Sunday, May 09, 2004

DVD Review: Elephant by Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant's quietly released Elephant has gotten quite a bit of praise for its deadpan portrayal of a Columbine-like school shooting. The movie leaves nearly every question unanswered, supposedly forcing the viewer to provide their own answers. The movie's texture is long, slow takes with little action or dialogue, timelines that cross and loop repeatedly, building to staccato bursts of violence at the end, blank and affectless. The movie intends not to shock, but to confound.

(Note: this review will spoil many movie points. While the story line is already known, there are many directorial choices and tricks that will be discussed.)

I have to say, while this is by no means a bad movie, neither was I especially impressed by it. I kept waiting for "something" to happen, which I guess was Van Sant's point. While it is supposedly "deadpan" and "realistic" I found it instead to be very, very restrained but deliberate in its use of camera movement, soundtrack and incidental music, and editing. It resembles a documentary in some ways, but make no mistake: this is a work of fiction.

While he uses Columbine as his source material with some fidelity, there is one major authorial thematic intrusion. The first classroom moment we see is a meeting of the school's Gay Student Association as they discuss stereotyping, knowing a person is gay by their appearance. I may be old-fashioned, but when a school movie's first class scene is a GSA meeting, I think a point is being made. (It's even in the credits!) Had this been all, it wouldn't rate mention, but late in the movie when the killers are showering before leaving for school, they take a shower together and kiss deeply! There is no evidence that either of the real Columbine killers were gay, so this is a directorial invention that unnecessarily rattles. It smacks of making an extraneous point. Some have said that since the beta-male boy has said he's never been kissed, that it's a "last wish" thing, but it doesn't feel that way, in the context of everything else.

Van Sant borrows some documentary techniques, but they are always used in a standard Hollywood way. The film uses static camera POVs, framing that allows some action to happen or to drift out of the frame, long tracking shots without expediting cuts, and long sections without dialogue. But the static camera still pans, sometimes to stop, other times to complete a 360 degree sweep and other times conveniently following the action. He also violates that simulated docu-purity by using slow motion at key moments and by using background sounds or added "music."

For example, one early scene has the camera focus on a pick-up football game. Action moves around and out of the frame constantly. Then a new character appears in the front of the frame, running track. She stops, looks up and around and behind her, then restarts her run. This makes the important point that we can only know what we see, that things happen outside our view that may be vital to understanding. After she has left, another character approaches the camera, to change shirts, then walk into the school.

Here is another trick he uses. During the long walk into the school, the camera stays with the young man, following the back of his head the whole way. I guess the point was to make the character unknown to us, since we do not see his face or reactions during the walk. Many shots are like this: sometimes behind the character for long stretches; sometimes in front, but then swinging to some other bit of business in the school. It's not consistent, but used to serve the narrative needs.

Sometimes the long shots are tracking shots, like in a school photo lab, where we follow a trio of students developing some shots they've taken, or down long, long hallways with two characters just walking with each other. Van Sant is not above cheap tricks, too, like starting with one character, following their bit of business, only to pick up another, unrelated character and follow their bit of business, etc., etc. Only occasionally do these long shots serve some narrative purpose. Mostly, they're just long thematic reinforcers.

Although the movie eschews "rock sountrack" music, there is a lot of orchestrally-created sound used to enhance what we're seeing. Several times we hear animal or jungle sounds; one stretch of hallway-tracking shot is supported by smeared, ennervating noise.

The movie's biggest "effect" is the use of disjointed narrative. The movie starts before school the day of the shooting, but cuts and loops constantly. We see some events from three different viewpoints during the course of the film. A late stretch turns out to have happened some day or days before the fateful morning. The general drive is forward through the day, with one major detour into the killers' last evening before we jump back to "now" and the killings we've been waiting for.

In fact, this points up one of the movie's strengths and its most endurance-testing feature. Nearly all viewers know we are going to see a Columbinish shooting. The movie spends its entire first third just introducing various people (some with title cards). We wonder as we meet each one, "Is it him?" Then, in a surprising moment as one character leaves the building, we see the shooters -- we know it's them because of their camo / aggro-goth garb and the many heavy knapsacks -- enter the school. Suspense is tightened up, because we are at last clued in. We're waiting for the hammer to fall now. It's only a matter of time. But Van Sant takes us back and forth through the day and around the characters for another third of the movie. We find ourselves watching the corners and backgrounds of the frame, searching for the killers at other moments. Every long tracking shot is filled with dread that the killers will jump out at us.

It never happens. We find ourselves taken to the house of the kids we now know are the killers, to be taken through long stretches of watching them play music and video games, sleeping and hanging out. It's meant to introduce us to them, to "explain" them in the deliberately obfuscatory and translucent way Van Sant deploys.

It's only well in the final third that the "action" commences. The first moment of the final act is the two boys in full garb, with weapons, standing in a tableaux, in an empty hallway as an oblivious janitor in the distance does his job. The boys wait, checking watches, for explosions that don't come. So, they set out.

The first shooting is a girl we've been following the whole movie. She's an "odd" girl with some unexplained problem affecting her gym class. We know nothing about her, though we've followed her throughout the whole movie. We only know she's the "odd" girl from her manner, her appearance (frizz hair, no makeup, large nose and eyebrows, loner affect), from standard Hollywood shorthand. She dies, "pop," just like that. Sudden, bloody blast and out of the frame. Gone forever.

The violence is a lot like that. "Pow" it happens, spray of blood and the body falls, like in a video game, and it's over. The movie even goes so far as to make that connection explicit. One of the boys plays a first-person shooter video game the night before that is nothing but walking stiffs in a vast, empty plain. It's simple and meaningless to pick them off. When they begin the violence, the first scene of shooting is an imitation of a first-person shooter POV, with the gun barrel in the bottom of the frame as kids scatter and bodies fall.

At the same time, while some deaths are very explicit, some are avoided completely. Three girls trapped in a bathroom are surely going to die, screaming, but the film cuts away at the ultimate moment. The movie ends with the jock and his girlfriend (in the movie's forced shorthand they are the "perfect every-couple" of the school, though we know almost nothing about them) trapped in a meat locker in the school cafeteria. The killer does a taunting "eenie, meenie, meinie, moe" as they plead for their lives. The movie fades as he chooses. We don't see or hear what we know is happening next.

One of the movie's few black characters is introduced during the carnage, with title card. We think he might be a hero, as he calmly walks the halls, helps a shocked girl escape, and doesn't get freaked out by a dead body. We seem him approach one of the killers from behind, we expect he'll tackle him. But no, he is shot dead before he can act. Bang, end. This is Van Sant playing with our cinematic expectations. We're primed to think he's going to do something heroic, but that's undercut quickly and brutally. Why? Well, just to slam home the movie's inescapability.

Step back from what the movie's about (the killings) and what you find this movie is is a well-executed ratcheting up of audience anticipation and fear, without the expected satisfying conclusion. This is, if you will, the "anti-slasher" film. The characters aren't even stock or stereotypes. We see so little we can't form any real opinions. Yes, there's the "jock," the "odd" girl, the young man-boy, the "bitchy" girls, etc., but since they aren't played for stereotype, we can't really call them that. No one "deserves" to die, in classic slasher-film morality, but death meets them anyway. The killings may be random, but the build-up has been careful and sure. The movie doesn't lull with reassurance, but numbs with blandness, repetition and incomplete set-ups. We are anticipating the killings, since we know the narrative, but also because we want something to happen, to connect it all, to draw a "through-line."

One last point is the use of clouds and sky. The movie opens with a soundtrack of kids just talking and doing something we can't figure out, though to me it sounds like mild bullying of someone. I could be wrong. What we see is a teal-colored sky with fast-moving, high cloud cover. At the point in the film after we know who are the killers and that they are about to act, we get a long shot of the same colored sky, but with building clouds, thunder, and storm clouds. At the end, we close with a dark sky where the sun seems to break through. It is, without question, a framing device, much like the title cards.

I'm not sure the movie does what its fans claim: putting Columbine in a neutral context that forces us to confront the violence naked. There is too much manipulation of elements and the audience; we are directed to the Van Sant's point, rather than having it revealed. The movie isn't neutral. It's explicitly anti-gun, even to showing the boys buying a gun through the Internet and mail, then signing for the delivery themselves. (I checked with Say Uncle who assured me that it's been illegal to do that since 1968 without a Federal Firearms License! It's completely bogus, propaganda! It wasn't the case with Columbine, I'm pretty sure.) Where the real Columbine killers had ample evidence laying in the open in their homes, the two Elephant boys have none at all, only lots of teen-angst art and the usual teenboy clutter. You can even make an argument that Van Sant fetishises their "cave" as some kind of gay idyll.

The actors are all good, though none stand out for acting talent, unsurprisingly. The two killers are a pair: one looks like a young John Cusack and the other like a suburban-wannabe Eminem. Most of the kids are visually distinctive, but blend together personality-wise. Most of the male actors have that Van Santian "boi" look to them.

As a formal exercise in building fearful anticipation in a formalist, Last Year at Marienbad way, or as a study for film students, I could recommend this movie. He tries to make points about the incompleteness of seeing and knowing, about the photographic instinct as a way of seeing, and about propaganda. But as a way of coming to understand the Columbine killers, I think this movie fails. Too much liberty is taken, the director pushes and prods everything too much, to do that. He's borrowed the media narrative, which was wrong. The truth is much darker and weirder than most folks understand. His additions come from some other agenda. Seeing the two boys kiss in the shower is just off-putting and not in the source, though consistent with Van Sant's homoerotic themes in his other films.

The actual DVD comes only with the movie (in widescreen and theatrical formats), the usual language and subtitle choices, the trailer and a video-diary of the film's making without narration, though there are a couple of comments made by the actors that are surprising and in one case stunning. These I won't spoil! There is no director's commentary, which isn't a surprise. Van Sant's serious about leaving the viewer on their own.

I think this is a failed film, though a fascinating one. Not really recommended.

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