Gus Van Sant is an interesting filmmaker for sure. He can make fairly accessible “Hollywood” type films that still retain his signature (“To Die For”, “Milk”, “Good Will Hunting”) but in recent years has been going pretty far out on a limb in and making these slow moving visual poems that are definitely not designed for the masses. Some of these work better than others. His film “Gerry” I found to be painfully dull (and I LOVE slow pacing), I also couldn’t sign-off on his Kurt Cobain film “Last Days” (although I do think about it a lot and it has a lot of powerful moments while not adding up to a cohesive whole in my opinion). “Paranoid Park” I absolutely loved (and will hopefully get to discuss in greater detail in a future blog) but the one that marked me the deepest was “Elephant”.
There’s not much to discuss in terms of plot detail. This is basically a “day in the life” at an average high school that ends with violence and tragedy. We get introduced to a series of characters through sequences that cleverly establish a timeline of where they are physically in the building in relation to each other as well as the various archetypes they are meant to represent. It is a bit of a cliché for high school movies to have “the jocks”, “the burnouts”, “the quiet kids”, etc. That idea has been beaten to death ever since “The Breakfast Club”. But those clichés exist for a reason and are absolutely rooted in reality. By casting real kids, who use their real names and largely improvise all the dialogue we are sucked in to this fly on the wall perspective of the raw emotional state that is adolescence. None of them feel like caricatures. You may roll your eyes listening to a group of teenage girls giggle about a cute boy walking by, but, in the way it’s shot and through the use of improvised dialogue, it (for once) doesn’t feel like an adult trying to write dialogue for teenagers (don’t get me started on the realism of the teenage dialogue in films like “American Beauty” for example). Van Sant uses a lot of very slow tracking shots throughout the film and this does wonders for creating the sort of languid, everyday feel I’m describing.
This is all part of what I call the “slow burn” in regards to pacing and mood. A great many films from “Eraserhead” to “There Will Be Blood” take their time getting where they're going and I just love it when it works! It hypnotizes you and helps put you into the world the filmmakers are trying to create. I think the reason for the slowness in Elephant was to bring out the normalcy of the day and the characters. The fact that there was nothing special or particularly eventful happening just permeated the picture with a sense of dread for me (I recently noticed Van Sant employ this technique brilliantly with Dan White's long walk from the mayor's office to Harvey's during the climax of “Milk”).
I recall reading that the title of this film is a reference to the “elephant in the room”, an obvious truth that no one wants to discuss. “Elephant”, along with the aforementioned “Gerry” and “Last Days” is Van Sant’s “death trilogy” and this film centers on the idea of death at the hands of a stranger. It is easily the creepiest and most emotionally draining of the bunch. Something about the calm within the killers is just incredibly upsetting. Even the camera work at times suggests the perspective of a first-person shooter video game, and while I’m not going anywhere near the censorship train, I still feel like it is logical to assume that prolonged exposure to violent imagery, whether in films or in the more vicarious realm of video games, numbs us as individuals and as a society and teenagers have never and will never have the perspective to know that high school is not the end all be all of life on this planet. I remember in the “Bowling For Columbine” documentary when Matt Stone and Trey Parker (of South Park) made a simple statement that stuck with me. Basically, they were shaking their heads at how Dylan and Eric (the Columbine shooters) were seniors in high school just weeks away from graduating and how if they would have just hung in there for a little bit they would have realized (as we all do eventually) that the petty bullshit and drama of high school means nothing in the real world. You can reinvent yourself and make your life anything you want it to be and to quote my father from a memorable exchange he had with my sister when she was upset over being picked on for her gymnastics skills long ago, “No one in the real world will ever care if you can do a forward roll”. So, at risk of oversimplifying the themes of the film, I think that the Elephant in the room is the emotional vulnerability of these kids and the inappropriate outlets (or sometimes lack of outlets) they have. There is of course also an element of tragedy (going back to the “death at the hands of a stranger” theme) as we get a sense of the loneliness, hopefulness, ambition and love within these varied characters, only to see it all disappear with the sound of gunshots. This is the cinematic equivalent of a gut-punch!
The slow burn is a powerful technique, especially when it ends in frenzy (true of Elephant, Eraserhead and There Will Be Blood). It makes the climax more scary and powerful to me if you've taken a long route to get there. Some folks, even passionate film buffs, really only like to be "entertained" by movies and that's their prerogative. Elephant is not for those people... Grade: A-