A few years ago, Kirby Dick made a huge splash at Sundance with one of the greatest documentaries of the last ten years, the blistering and heartbreaking “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist”. It would be next to impossible for his follow-up to approach that masterpiece (which really did feature the life and death of Bob Flanagan). However, the gripping “Chain Camera” isn’t afraid to try.
In the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles (and less than ten miles from where I live) is John Marshall High School. As high schools go, it’s monstrously huge. In 1999 it had 4192 students. Because it covers such a wide swath of the city, its student body consists of up to 41 different ethnic backgrounds and many different economic strata. Famous students such as Judge Lance Ito, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Heidi Fleiss have all attended (though not necessarily graduated) from there. You can check out the place yourself at Marshall High.
Kirby Dick went there in August 1999 and gave ten cameras to ten students to document their lives. They could film anything they wanted. After a week, the cameras were passed to another ten students to do the same, for the rest of the school year. “Chain Camera” features the footage shot by 16 of those students. Some of these kids predictably screw around on camera, but a lot of them, consciously or unconsciously, open their hearts.
You know, when you’re in junior high or middle school, high school looks like this golden place where you’re almost an adult. Nobody ever tells you that it’s really this hormonal and psychological gauntlet you have to pass through. At this age you just don’t know how to let things go; everything is of huge importance. I graduated with around 600 other poor bastards in West Virginia in the 1980s. From the looks of this film, it hasn’t gotten any easier. We get to witness these 16 kids as they struggle with bulimia, poverty, racial tensions, homosexuality, drugs, politics, loneliness, non-existent self-esteem, and pretty much anything else you can think of. In a place that size, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.
Kirby Dick isn’t in the habit of making his presence felt on camera, and his newest documentary allows his subjects to strictly speak for themselves. There’s a lot of dark stuff here. Without a frame of reference beyond the limited experience of their own lives, most of the less fortunate ones have no idea how screwed up their lives really are. You just deal with it. Dick does allow for a couple of codas toward the end of the year, which go a long way toward establishing a sense of hope. Sometimes you wonder why Columbines don’t happen every day. At least with “Chain Camera”, no matter how bad their lives are, you’re at least given the possibility that eventually the kids just might be alright.