In his artwork Brillo Boxes (1964), Andy Warhol exhibits a stack of boxes that are identical in size, shape and design to the actual boxes of Brillo pads you can buy at the supermarket. Through his artwork, he forces the viewer to question the meaning of art. What makes his set of boxes art? Is it the fact that he manufactured them with his hands? The fact that he handpainted them? If they are visually indistinguishable from a stack of boxes that you would see in a supermarket, are they only classified as art because he has contextualised them in a gallery space? In his essay, ‘The End of Art’ (1984), art critic Arthur Danto argues that Brillo Boxes marks a seminal shift in the meaning of art: “What Warhol taught us what that there is no way of telling the difference [between art and non-art] merely by looking. The eye, so prized an aesthetic organ when it was felt that the difference between art and non-art was visible, was philosophically of no use whatever when the differences proved instead to be invisible.”
The same can be said of Matt Johnson’s film The Dirties. The film is framed as a documentary of two teenage boys, Matt and Owen, who set out to make a film for their high school film class. The film stars themselves as a set of Starsky and Hutchesque vigilantes on a rampage where they kill the classmates that have bullied them – a group of boys they call ‘the dirties’. They show the film to their teacher and he is disturbed. He tells them that they need to censor it. They show the film in class and afterwards, Owen is chased down the street by the dirties. They bash him up and throw a rock at his head. After the event, an elderly man gets out of a nearby car. “What happened?” he asks, “Do you need help?” But the boys don’t need help. They have been viciously bullied for the entirety of their schooling careers, and no adult has ever saved them. When the dirties throw Matt and Owen’s clothes into the shower so that they have no change of clothes after gym class, Matt calls his mother and asks her to bring him in some clothes. Instead of sympathising, she accuses him of losing his phone and being irresponsible. The boys are alone. They need to defend themselves.
The tone of the film turns when Matt suggests, “What we should have done is actually shot those guys…[what if] we just shot the bad guys? We actually went with real guns and killed only the bad guys…The key is making sure that everyone knows we’re here for the bad guys. We’re not here to kill anybody who didn’t bully us.” As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference between Matt playing the character of a killer and Matt actually being someone who intends to shoot his peers. He clearly fantasises about the dirties receiving their comeuppance. There are numerous scenes where we watch him, through a windowpane or a glass door, pretend to shoot people. It is true that after school shootings the media often cries, “How did we miss the signs? Didn’t his peers know he was a crazy psychopath?” The suggestion here is that the signs were always there. It’s just that no one cares enough to observe them. Matt has been abused and ignored by his peers for his whole life and that is hardly going to change now. No one takes him seriously enough to think he could be dangerous.
The film’s best scene is when Matt is standing on the edge of a cliff pretending to punch people. Owen is concerned about his safety and asks him to step back from the edge of the cliff. “I have to be here.” Matt retorts, “[Otherwise the film] won’t look as good.”
“Can you hear yourself?” Owen shouts, “It doesn’t matter how good it looks. This isn’t a movie right now…you’re always acting.”
“I’m never acting”
“I don’t know what’s real with you and what’s not real with you.”
“I’m being real.”
It is it here that we are forced to ask ourselves, what does it mean to be ‘real’? In many ways, Matt’s psyche has become like Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. The distinction between the character he plays in his film and the person he really is has disappeared. They appear one and the same and so, as a viewer, the audience is rendered philosophically useless. Moreover, there are times when Matt speaks directly to us, making us complicit in his plans. Johnson thus mires the audience in an unsettling mis-en-abyme. We are simultaneously both the cameraman filming the documentary about Matt filming a film, and the viewer watching a feature film that happens to be the very film that we, as the cameraman, filmed. In this way, Johnson’s cinema verité technique is incredibly effective. Ultimately, Matt wants something that we all want – he wants to be accepted. What is most ironic and most bleak about the film is that Matt genuinely believes that his peers will appreciate him killing the bullies. When he turns up at school with real guns he is wearing a bright orange t-shirt that says, ‘We’re just here for the bad guys’.
Indeed, one of the film’s most resonant insights is Johnson’s decision to characterise Matt in a very relatable way. Johnson humanises the school shooter. Matt is far from the typical representation of the cold, unfeeling psychopath. He really cares for his best friend Owen, formulating elaborate plans to help Owen hang out with the girl he likes. At one point, he realises that he may be a psychopath, and when he realises this he reaches out and asks for help. “Mum, do you think I’m crazy?”
She laughs. She is washing dishes. “Crazy is when you lose your reality test.” she replies.
The Dirties is an excellent film. It is riveting and thought-provoking and in parts very funny. It raises questions on bullying, on the laxity of gun laws and on the relationship of art to society. For me, the film’s greatest strength lies in the compassion with which it depicts a generation of lost youths. Matt and Owen are essentially two boys who want to belong. They are without guidance and so they have chosen to guide themselves. There are two tacts to take on this issue. On the one hand, we can monitor the media that youth are exposed to so that they are less suggestible regarding the use of violence for personal ends. Alternatively, we can take an interest in them and guide them. We can validate their experiences and empathise with their fears and their feelings of isolation, ever resisting the temptation to write it off as teen angst.
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