November 5, 2003

Is That An Elephant In Your Pocket?

Cinecultist teemed up again with Doug of Filmington.com to review the newest picture by GVS Elephant. We sat down over IM to discuss the film's suspense, Van Sant's cinematic influences and the use of non-actors in this "docudrama."

[Josh Cultivated Stupidity also enjoyed the movie, but for slightly more "superficial" reasons.]

DOUG
The killings at Columbine High School in 1999 were the centerpiece of Michael Mooreís blunt-edged attack on gun culture in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, but Gus Van Santís ELEPHANT is a far more Spartan effort. And with us to discuss this pachyderm of a movie, making her sophomore appearance, is Karen Wilson, editrix of Cinecultist.com. Welcome back, gally gal.

KAREN
Thanks, I always appreciate being called upon to lapse into feminist ranting when provoked by particularly offensive movies. Although I canít say that being a chick really helps or hinders when it comes to parsing this picture. Rather, I think itís about remembering what itís like to be an angst-filled teenager.

DOUG
Thanks to my recent high school reunion, I had the singular pleasure of re-living that exact feeling ó only with bald spots and slenderizing undergarments. Despite appearances, most of the vivid personalities havenít changed. And they bear strong resemblances to the handful of students we meet in the filmís first reel.

KAREN
I really loved that first 40 minutes or so; the photography is so beautiful, I can see why audiences at Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto went nuts for the film. The pacing and the imagery walk the gorgeous fine line between severely mannered and completely naturalistic. The shots are like museum-quality photography come to life ó which, theoretically, is what movies should be but so rarely are.

DOUG
Despite this lovely and simplistic quality, the suspense is just awful. Weíre getting to know these ordinary high schoolers ó the hunky lifeguard the girls drool over, the even-tempered shutterbug, the achingly self-conscious girl who wonít wear short pants in gym ó and we also know whatís about to happen. The apprehension makes you want to rip the armrests off your seat.

KAREN
I hope thatís not a dig at the way I jumped about a mile every time something happened toward the end of the movie. But the suspense is effective, and I wanted to cover my eyes and scrunch down in my seat. ELEPHANT has this strange quality; you know the inevitable ending, but you donít know quite how it will go down. It takes a scary topic ó how a supposedly safe place like a school can be so unsafe ó and makes it downright horrific.

DOUG
Another skillful turn involves Van Santís taking of temporal liberties, as the film backtracks on itself and shows the dayís events as a fugue from several points of view. The effect is good for another shot of adrenaline, because one brief and innocuous conversation signals whatís about to come. But to whom will it happen?

KAREN
Yes, itís a bit of shades of PULP FICTION. The whole movie kept me thinking how effectively GVS borrowed from different directors. The refusal to develop character beyond evocative stereotypes was so Richard Linklater in SLACKER or DAZED AND CONFUSED, while the use of first-person camera is so Brian de Palma and the steadicam all Stanley Kubrick.

DOUG
And beyond that impressively apt bit of name-dropping (I saw lots of parallels to Kubrickís THE SHINING), we see that Gus has taken a specifically vaporous tack since FINDING FORRESTER fell flat on its fanny. With GERRY and ELEPHANT, heís given us two atmospherically stark films about long walks toward doom, and the critics are back on the bandwagon.

KAREN
Van Sant goes back and forth between these ďartyĒ projects and Hollywood feel-good entertainment pretty consistently. GERRY and ELEPHANT are back to back, but Iíd certainly expect GVSís next movie to have a huge bankable star and a clear mentor figure to warm the cockles of our hearts. I find it annoying that critics can champion his arty stuff but lash out against the entertainment, as though they were disappointed he was trying to make money with his movies. Not that I didnít find FORRESTER totally vapid too, dog!

DOUG
Hey, no oneís begrudging the commercial efforts of indie auteurs ó especially when they succeed, like Doug Limanís THE BOURNE IDENTITY and Linklaterís SCHOOL OF ROCK. And though GOOD WILL HUNTING has been maligned by revisionists, I think it retains a lot of charm. FORRESTER might be his least successful film because it looks too mainstream, so unlike a Van Sant movie.

KAREN
Another thing I found fascinating (but ultimately a bit faulty) about ELEPHANT was his use of amateur actors. Van Sant seems to want to capture a completely naturalistic impression of these teenagers, to communicate a sense of ďrealnessĒ about this milieu. Yet, you can see the kids trying so hard to hit their marks and not look into the camera. In the beginning, their awkwardness as performers endears us to them, but as the drama escalates, the lack of familiarity with how to deliver an acting performance detracts from the movie a bit. As a result, I found certain lackluster reactions unbelievable.

DOUG
Indeed, that last act is as a bloodless as it is bloody (the squibmaster must have put in scads of OT). I think I can fathom Van Santís motivations for ending ELEPHANT the way he does. We had no answers then, and we have no answers now. So, heís saying that itís a terrible thing when screwed-up social outcasts murder their classmates at close range and with no shred of remorse? If youíve nothing else to say, why make this thing?

KAREN
Would it be cynical of me to say ďso he could shoot the two boys kissing in a shower?Ē GVS obviously finds young people fascinating ó whether you call it a fetish or not ó and heís spent quite a bit of time cataloguing their beautiful deviancy. Maybe what heís saying is that for our societyís health we need to capture this elephant of teenage violence on camera, and then perhaps, if we name it, we can begin to understand it. Or is that too tidy and aphoristic a response?

DOUG
Depends on your view of this statement: ELEPHANT may refer to the creature in the room that no one talks about, but it might also be a veiled urging that we never forget about what happened. Despite its achievement, ELEPHANT is gripping but ultimately unsatisfying docudrama, because Gus so quickly blows the tension heís worked so hard to build.

KAREN
I think to call ELEPHANT a docudrama pigeonholes it and ignores its greatest strengths as art cinema ó the lyrical photography, breathtaking composition, and meditative pacing. Itís about a sensational, topical subject and yet itís not about that at all. Or at least, itís about the way Gus Van Sant views that cultural moment through his particular artistic lens. Iím giving this $9.50, and Iím frankly surprised at my resounding recommendation. I suppose I liked it more upon reflection than I did when I initially walked out of the theater.

DOUG
I admire Van Santís restraint, as he deftly reduces the events to its most mundane elements and subtracts the subsequent media frenzy. But if his goal was to hold a mirror to society, heís done so in a most literal sense. Innocents died in Columbine? I knew that already.

KAREN
I donít know how it could be a mirror, because its such a blatantly composed piece of art. ELEPHANT is mannered but natural at the same time, and everything we see is very obviously constructed for a camera.

DOUG
Hmm. Sounds like a political campaign.

Posted by karen at November 5, 2003 8:04 AM