the number who have actually exacted such revenge is small indeed. Even within the vast group of those for whom humiliation by their peers constitutes a virtual rule, Klebold and Harris were an astonishing, appalling exception.

Columbinus‘s second half, leading up to the slaughter, draws more directly on documents released in evidence or news reports and has some of the harrowing specificity that might have infused the show as a whole. We get to see how teachers, guidance counselors, and therapists all missed the danger signals by asking the wrong questions, not perceiving the two troubled boys’ potential explosiveness because they viewed them as cases instead of people.

But even this fails to evoke the deeper causes. In one very bad strategic move on the show’s part, the two are seen simultaneously dining with their respective families. The two dinner table conversations are made identical, as if to say that dysfunctional family equals dysfunctional family. Tolstoy, one might say, knew better: A dysfunctional family is dysfunctional after its own fashion, and the scary part here was that the two fashions could merge to produce the folie à deux that led to the carnage. The growth of that dual mania, at least, we get to see, in a climactic scene between the two boys, drawn from the tapes and e-mail messages they left behind, during which one of them nearly backs out. Rising to this point, columbinus nearly reverses its ostensible goal, becoming a lesson not in how the tragedy happened, but in how any tragic event caused by human agency might not happen.

The moral, in a sense, is not that Columbine could have been prevented, but that we should be grateful, in a culture as sprawling and violence-ridden and misfocused as ours, for its not happening, somewhere in America, seven times a week. But this opens a set of questions that the makers of columbinus, despite all their goodwill and good work, have barely begun to adumbrate, let alone explore. Their desire to link the experience at Columbine with the experience of every high school has only brought them to the far bigger challenge of analyzing the society in which such high schools, and such children, can exist. For that, the documents of this one horrifying case provide only a quick glance into the abyss. Tragedy needs to stare more deeply.


His Own Private Biopic

Gus Van Sant’s Last Days will likely be remembered as the “Kurt Cobain movie”—more than as the final chapter (after Gerry and Elephant) of Van Sant’s young-death trilogy, and despite the film’s requisite claim that it’s a “work of fiction” merely “inspired by” the Nirvana frontman’s 1994 demise. As the similarly minimalist Elephant conjured Columbine, so Last Days (which opens July 22) resurrects the grunge-rocking author of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for 90-odd minutes of mumbled monologues and territorial pissings—the abstraction befitting our blurred memories of what we imagined a decade ago might’ve happened to a celebrity recluse who apparently killed himself with a shotgun while under the influence of drugs, depression, and a looming European tour.

Cobain, who adored Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, might well have approved this choice of biographer, whose method is far less journalistic than impressionistic—if not inscrutable. Clearest by default is the film’s climax: Van Sant appropriates the crime scene image of Cobain’s lifeless, sneaker-clad foot and splayed left leg, art-directing what little we know for sure with the same morbid fastidiousness of the shower murder in his shot-by-shot Psycho remake.

If Last Days‘ brand-new distributor, Picturehouse, is at all concerned about the commercial prospects of its maiden release, it wouldn’t be because the movie stands to offend Cobain fans with what it speculates—since what it speculates is more or less limited to the theory that he made macaroni and cheese in his last days and watched a Boyz II Men video. (The film even resists asserting that Cobain ended his own life—which some chat room commentators have fancifully construed as conspiracy theory, complete with lone gunwoman in the supporting cast.) The risk for Picturehouse, rather, is that the “Kurt Cobain movie” is also a bona fide art film: a rock biopic in which, Nirvana lovers might argue, nothing happens.

“I was afraid to fall into the trap of picking out the greatest-hits moments and getting lost in too much story,” says Van Sant by phone from the film’s press junket. “At one time I did start writing something that had the [Cobain] character’s life as a young man, the first forming of the band, the struggles of getting their first gig, rising to the top, fighting with the record company—all the clichés. I only wrote a couple of pages, but while I was writing them I felt myself wanting to use dolls like Todd Haynes did [in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story]. I guess that was a way to distance it—to avoid falling into that trap of having actors portray real people. I’m not sure that I did avoid it, but I was trying.”

Indeed, Last Days bids to be a double-album blast of Brechtian distanciation. Writing from the Cannes Film Festival, where the movie had its suitably hazy world premiere, J. Hoberman counted no more than three close-ups of “Kurt,” a/k/a Blake (Michael Pitt)—including, presumably, the ones in which the character’s face is shrouded by hair. Blake’s habit of hiding even from those who share his old dark house (not to mention his other habit) foregrounds the fundamental elusiveness of the subject. And yet Van Sant’s point here, as in Elephant, is to suggest that the evocatively vague variety of avant-garde cinema comes closer to truth than the contrived “reality” of TV news.

“One of the reasons I chose this story,” Van Sant says, “is that it’s sort of the rock ‘n’ roll suicide version of an overly reported subject like Columbine. [Cobain’s] death had 24-hour coverage, at least on MTV. But I feel the way a journalist composes a story [makes it] as fictional as a fiction film. And that fiction filmmakers—those with imagination who resist making ‘entertainment’—are the ones who can actually go in there and bring about answers. Not that [Last Days] was meant to be a literal investigation; it’s more of a poetic investigation.”

Van Sant’s fly-on-the-wall approach to an unraveling character is stubbornly anti-psychological—to the degree that Last Days scarcely reads as the picture of someone who’s about to kill himself. Yet the director’s astute description of how wish fulfillment would’ve further complicated Cobain’s profile mirrors the film’s perception of fame as an isolating force—a perception expressed largely through the distance between camera and character.

“If you’re thinking that Kurt actually did kill himself, without any outside forces coming in and assassinating him,” Van Sant says, as if to widen the net, “then there’s a good case to be made that his having been given whatever he asked for would have been difficult [for him]. In five years, he had gone from not being able to afford a $600 recording session to being able to demand covers on every music magazine in the world. It’s not supposed to feel bad when you get what you want. And when it does, the rage can come from a really weird place. You can be pissed at yourself. You have no right [to feel angry], and yet you have no other way to feel, either. That’s not a very good place to be. And maybe a troubled marriage on top of it doesn’t help.”

Ah, yes—the elephant in the room. Has Courtney Love—who “appears” in Last Days as a voice screaming at one of Blake’s many roommates over the phone—been invited to see the movie?

“I want her to see it,” says Van Sant, “because I know her and I wanted to offer her the opportunity. She just hasn’t had maybe the emotional chance to see it. I think it’s a very big thing [for her]. I know that if somebody made a film about someone I knew very well who died, I wouldn’t necessarily have to rush out and see it—because I have my own relationship to that person. So I can see why it might take a while. Or, you know, she might not see it at all.”


Being and Nothingness

Let’s credit Gus Van Sant for squandering the capital of his egregious Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester on sincere misfires like a superfluous shot-by-shot Psycho remake and the abstract Blair Witch gloss Gerry. Uneven though he may be, Van Sant rivals Steven Soderbergh as the mad scientist of commercial filmmakers—and the wildly polarizing Elephant is his most successful experiment to date.

Surprise winner at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, the HBO-produced Elephant is a poetic disaster film that audaciously addresses the subject of American high school shootings. It was inspired by the 1999 Columbine massacre but incorporates details from other incidents, treating the material with a combination of bold aestheticism and documentary whimsy. Expertly shot by Harris Savides in the boxy 1.33:1 standard TV aspect ratio, the spectacle is designed for maximum glide—a film of long traveling shots over complex sound bridges. Less staged than unfurled, the narrative is essentially anecdotal. Characters are introduced as they hobnob in their school’s cafeteria or pass through its sterile corridors.

Indeed, Van Sant spends so much time tracking down the fluorescent halls that Watt [sic] High comes to suggest Stanley Kubrick’s haunted Overlook Hotel—which in a sense it is, albeit populated by the sauntering or stumbling ghosts of cool kids and bulimic Valley girls, jocks and nerds, mortified losers and artists manqué. All are played by teenage non-actors and beatified by Van Sant’s rapt attention. Their being—and impending nothingness—is the movie’s real subject. (As in Ben Coccio’s low-budget indie Zero Day, a more psychodramatic meditation on Columbine, the principals go by their own names.)

The tension builds. Paths cross in a chance geography that, depending upon your religious perspective, is a matter of divinity or Brownian motion. As scenes replay from slightly different perspectives, Watt’s locker room and library take on a cubistic multiplicity. An undercranked game of touch football, scored to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (one of the movie’s recurring themes), is transversed by an inexplicably smiling beanpole of a girl who passes through the foreground in ecstatic slow motion. Truly, Elephant (as in “in the room”) is a most unconventional docudrama. The movie’s producers may not have been overjoyed by the near avant-garde narrative structure, but as a Time Warner subsidiary, HBO should be grateful Van Sant overlooks the Matrix-inspired black trench coats favored by the Columbine killers.

The HBO moment comes in a scene that firmly disapproves of adolescent meanness. Otherwise, flagrantly artistic and transfixed by its own enigma, Elephant is strongest on evoking a succession of specific, “empty” moments and weakest on motivation. There’s no crash of heavy metal thunder; the doomed students’ daily routine is punctuated with cutaways to heavenly cloud formations and underscored by only the occasional ominous rumble. Meanwhile, the two alienated shooters spend their homework time down in the basement surfing the Net for guns or watching a TV documentary about Nazi Germany. Van Sant’s worst idea is the chastely prurient Larry Clark touch of having them take a farewell shower together.

Elephant is naturally divisive and disturbing, but it’s also deeply tactful—perhaps too much so. The shooters make a pretty pair of Lucifers, but evil is curiously absent. It’s as if the filmmaker were trying to imagine what Columbine might have felt like for one of the melancholy guardian angels in Wings of Desire. After bobbing and weaving for an hour, Van Sant surrenders to necessity and permits the massacre to proceed. Much of the carnage occurs offscreen, but the sudden chaos of shouted warnings, mad dashes, and point-blank gunfire is no less terrible for that.

Given his plaintive desire to keep things moving forever, even while arresting that flow, Van Sant could have appropriated the title of another high school movie: Time Stands Still. Elephant is a temporal whirlpool in which the artist skims the surface of a particular autumn morning as long as possible before everything is capsized and dragged into the fathomless depths.

Related Article:

What Lies Beneath: Talking Improv and Introspection With Elephant Actors John Robinson and Nathan Tyson” by Jessica Winter


Schoolyard Terror: 11 Landmarks



Jean Vigo’s lyrical account of student rebellion is booed at its premiere, then banned in France until after World War II.



James Dean was already dead when this afflu-teen alienation flick made him an icon. Significantly, the fatal gun belongs not to a hood but to Sal Mineo’s confused sissy.



The title, conceived before the script, says it all.

IF . . .


Zéro de Conduite transposed to British boarding school won the Palme d’Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, the first movie so garlanded since militants shut down the ’68 edition.



New kid exterminates bullies in this drive-in allegory, pitched somewhere between Animal Farm and High Plains Drifter.



Brian De Palma moves the locus of outsider vengeance to the senior prom.



A ruling clique is overthrown: “My teenage angst bullshit has a body count,” the heroine wails.



I Was a Teenage Werewolf in the Age of AIDS.



Tim Blake Nelson’s high school Othello was shelved in 1999 by Miramax, post-Columbine.



Michael Moore’s exposé of American violence gets a special jury prize at Cannes.



Gus Van Sant’s evocation of Columbine wins the Palme d’Or.


Teenage Wasteland

Among the symptoms that characterized the jittery, scarcely remembered run-up to the millennium was the nightmare rash of high school massacres—most famously, Columbine. It was only a matter of time before these inexplicable Children of the Damned occurrences would be replayed in the movies, offering an alternative evil to the overused and no less fathomable serial killer.

This week, just in time for school and a month before Gus Van Sant’s Cannes winner Elephant premieres at the New York Film Festival, two Columbine movies are set to open—Zero Day and Home Room. Both first features, each ponders the enigma of adolescent nihilism, each critiques the compulsive yet fruitless quest for answers, and each, in its way, is utterly chaotic.

The more artful of the two, Zero Day opens with an appropriate burst of aggro rock and home-movie footage of a five-year-old’s birthday party. The 28-year-old filmmaker Ben Coccio uses a strategy not unlike that employed by The Blair Witch Project. Shot on DV, Zero Day is presented largely as a series of tapes produced by its protagonists, Andre (Andre Keuck) and Cal (Calvin Robertson). No less than the hapless Blair Witch hunters, these high school seniors—the self-proclaimed Army of Two—are both film subjects and filmmakers, first seen in their school parking lot announcing their project to the camera: “Let the countdown begin.”

Thereafter, Zero Day is a series of direct-address video communiqués in which Andre and Cal vent their grievances, display their arsenal of weapons, and elaborate on the project—as well as document such other occurrences as the removal of Cal’s braces. These tapes, placed in a safe deposit box, are left, as were videotaped suicide notes made by the Columbine killers, for parents and other authorities to find. The simulation of shaky camera amateur DV is a narrative ploy that often taxes the filmmakers’ ingenuity. Still, the movie has a creepy authenticity. The actual massacre aside, the most disturbing sequence documents a session of target practice—troubling not just because the boys are shooting up children’s toys but because they are obviously using live ammo. (The climax itself is recorded on a security camera, as actually happened at Columbine.)

Keuck and Robertson, both of whom have considerable experience as child actors, are convincing—not least in their primitive, mordant humor. Coccio’s most resonant directorial idea, however, is using the young actors’ actual parents to play their parents. Utterly natural and affectionate, yet unable to conceal their pride at being in the movie, the elder Keucks and Robertsons bring an element of complicity and cluelessness to their roles—totally different from Holly Hunter’s high-powered “acting” in the kindred youth horror film Thirteen. (All high school massacres have been committed by boys—and with its emphasis on piercing, cutting, and other forms self-abuse, Thirteen suggests that girls typically turn such adolescent rage on themselves.)

Zero Day takes the radical position that motive doesn’t matter: “There are no reasons,” the boys declare in their final message to their parents. Evil is existential. Nevertheless, like Van Sant, Coccio can’t resist referencing the last century’s ultimate bummer. Not only is Andre the child of German immigrants but the guys flash a subliminal swastika and make a bonfire of their books, DVDs, and video games. (Destroying motive is equated with destroying reason.) The Nazi comparison is not totally unwarranted. Each high school massacre affected its community—if not all America—with the stunning irrationality of a mini holocaust. Zero Day may not explain the reason such crimes are committed but it successfully defines evil as willful cruelty compounded by enormous self-absorption; that is, pain inflicted in the emotional vacuum left by a frightening lack of empathy, and the total absence of remorse.

More earnest and old-fashioned, Home Room unfolds in the aftermath of a high school shooting and, unlike Zero Day or Elephant, focuses on the surviving victims rather than the dead perps. The event itself appears only in fragmentary images; writer-director Paul F. Ryan prefers to lavish attention on the relationship between the traumatized goody-goody Deanna (Erika Christensen, the bad girl in Traffic) and the surly, pierced “Goth metal-head ramp-tramp bookworm” Alicia (TV actress Busy Philipps) who may or may not have had prior knowledge of the lone shooter’s plans.

Deanna and Alicia establish a two-person breakfast club even as a glum police detective prophetically or parodically called Van Zandt trolls around town wondering whether he can book Alicia as an accomplice before the fact: She’s motive personified. The endless blah-blah in frugally empty, consistently overlit institutional settings (school, hospital, station house, morgue) exerts its own horrible fascination. Home Room is badly acted and, running well over two hours, often mind-numbingly ponderous. Depressed rather than hysterical, it’s in every way less clever and more literal-minded than Zero Day. For that very reason, it’s far crazier in considering a question without an answer.


Sharp Shooters

First-person shooter games have been blamed for everything from Columbine to . . . well, Columbine is plenty. But just last week, the genre was vindicated. A widely reported article in the science journal Nature described a study showing that FPS gamers possess much better visual attention skills than blind people. I mean non-gamers. Players can tell the number of items they see without counting, track many different objects at once, and have sharper peripheral vision. Hardcore gamers will make much better soldiers, cab drivers, and baggage screeners. This means they don’t need to graduate from college or even high school. Which, in turn, means no more Columbines!


For PC, PS2 (review version), Xbox

Developer Rockstar San Diego

Publisher Rockstar Games

Rating 8 (out of 10)

No one’s ever condemned racing games for anything—not even cultural conservatives bother to blame Gran Turismo for parking lot peel-outs. Only the anarchy-obsessed programmers at Rockstar would make terrifying pedestrians, creating highway pileups, cruising aimlessly, and avoiding LAPD “ghetto bird” helicopters such an integral part of a genre that is usually comfortably repetitive and nuanced. And while, say, Apex reaches for a wholly unengaging storyline in which you build an “automotive empire” (just like Lee Iacocca!), Midnight Club II, like its original incarnation, is based upon a global network of urban street racing about as believable as Vin Diesel’s acting in The Fast and the Furious. The only way they could make it better would be to set it in Boston, where drunks get kicked out of the bars long after the T has shut down, flooding construction-choked highways.

That said, you do get to speed around L.A., competing against opponents whose artificial intelligence sometimes resembles that of a 17-year-old weaving home from a kegger. You also blaze through the accurately mapped but inventively shortcut-strewn cities of Tokyo and Paris—releasing nitrous, catching slipstreams, going into power slides, and jumping. (Parisians, so hard to resist running over, are forever shouting “Julie tu me fais chier!”—”You make me want to shit!”—or, simply, “Merde!”). In each you earn different cars and crotch rockets, which are generically named but based on a couple dozen real models like the Honda Civic, Aston Martin Vanquish, Yamaha YZF-R1, and Dodge Viper (known as the “Jersey XS”). Even with one car the options would seem endless: Explore the streets, create your own course, battle a friend, or bring the Midnight Club to life online. It’s the merde.


For Xbox

Developer Nerve

Publisher Activision

Rating 9

All the future soldiers, cab drivers, and baggage screeners who honed their skills fragging peeps and monsters have Wolfenstein 3-D to thank for their careers—the PC game ushered in the first-person shooter genre just over 10 years ago. In another 10, what might we have discovered about the effects of Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War, the first game to truly validate Bill Gates’ mission for the Xbox, in-depth online play? Only God and Gates know. I’ll probably look back and realize I spent another three months straight playing Wolfenstein. (Hopefully this summer I’ll get laid. In a decade, we should have the SeXbox.)

For those of you not signed up for Microsoft’s online service, Xbox Live, Tides of War makes an excellent, though not quite Halo-level, FPS. As in Wolfensteins past, you play Nazi killer B.J. Blazkowicz—probably the first Jewish video game hero. (We Italian Americans get Mario the plumber.) But this time, SS-hole Heinrich Himmler’s raised an army of the undead! Single-player and two-person split-screen modes are great, but this game was made to play over broadband with five friends. (Two-person head-to-head’s so-so.) Teams side with the allies or axis (the game’s not available on PC, so why should it be politically correct?), and individuals pick a rank—soldier, lieutenant, engineer, or medic. Each performs assigned tasks: The soldier might maintain cover for the engineer as he sets up explosives, while the medic, hanging back, plugs the injured with syringes. Hopefully by 2013, we’ll have defeated the Nazis.

Yes, but can it improve your ability to see stuff?

Using a few dozen Playstation 2 consoles, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have built a supercomputer capable of a half-trillion operations per second.