Until the Chicago Underground Film Festival starts on the 18th I won’t have the money to either go to the movies or rent DVDs; so, I thought I’d run down a few of the DVDs that have meant something to me during the five months I’ve been playing catch-up. Of the few things I missed about The States, one being Mexican chorizo (I mean that both literally and colloquially), another service I definitely missed was Netflix. Why everyone isn’t using it I can’t imagine.
Another absolute mystery to me why the early work of an American independent director as initially important as Van Sant is still unavailable on DVD. According to Amazon, the brashly thrilling and ambitious My Own Private Idaho isn’t even in print on VHS and has never been offered on DVD; while Drugstore Cowboy, beside which all movies about junkies fade into the background, is the only one of his important films in print. And as soon as Van Sant’s reputed return-to-form was released, after the not-quite-there attempt in Gerry, it was wending its way to me from the number one slot on my NetFlix queue.
And it didn’t disappoint. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant moved me more than any other film I saw. It’s short enough and enigmatic enough, despite its surface simplicity, that I watched it twice back-to-back. If this placid film has a political message it’s how futile the search is for either meaning or rationale in a seemingly unexplainable act of brutality like the Columbine murders, at least using our culture’s traditional modes of inquiry: television news, police prodecure, modern psychology. The film’s name is a mockery of these quests for single-paradigm explanations. In the scene that provides the only direct reference to the film’s title the camera pans the contents of Alex‘s, one of the two shooters, room; the viewpoint pivots twice around its central axis: What’s it doing? Cataloging? Searching for meaning? Or just killing time as the boys prepare for their big day. There: The answer is pinned to the wall, I guess, if you want to make that random detail the answer.
In contrast to what you might expect from certain clueless reviews, Elephant‘s formalism humanizes the characters; that is, rather than confining these characters within a familiar narrative structure, where we already know the emotional high points and the cathartic pay-off, the ellipitical, overlapping exploration of time and experience during the single day of the shootings gives weight to the amateur performances and opens up the possibility of looking at the characters in other ways, abandoning preconceived notions about what happened and who was at fault. It’s a reminder that generic conventions and expectations themselves, especially in the Hollywood system, frequently never allow otherwise compelling characters, not to mention ideas, to breathe. If that weren’t true filmmakers would never have to make new endings to please the suits and the folks in the test screenings. As a result the smallest gestures and comments pulse with affect. When Michelle, played by Kristen Hicks, crosses in front of the camera as it’s observing a football skirmish, she focuses oddly on something that the camera doesn’t see, her eyes following the movement across the sky that apparently only she notices. I remembered that moment when she’s shot later, the gun also off-camera; she asks the the assailants if she can help them.
When Alex is taking a shower before going to school to massacre other teenagers as confused as he is his accomplice Eric gets in with him, saying, “I’m still a virgin, are you?” The first time I watched it I missed the second half of what Eric said, which was: “I’ve never even kissed anyone,” he adds, proceeding to accomplish that goal with Alex. The amateurish nature of the performances makes moments like these even more-heart breaking and Van Sant uses them well. Having the main actors play characters with their own first names must have also enabled an uneasy identification for the actors themselves.
The time-travelling, floating camera in Elephant, frequently just following one teenager after another, branching off when someone else catches its eye, far from being detached or distracted, expresses, through its formal use, intense interest in the characters and renders that interest stylistically as observation rather than judgment. I’m amazed that anyone came away from this movie thinking that Van Sant thought he had the answers as to why those two boys shot and killed their classmates. The quality of intense, quiet observation is not one that’s exactly encouraged by our political and religious leaders or cultural gatekeepers. Americans love narrative; they want an end to things; they always want answers regardless of the violence done imposing artificial conclusions. Elephant is one antidote to that and, at this particular time in our country’s history, we’re lucky to have it.Powered by Sidelines