Saturday, July 30, 2005

Gus Van Sant's Elephant

I've been reading a lot about Last Days, the new film from Gus Van Sant, and that prompted me to check out his previous film, Elephant. Last Days is supposed to go wide next week, so if it doesn't make it to Westchester, I'll head into New York City to see it. Anyway, the film has received generally very positive reviews, but also a number that call it one of the worst movies ever, and a complete waste of time. These are similar reviews to what Elephant got, and after seeing Elephant, I can definitely understand why people would say this. That said, I would call Elephant a great movie, and one of the few recent American films I've seen that really does something new and exciting with the medium.

I've already written extensively about how bad the current state of mainstream American film is, most notably here, and a lot of those points apply to the so called 'independent film' world too. A film like Sideways might be a good story, but it's not a great film, and it's not much different from a Hollywood film. Sideways is the sort of thing the studios should be making, but because they're not, the indie film community has had to move towards the mainstream. There's nothing wrong with making films that appeal to the mainstream, my favorite film of this year so far is Revenge of the Sith, which is also by far the highest grossing movie of the year. But, Sith is also a film that really pushes the medium in a new direction, using digital filmmaking techniques better than anyone has in the past.

Elephant also pushes the medium in a new direction, though this film innovates through narrative construction rather than through technical advances. Elephant tells the story of a fairly ordinary day at a generic high school, drawing on some of the high school archetypes, but also creating less easily definable characters. The marketing for this film reveals the ending, but this is a movie where knowledge of what will happen actually benefits the film. If you don't know where things are going, it would be easy to wonder why we're seeing what we are, but knowing where things are going lends an air of menace to all these ordinary events, and in each emotional slight, we see the potential seed for the destructive violence that ends the film.

The first three quarters of this film are devoted to showing us totally ordinary lives, giving us snapshots of a number of characters from across the school. The film that this most reminded me of is Frederick Wiseman's documentary, 'High School.' This was a cinema verite piece that just followed a bunch of students, teachers and parents through their day at the school. There's no narrative, just a bunch of scenes from ordinary life. The film features a lot of long takes and tracking shots through the halls that are essesntial to Van Sant's film.

The fact that this film reminded me of a cinema verite documentary is perhaps the best compliment I could give to Van Sant's movie. The characters aren't developed, but that's not the point of the movie, there's no need for exposition or narrative development. We're just dropped into these people's lives and go along with them as omniscient observers. The film is quite different from Hollywood cinema in that there are no character conflicts or goal based narrative. The people in the film may want things, but they're no pursuing them today, instead they're just going about their ordinary lives.

This is a film that is going to be hated by your average filmgoer. Running a film series this summer, I've noticed that most people have little tolerance for films that aren't based around a specific narrative. I guess I've been conditioned by so many years of film study to view a film as simultaneously a narrative and a stand alone piece of visual art. Something doesn't necessarily have to happen in every scene, just setting a mood or showing us a cool image can be enough. But, for a lot of people, there is the need for a more concrete narrative, for a film to have a clear direction. When we showed the movie Safe, people weren't able to sit through the scenes that establish what Carole's life is like, they weren't open to creating a mood through scenes that aren't directly related to the story. So, even though I may crack on mainstream Hollywood, they know what they're doing. People have been geared to expect the three act, goal based narrative, and films have to deliver them.

I feel like the only time people accept scenes that are superfluous to the narrative is if they're action scenes. A half hour long car chase is perfectly acceptable, but a five minute tracking shot of a kid walking down a hall is pointless and a waste of time. I could lament the lack of appreciation for film art, but it basically comes down to the fact that most people view film as a way to tell a story, they're not particularly interested in technique, they have to be hooked by a story. That's why movies are made the way they are, and no matter how great his films are, someone like Wong Kar-Wai isn't likely to get mainstream acceptance. Still, I feel like enjoying film as just a story is a much less rewarding experience than learning to appreciate artier movies. When I watch a great film, it sticks with me, while I feel like people who watch the movie just for the story aren't as deeply affected by the experience.

Anyway, the reason I love Elephant is the very loose narrative construction. The long tracking shots really put you in the mind of the characters, you get to know the people by the way they walk through the halls and how they interact with those around them. Seeing Michelle awkwardly run down the hall, ducking out of the way of Eli and Jon tells you everything you need to know about who she is and how she feels. It's also interesting how Van Sant plays with time. In a number of cases, we'll see the same event multiple times, from different perspectives. This is most notably used early in the film, when we see Eric and Alex wearing camo and carrying a bag into the school, but it's not followed up on. Later, we see Eric and Alex's story, and they eventually end up at the school carrying that bag, and we see what follows. So, Van Sant creates suspense by having us wonder, are these the people who shoot up the school, when's it going to happen? By the time we reach that moment again, we understand what they're planning to do, and this previously mysterious, but innocuous moment becomes the harbinger of death.

From a technical point of view, the long takes in this film are amazing. I'm a huge fan of the long take, because it really does put you in the world of the film and the mind of the characters. It's used to astonishing effect in Irreversible, where the long take can be used to both show the hellish confines of the Rectum, and the beautiful tender moments shared between Alex and Marcus. What the long take does is show you the moments that a film normally skips over. You get a better sense of environment and a deeper understanding of how a character conducts themselves in everyday life. In this film, almost every shot is a long take, and there's no shot/reverse shot used at all. The challenge is using the long take is to keep things interesting for the audience, and Van Sant pulls it off.

The film ends with violence, as Eric and Alex decide to shoot the students at the school. Even though I knew going in that this would happen, it seems jarring when it finally does, in the great shot of Michelle's blood hitting the bookcase. That's a testament to the filmmaking skill, despite the fact that we're waiting the entire movie to see this violence, it becomes almost unneccesary because the simple act of watching an ordinary day has become enough for the movie.

Still, the way in which the violence is depicted makes the school shooting essential to the film. Most movies, even ones that are making a statement against violence, present it in a way that it's viscerally exciting. Going back to Irreversible, the fire extinguisher sequence is not advocating for violence, but at the same time, there's clearly a certain joy taken in depicting the violence and we can enjoy it at the same time as we're being disgusted by it. Elephant presents violence as cold and real. Characters are gunned down, not to the sounds of Adiago for Strings, or in graphic slow motion, they're just shot and they fall to the ground, a completely ordinary event.

At the end, there's a great sequence where we see one student standing amidst the destruction, we follow him, leading us to believe that he's going to perhaps stop the violence, and try to be a hero, instead we follow him until he finds Eric, at which point he stops and is killed. It's messing with our expectations in a really interesting way.

The film's final moments provide no real resolution, we can assume that Alex will kill Carrie and Nathan, and then kill himself, but we're not really sure. Either way, I like the fact that the film ends not with any reassuring aftermath, instead it's just the reality of the event itself and we're left to fill in the blanks on what will happen next. You could criticize the film for not giving you a resolution, or closure, but the whole point is to show the reality of this event, not the blown up version the media will concoct after, as they struggle to figure out what could drive 'normal' kids to commit this act of violence.

The film flirts with some of the suggested reason for the Columbine shooting, with the Hitler TV segment and the first person shooter, but in the end, there's no real culprit other than the oppressive world of high school itself. All these characters hurt as they move through a social bubble, and it's the feeling that there's nothing outside that ultimately leads them to conclude that by killing their fellow students, they can destroy the world that has made their lives so hellish.

Are there flaws with this film? I thought the scene where the girls throw up their lunch felt a little unrealistic. Maybe this does happen and I just missed it, but it seemed to belong more in a film than in real life, unlike the rest of the piece, which was very realistic. I think Van Sant could have shown the pressure to keep a certain body image without resorting to the melodramatic vomiting. Also, the shower scene felt a bit off, but I don't think it really harmed the film.

On the whole, this is top notch filmmaking. It's like no other movie I've ever seen, perfectly capturing the real dynamics of high school and giving us a window into many lives. The film felt real, and the depiction of violence was one of the most realistic depictions I've ever seen. It's clearly not for everyone, but I love what Van Sant does with the medium, and I can't wait to see Last Days.

2 comments: said...

Quite helpful piece of writing, thank you for this article.

Department of English said...

I watched 'elephant' and just felt that its a great film as it gives new language to the art of making films. After reading your article got reassured of why I liked the film.You are very articulate. Your analysis of long and tracking shots and multiple perspectives in interesting.