13 July 2009

ELEPHANT (Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2003, US) - ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen…’

The allusions to Kubrick's use of the steadicam in 'The Shining' are graphically illustrated in many of the sequences in the corridors of the high school.

Gus Van Sant’s critical reputation as an independent film maker took an unexpected turn in the late 90s, especially after his notably obvious safe commercial decision to helm the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck scripted ‘Good Will Hunting’. On its release in 1997, this fluffy Miramax production was much celebrated but its incredible how quickly such a film has passed into the realms of mainstream ordinariness. Off the back of the success with ‘Good Will Hunting’, Van Sant thought it might be a good idea (nobody quite knows why any film maker would want to remake something as sacred as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’) to rework this classic for a post modern audience. Never has a contemporary remake been received with such animosity and vitriolic candour than Van Sant’s ill fated ‘Psycho’ (Van Sant referred to the film as more of a faithful shot by shot remake) updating which was criticised as a deliberate attempt by the studios to cash in on the emerging popularity of remaking Hollywood classics.

Nevertheless, Van Sant’s career seemed to go from bad to worse with his next film, ‘Finding Forster’. Released in 2000 and featuring a central performance by Sean Connery, the film’s autumnal textures and liberal intentions echoed the sentimentality of ‘Good Will Hunting’, but it seemed like an odd choice for an edgy, under rated independent film maker like Gus Van Sant. Though ‘Finding Forester’ is perhaps one of the worst films Gus Van Sant has directed to date, it is particularly significant for marking the start of a very fruitful collaboration with cinematographer, Harris Savides. New York based and one of the most talented of the new digital generation of cinematographers, beginning with ‘Gerry’ in 2002, Harris Savides would go on to shoot ‘Elephant’, ‘Last Days’, and most recently ‘Milk’. For his 2007 film ‘Paranoid Park’, Van Sant would have made use of Savides but he was tied up with Fincher on ‘Zodiac’ and so instead roped in Wong Kar Wai regular, Christopher Doyle.

Alex and Eric; victims of bullying and perpetrators of violence.

In Mark Cousin’s documentary on the Iranian New Wave, he talks in length about the role the Islamic revolution played in the emergence of the Iranian new wave; Khomeini had argued that film if used as a didactic tool could be very useful to the Iranian government. His call for a purifying of cinema would prove to be hugely beneficial to many film makers as the clamp down on the representations of sex and violence actually led to a new kind of cinema that had to dispense with stylisation, reject the obvious and come up with new ways of thinking about cinema. I think such was the case with Gus Van Sant who after nearly a decade in the mainstream of Hollywood, changed direction to reclaim his indie origins by stripping away all the artifices and pretentious trappings of Hollywood narrative cinema. This meant having to shift his directorial style to the edges of experimental film making, opting for unconventional anti narrative techniques and a Godardian inspired use of camerawork that manipulates time, embraces a neo realist aesthetic and rejects the idea of genre film making.

Having tested the waters so to speak with his bold new experimental style in ‘Gerry’, Van Sant’s next film, ‘Elephant’ was the film that confirmed his return to form. It also received the coveted Palme D’Or at Cannes and finally cemented Van Sant’s reputation as somewhat of a born again iconoclast film maker and documenter of American youth culture. It’s a shame to see him reverting back to type with the recent ‘Milk’, a film that reminds one of the sentimental liberalism lurking in the compromised careers of contemporary indie auteurs like Van Sant. Anyhow, ‘Elephant’ used the Columbine shootings as inspiration for the plot in which two teenagers, Alex and Eric, carry out a killing spree in their high school. Van Sant’s approach is very detached, employing startling use of unconventional techniques that reminds one of the Brechtian inspired cinema of the Dziga Vertov Group. This comes through most vividly in the film’s manipulation of narrative time as Van Sant returns to the same moments in the film through a range of differing perspectives, thus continually questioning our own interpretations of the reality unfolding before us and undermining the entire idea of narrative subjectivity.

Gus Van Sant (far right) salvaged his reputation as a film maker with experimental films like 'Gerry' and 'Elephant'.

The experimental nature of the film making is also evident in the use of title cards to signify the introduction of new characters, giving the narrative a very loose, episodic style and challenging our expectations to do with the high school film genre. I think as a spectator Van Sant tests the patience of the spectator by opting to use long takes, thus prolonging an event by refusing to cut out the so called extraneous micro details – rather it is exactly those spaces which mainstream cinema revels in compressing that Van Sant deliberately emphasises so to draw our attention to the slow grind of high school life. In one of the first long takes of the film, we follow the character of the high school jock, Nathan, as he walks across the playing fields and into the school building, whilst passing through a series of corridors until he finally meets his girlfriend who is waiting for him. Van Sant makes the sequence feel altogether more hypnotic and compelling by making Kubrick like use of the Steadicam, which maintains a fixed position behind the character so not to intrude but rather observe intelligently. So not to break the authenticity of this opening long take, Van Sant also makes use of an elaborate 360 degree turn, taking in the reactions of three high school girls gazing alluringly at Nathan as he passes by them nonchalantly.

Though the popular high school stereotypes are more than visible in the characters we meet, Van Sant keeps them at a distance and refrains from offering any kind of attempt to empathise with them. Yet the irony is that Van Sant chooses to enter the inner world of Alex and Eric, the victims of bullying, and willingly situates us in a compromised position as they come across as perhaps slightly more emotionally intoned than the rest of the teenage symbols on display. What we get to know about Alex and Eric is also quite indicative of the way in which American culture crosses paths with that of Europe, blurring the divide between high and low culture in the use of classical music and video games. Thus, one could label Alex and Eric as the most unlikely of high school killers as their appreciation for culture is not strictly limited to what surrounds them – they plan and treat the shootings as something quite casual and this makes the final moments altogether more chilling and calculated.

The title of the film pays homage to another film also called 'Elephant' which was directed by British film maker Alan Clarke in 1989; this film also uses a series of gruelling long takes and makes inventive use of the steadicam.

Van Sant never lets up playing around with the rules and expectations associated with mainstream narrative cinema and in the final sequences, he does something quite radical, he introduces a new character called ‘Benny’, whom we see stroll heroically down the corridors, unafraid of confronting Alex and Eric as they continue to with their killing spree. For a short lived moment, Van Sant makes us entertain the possibility that Benny could actually be some kind of saviour but it turns out that he is some what of a false hero and is quickly gunned down, shattering once again our attempt to gain some control over the narrative of the film. Given the traumatic nature of the Columbine massacre and its profoundly worrying emphasis on gun culture, Van Sant’s decision to offer no Hollywood inspired explanations to Alex and Eric’s apathy works effectively in suggesting that violence is something painfully normalised and naturalised in the realms of everyday society, be it bullying or victimisation. As Eric prepares to open fire on Nathan and his girlfriend, Van Sant cuts away, returning to the opening image; a low angle shot of floating clouds. It is a disturbingly simple image that conjures up metaphysical connotations to do with death, existence, loneliness, alienation and strangely enough, it offers a strange kind of solemnity.

Some critics have placed ‘Elephant’ as part of Van Sant’s ‘Death Trilogy’ but I’m not entirely convinced by such an arbitrary definition and pointless label as it overlooks the emergence of a fourth film in this so called ‘Death Trilogy’, which is ‘Paranoid Park’. Death is such a theme that it potentially appears in the oeuvre of many auteurs so it does feel slightly pretentious to try and pigeon hole Van Sant’s change in cinematic style as something strictly thematically led which it clearly is not. I think ‘Elephant’ may just be Van Sant’s most mature and fully realised film to date.

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