Scenes From the Classroom Struggle

‘O’ Emerges From the Post-Columbine Teenage Wasteland

Whether out of fear, regret, or a newfound sense of propriety, Hollywood scrambled to edit itself after the deaths at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and no film shredded more nerves than O. Two years, two distributors, and eight release dates later, Tim Blake Nelson's high school adaptation of Othello finally arrives on August 31, when Lions Gate—who purchased the film from Dimension, a wing of Miramax—opens the film in 1500 theaters. (Lions Gate is no stranger to taking in Miramax's problem children, notably Kevin Smith's Catholic Church-baiting Dogma.)

Written by Brad Kaaya, the film reimagines Othello as a basketball star named Odin, played by Mekhi Phifer, in an otherwise all-white prep school in Charleston, South Carolina. The passage of time has rendered it a subtly different film: The hip-hop on the soundtrack is no longer current, of course, and cast members Josh Hartnett (as Iago component Hugo) and Julia Stiles (as Desi) have become magazine-cover stars in the interim. And the film's reputation now unavoidably precedes it, though it might seem odd that a well-intentioned, even earnest Shakespeare gloss, with a body count (four dead, one wounded) that Jerry Bruckheimer would sneer at, could have run into so much trouble.

Most of the studios' post-Columbine tweaking, after all, was comparatively minor. For its teen horror flick Idle Hands, released just 10 days after Columbine, Columbia Pictures canceled all advertising in the Denver area, and the United Artists theater chain pulled the film from its Colorado venues. Dimension's Killing Mrs. Tingle, in which students hold their nasty teacher hostage, was retitled Teaching Mrs. Tingle and given a rejiggered end-ing. Sugar & Spice & Semiautomatics, a black comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders, was nicened into Sugar & Spice; the California adolescent spin on Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment in High School, was relocated as Crime and Punishment in Suburbia. Disney decided that guns would no longer be featured in any of their movie ads. And a handful of films with violent content were simply pushed back until the air cleared: Fight Club, Sleepy Hollow, and Scream 3. Fight Club and Sleepy Hollow arrived later in 1999, while Scream 3—which, like O and Teaching Mrs. Tingle, was a product of Dimension—landed in theaters in February 2000. O, once part of this delayed batch, fell further and further behind.

Illustration by Anthony Freda

Director Nelson, who was editing O when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire in Littleton, Colorado, suggests that the film's very distinction from most blood-sugar-sex-magic teen reelers might have actually hurt it. "I think it's always going to be surprising in a serious drama when a young boy takes out a gun and shoots somebody and it's not filmed in a stylized way, and it doesn't have a lot of goofy music under it to alienate you from the gravity of what just happened.

"My reaction to Columbine was that it quite tragically confirmed the veracity of the film we were making," says Nelson, who is also a playwright and actor (perhaps best known for his role in the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou?). "The movie meticulously avoided fetishizing the violence in the way most teen films do. I never felt worried that the film would be misconstrued as destructive or a part of the problem. I thought it was a very careful and sensitive reflection of these events."

"There's nothing titillating or irresponsible about the movie. It's the concept and the reality that's so shocking." Those aren't Tim Blake Nelson's words about O, but Eamonn Bowles speaking in 1995 about Kids, Larry Clark's verité drama about sex-crazed, drug-addled teenagers wandering New York City in a nihilist stupor. In 1995, Bowles (until recently head of the late, lamented Shooting Gallery Film Series) became the chief operating officer of Excalibur Films, Kids' distributor, an ad-hoc entity set up by Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein in order to circumvent parent company Disney's policy against releasing NC-17 films. (Under Excalibur, Kids went out unrated.)

The differences between the two films' fates double as an index for how Miramax's priorities have shifted over time; several published reports, notably The New York Observer's on November 13 of last year, have suggested that Harvey Weinstein did not want his high-profile efforts on behalf of Al Gore and Hollywood Joe Lieberman to be tripped up by association with a film sporting teen sex and violence. Whatever one might think of Kids (NAMBLA-worthy scopophilia? Finger-wagging voyeurism? "A wake-up call to the world," per Janet Maslin?), the brothers Weinstein were still bending over backwards to get a graphic Amerindie version of outsider art into theaters. Six years later, they're selling off a fairly conventional teen melodrama to the first available bidder. Perhaps it goes without saying that Clark's current drooling paean to naked, amoral jailbait, Bully, is distributed by Lions Gate.

O and Bully, as well as Lot 47's L.I.E. (opening September 7), all climax with murderous violence perpetrated by teenagers, and likewise feature a combative, crypto-erotic male friendship at their centers. Jealousy and unspecified longing are consistent motivations for acting out, or even for revenge. The parents are either authority figures (in O, Hugo's dad is the basketball coach and Desi's is the dean), stupid automatons (the type is universal through Clark's films; in L.I.E., the protagonist's dad makes up for bruising his boy's face by giving him a chemistry set: "Go blow up the school"), or utterly absent.

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