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DVD Review: Gus Van Sant’s comeback film

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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.

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  • Thanks for this review, Rick. I’m one of those who doesn’t think Elephant is the great movie that fans claim, but your review has gone the furthest in making me understand why y’all love it.

    I wrote up my own reivew and posted it here a while back. Click on the link for my other posts and you’ll find it there.

    As you note, we’re only given surfaces and disconnected bits from which to deduce “whys.” But Van Sant deliberately presents some things while denying us others. For example, Michelle. Everyone who sees the movie agrees she’s the odd duck. Why? Because cinematic shorthand is used to paint her that way.

    The thing that drives these high school shooters is anger, but we’re never shown anything that might be a source for these boys, as though it doesn’t exist! I found that a cheat.

    Also, the whole idea of the kids buying a gun online from a retailer and having it FedExed is beyond absurd. It’s anti-gun progaganda! If that kind of dishonesty is in the movie, it makes me distrust everything else going on, which ruined the experience for me.

    Anyway, thanks for the insightful review! I enjoyed it.

  • Pappy

    “The thing that drives these high school shooters is anger, but we’re never shown anything that might be a source for these boys, as though it doesn’t exist! I found that a cheat.”

    There is nothing to suggest that those boys were driven by anger. Nothing at all. I find you saying that a HUGE “cheat.”

    “If that kind of dishonesty is in the movie, it makes me distrust everything else going on, which ruined the experience for me.”

    Plenty GREAT films have dishonest things THAT YOU ARE NOT MEANT TO THINK ABOUT. It really doesn’t matter where/how the kids get the guns. Obviously Van Sant just created a way to get the kids their guns. It has no significance to the film as a whole.

  • Thanks, mike, for a very civil disagreement. Your post should be a model for certain other folks on this site. ahem.

    Respectfully, though, much of your rebuttal proceeds from the same totalizing viewpoint that I believe Van Sant is trying to avoid and you seem to require out of this movie what is more reasonably expected from a book or even a piece of hard news investigative reporting, newspaper article or exposé. So, of course, “Van Sant deliberately presents some things while denying us others,” this is what artists do, of whatever political stripe. I get the sense that Van Sant didn’t necessarily trust his own ideas and suppositions about what might have really happened that day at Columbine. He uses the form and style of the movie to check himself as well as us.

    As you point out, it doesn’t always work. He couldn’t resist the cheap shot of the FedExed firearms. Although I believe someone wanting to sell something to someone who wanted to buy would find a way around Federal law, I still think it strikes a false note. But, forgive me on this point, anti-gun propaganda isn’t going to bother me one bit anyway so that might be why I let it slide. Propaganda or not I’m still anti-gun. But further, why let this sour note spoil your experience of the whole movie.? It simply doesn’t follow.

    Regarding Michelle: I’m not sure what your point is. She’s the odd duck. So what? I don’t think you can reduce her character to that word. I think that very private moment I described in the review, which we nevertheless at least partly share, solidifies her, in the film’s elliptical style, as a person we would have to get to know rather than as someone we could peg as being a geek or whatever. It’s a small moment, sure, but this movie is nothing but small moments. The lives of everyone we see spins off away from us even as we observe them; we’re invited to accept that we won’t even have begun to “know” them after the 80 minutes of the film are over. Even the killings are subdued. Compare that to the much ballyhooed “choregraphed shoot-outs” we get in John Woo movies, among others, and ask yourself what that says about each movie. Style speaks. Elephant is definitely not inviting us to look at violence or teenagers or whatever else you might start thinking about while watching it, in remotely the same way as say, Scarface, and I think that’s an important contribution to the discussion around the Columbine shootings. But it’s not the last word and it’s not intended to be.

  • Michelle stopping and looking up, out of the frame, may have been Van Sant’s way of reminding us that a lot of things are going on around the characters that we can’t see. Which would be a good point.

    But it’s the way people praise the movie for just plopping us into the story with no explanations and just taking us through that day. The way Michelle is presented is classic movie shorthand — geek glasses, odd clothing, odd behaviors, not looking at people, hunched shoulders, being ignored or shunned, etc. We’re not just presented with this stuff, as a documentary would, it’s been carefully crafted to give us a particular viewpoint of people and events.

    Again, you’re giving me a lot of perceptions I didn’t otherwise get from the movie, which is a good thing. Thanks once more, Rick.

    I think it’s that the movie was praised for it’s “documentary” feel, when the movie is in fact very carefully crafted fiction, with a lot of camera tricks, editing, etc., not found in documentary work. It’s a narrative fictional film with a documentary gloss that, I think, has deceived many viewers.

    Also, supposedly being based on Columbine bothered me since there are elements of the movie that have nothing to do with Columbine, especially the shower scene and some other hints of homosexuality between the two shooters. That was Van Sant’s addition, a common theme of his work.

    I dunno, I read a lot of falseness into the movie that kept jolting me out of the experience. I kept feeling the director’s hand guiding me over and over, which I don’t like too much any more. I will say that the movie’s atmosphere of numbed floating was pretty impressive.

  • Josh

    Did you hear the one obout Harris and Klebold? Two teenage murderers walk into a highschool and… oh wait a second, it’s not a joke. It’s Gus Van Sant’s latest movie, “Elephant.” Gus Van Sant, in his effort to create a “realistic” day of high school, has confused taking his time with wasting our time. Bad acting, horrid script, and incredibly inept direction are the hallmarks of this generously insulting piece of crap. The teenage dialogue is written as though from the POV of a forty year old Madison Ave. ad exec. I’ve never heard or seen kids speak or act this way… ever. And I know. Because at one point, not that long ago, I was one. The concept is noble, and honestly some of the aspects of the film do turn out well. The lighting and photography are pretty spectacular. The sound design of the film absolutely deserves a rousing hand as well. However. it has been rare that a director of such “indie” repute has dissapointed so wholly. The insult is to us, as a society. Yes, we are a post-Columbine America, but hollow, if somewhat updated, teenage stereotypes, are a pathetic excuse for commentary on one of the most important things to happen in recent American history. Especially since the director clearly has his own agenda. This is a cheap, manipulative movie that is at every turn calculated, but never clever or intelligent. The acting, by the largely unknown cast is raw at it’s very best (which is seldom), though usually painfully, painfully amateurish. The catch line of the movie was “A ordinary high school day. Except that it’s not.” That over-simplistic, dufus sounding sentiment is echoed throughout this incredibly clumsy film. Whatever Gus. We get it. Life is precious. And you’re angry about how kids treated you in high school. Go make some more shitty, soap box movies. I don’t care to watch any more of them.

  • If only Van Sant’s film were as pithy as your comments. I stand enlightened.

  • steve

    I’m thinking the purpose of a movie is to
    entertain or enlighten or both.
    This did neither , bigtime.