starring Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Emile Hirsch, Vincent D'Onofrio
screenplay by Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni, based on the book by Chris Fuhrman
directed by Peter Care
by Walter Chaw The paradox of William Blake is that while extolling the virtues of action, he was engaged in contemplation--a paradox nettling enough that near the end of his life, he left art in favour of walking the world. During his creative period, however, Blake had few equals in terms of ideology and technical proficiency; he was an employer of what he called "the infernal method," creating etchings through the corrosive landscaping quality of acid. Each of Blake's original works, art or poetry, were printed by the artist's hand and etched by this infernal method. It was his way--the artist's way--of introducing the idea of "action" into creation.
After illuminating a text of Milton's "Paradise Lost" with his etchings, he remarked: "Milton was a poet of the devil's part without knowing it." Blake's philosophy being based on the primacy of activity, he saw in Milton's text an arch-villain modeled upon the ambitions and dreams of man. If the Christian God is an inactive observer, Blake reasoned that the "positive" force in the universe was Satan--insofar as Satan meant involvement and desire. Extended further, Satan is the highest form to which man may aspire: active, curious, purposeful, and bold.
Director Peter Care's adaptation of Chris Fuhrman's cult novel The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys tries to address this essential "Blake-ian" paradox (extolling the virtues of experience in the act of static creation) by splitting its protagonists between the primogenitor (Kieran Culkin as Tim) and the chronicler (a fantastic Emile Hirsch as Francis), with Jena Malone's haunted Margie left a metaphor for the balance between innocence and experience (explored by Blake in his most well-known works ("Songs of Innocence," "Songs of Experience")). The representative of schism is Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) who, at one particularly didactic moment, rips a copy of Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" asunder.
Meanwhile, every key moment of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is meant to reduce Blake's philosophy into a tragic coming-of-age saga punctuated by bursts of animator Todd McFarlane's superhero dystopia. The result is a story structure too slight to hold the fear and trembling of Blake's work. The hijacking and repeated reference to "The Tyger" (Blake's short poem of experience as industrialization) gets a literal translation in the head-slapping introduction of a ridiculous cougar subplot (and a funereal conclusion in which the poem is edited down to three stanzas), while the keener moments of "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" (a peculiar bound copy of which plays a major role in the film) are left unexplored and to the extra-textual research of the viewer, should the viewer be so inclined to discover on his own that "The Tyger" was actually collected in The Songs of Experience.
The identity of the product implied by "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" can ultimately be surmised as "man." With thought as God (the line "What the hand dare seize the fire?" in "The Tyger" refers to the Promethean theft of knowledge) and action as Satan, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys attempts to draw a line for its hero Francis to walk in the middle of the thought represented by Sister Assumpta and the carnality offered first by Tim, then by Margie. Two scenes sketch Francis's conflict between his warring halves: after hearing the secret behind troubled Margie's attempted suicide, he turns to Tim before finally consulting with his priest (Vincent D'Onofrio's Father Casey) when Tim proves emotionally castrated in front of a television with his parents fighting behind him. (This tableau is at once Rockwell by way of Hopper and only one of the moments in which the cult of childhood is recast as Southern Gothic.)
When speaking with Father Casey, director Care inserts a couple of ironic cigarettes to demonstrate the futility of thought to address action, punctuating D'Onofrio's superb cameo with self-conscious stabs at Romanticism. It is a tricky juxtaposition: the television as one kind of Luciferian light-bringer, religion as another, both impotent in a full exploration of a self divided. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is tremendously effective in moments like this; its opening in the crucifix shadow of a telephone pole captures the feckless kineticism of smart kids in search of experience, and a moment featuring a ghost against an artificial nightscape touches upon the ephemeral melancholy of innocence ironically (and irrevocably) lost to that experience.
The film founders in its obnoxiously scored and broadly animated (the relative simplicity of the subjects is not at all indicative of McFarlane's intricate pencil work) sequences that, by themselves, would perhaps make for interesting fare but have little place in the tale of Tim, Francis, and Margie. (Indeed, comic arts magnate McFarlane conceived of the sequences independent of the central filming.) Clearly meant as a sharply-drawn shadow play of the picture's emotional undercurrent, by taking the significance offered by William Blake and thinking that a violent cartoon will somehow bolster it, Care et al go a fair ways towards underestimating the strength of the source material's adolescent mum, the stunning metaphorical weight of Blake's art and life, and the audience's ability to mark for themselves the delicate coordinates of maturation and grace. When Tim and Francis mix the Romanticist affection for narcotics into a plot to steal a jungle cat from the zoo, the spirit of interpretation takes one of those tragic detours into the inane, the overreaching, the wan. Pity that so much of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys follows that lead and not one blazed by a more inspired muse. Originally published: June 21, 2002.