Monday, September 19, 2005

Zero Nation

Just watched "Zero Day", Ben Coccio's subtle and disturbing dramatization of the Columbine killings. The now-familiar saga of two alienated high school seniors who plan a military assault on their classmates is told through their home video journal, where they display various emotions about what is to come. But no matter how angry, sarcastic or flippant they get, they never second guess their ultimate goal.

Played convincingly by Andre Keuck (above, left) and Calvin Robertson, who use their real first names, these boys have prematurely reached the philosophical and emotional ends of their lives. At least that's what they want us to believe. They give several justifications for why they will do what we know they will do. Paying back bullies is backdrop: Andre and Cal simply see no point to growing up in a world where people are unconscious to the deeper truths of loving one another, being tolerant, caring and kind. They see everyone around them trapped in a mechanized emotional state, and their planned assault is meant to wake people up to what truly matters. Of course in order to do this, many people must die. Those about to be killed will experience a heightened awareness of life for the first and last time. Those who survive will reconsider their sleepwalking ways, and will fully embrace life regardless how minute a moment.

The idea that those about to die violently at the hand of another will understand life's real meaning is nothing new -- Manson Family member Sandra Good once spoke of killing "the grey people" so they could experience "the total now" just before the end. Many murderers conceive all manner of excuses, sometimes couched in benevolent terms, to justify or explain their brutal conduct. But in this fictional case, Andre and Cal seem to genuinely believe that they're spreading the love through chaos, fear and death. As I listened to them express their philosophy, I was reminded of those humanitarians who advocated the invasion of Iraq. They, too, spoke in tough love terms, only in their case, an entire country and region served as Columbine High. Had Andre and Cal not killed themselves after their murder spree (the ultimate expression of self-love), they probably could've worked as editorial interns at the Weekly Standard and National Review. They certainly have the rhetoric down, though unlike the editors and writers for those and kindred mags, Andre and Cal personally do the deed. Real war hawks stay as far away from flying bullets as they can.

Gus Van Sant's Columbine take, "Elephant," slowly unfolds at a dreamlike pace, showing us the same scene from numerous perspectives. Ben Coccio's film, however, hits us in real media time, an immediacy that gives "Zero Day" its punch. (When the boys enter the high school and the security cams broadcast their rampage, the terror seems somewhat antiseptic and removed, which makes it even worse to witness.) The one, minor quibble I have with Coccio's effort is that Andre and Cal are almost too rational in their thinking. They are clearly intelligent, imaginative and dare I say sweet. Even on the eve of their assault, we get a glimpse of their softer sides, and you want to grab them and say, "Yo, fellas. Let's have a beer and really talk about this." A part of you thinks that you could turn them away from committing mass murder.

I never thought that way about the real Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. I've listened to several of their audio tapes, read some of their rants and watched some of their pre-assault videos, and there's no evidence that I could find that these two were deep thinkers, esp Harris, who seemed extremely aggressive and downright crazy, though a lot of that may have been due to some severe emotional problems. Whatever the cause, Harris was no Andre. Perhaps Coccio sought to blur the lines a bit by making his teen killers accessible and seemingly more insightful. It does enhance the drama and heightens the horror. It also suggests that any kid could do this, not just marginalized outsiders like Harris and Klebold.

Films like Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" show how average kids can be made into killers of people in other countries. "Zero Day" gives us the flipside, which is more frightening to confront because there is less to immediately grasp. The war that animates Andre and Cal is not overseas but inside their heads. That's something you can't march against.