Recently, I wrote very negative things about Gus Van Sant while discussing his most recent mediocre film Promised Land. I said that his days as a great director where behind him. I used that film as well as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester to make this case. But as long time reader Karl Paniczny pointed out, Van Sant was making small, personal films; it was just that I wasn’t watching them.
I thought that was an excellent point. So I picked up Gerry (which I plan to watch in the morning) and Elephant (which I just watched). Elephant is an odd film. It combines cinema verite with pointedly stylized camera work. The film operates at a glacial speed with incredibly long static and Steadicam shots that seem designed more for theme and mood than for plot. Other than a number of scenes shown from different perspectives at different times, the film makes almost no concessions for the viewer. Mostly, you are just left to piece the timing of various scenes together in retrospect. This works well, however, given that the story it tells is very simple.
I don’t find the main plot of Elephant that interesting. It is basically a fictionalization of the Columbine High School massacre. It is an almost impossible task to show a mass shooting without somehow trivializing the motivations of the perpetrators. Is it bullying? Is it video games? Is it insanity? In the end, I’m afraid it is all these things and nothing. The essence of drama is motivation, and Van Sant provides lots of motivations for Alex and Eric without pushing it too hard. But in the end, the act is so heinous that I rebel against the very notion of causality.
It reminds me of The Ox-Bow Incident, a film that is also about a heinous act. But in that case it is the result of group think and shows how everyone’s little faults work in synergy to create a tragic fault. In Elephant there is some evil synergy. And I felt like I understood where the two boys were coming from. But the result was so catastrophic compared to the causes. That does seem to be how life is at times. It is just not very fulfilling as drama.
Having said all of that, the the film is really compelling; the shooting seems almost like an addendum. I was particularly taken with how Elephant shows all the things that the kids do and worry about. Three girls go to the bathroom after lunch so they can vomit up all those calories, lest they suffer the horror of being a normal weight. A young couple is concerned that the female may be pregnant. Michelle seems to be afraid that her PE teacher will make her undress for class the next day. All of these fears are for nothing given how much longer they will live.
Especially compelling to me is the story of Benny. After most all of the carnage is over, he walks through the halls almost in a daze. He seems unable to accept that what most clearly has happened is still happening. It doesn’t end well for him. But I understand his quest. It just has to be all some big misunderstanding. In a fundamental sense, his quest is that of the film and the viewer.
Despite so much carnage, Elephant has almost no on screen violence. Almost all of the deaths are implied rather than shown. The main point of the last half hour of the film seems to be to show the lack of empathy of the perpetrators. Eric often shows anger, but Alex is completely disconnected as though he were playing a video game. This from a boy who a day before was frustrated playing the “Moonlight Sonata.” It is chilling, as it ought to be.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that Elephant was a great film. It may not even be good. I have problems with it, especially with the third act. But there is no doubt that it is a work of art. There is no pandering. It seems to accomplish what it is trying to do. And so I owe Gus Van Sant an apology: Promised Land is just his day job. He’s still working the graveyard shift in Portland on things that matter.
For a film that won the Palme d’Or, the DVD for this film really sucks. In terms of features, it has the trailer and a 12 minute “On the Set” video. That is to say that it isn’t even a featurette in the sense of a “Making Of” documentary. It is very disappointing. I would have liked a director’s commentary. I suspect that Van Sant has a few things to say about his very stylized approach to the material. (Then again, as I recall, his commentary on Drugstore Cowboy was of little insight.)