Monday, May 27, 2013

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

The following is my May entry for Blindspots.

Elephant’s Steadicam tracks last so long and move so languidly that they frequently curve backward in time, each shift of character focus drifting back a few minutes or a few hours to show the parallel movement of different students as they cross each other’s paths. This structure, modeled on Béla Tarr’s Satantango, repeats shots from changing perspectives, adding new information to established scenes to reconfigure their context.

Each of these connective curves adds a third dimension to configurations, not merely illuminating the interlocking nature of seemingly disparate clusters of students within a confined space but the emotional states of those previously seen in glimpses or even longer takes that nevertheless failed to reveal something as simple as the tears in the eyes of a boy who just endured a tongue-lashing because he could not bring himself to put the deserved blame for his tardiness on his alcoholic father. Incessant close-ups and frantic editing are regularly singled out for their obscuring qualities, but distance and shot length cannot by itself bring clarity.

Harris Savides’ cinematography drains the setting of its color, capturing the prison-like structure of the school, its off-white walls giving corridors a sickly light gray hue when struck by sunlight peering through windows that cruelly tease those trapped inside with thoughts of escape. Only touches like a yellow T-shirt or a red hoodie break up the visual monotony, and when the camera follows the people wearing such objects of clothing, it may be for the variety as much as anything. But those splashes of vivid color, too, are homogenized into the white-gray palette. At its best, Elephant captures the aggressive banality of such a setting, the constant reminder that a public school, like any other government building, seems specifically designed to numb individualism into a bureaucratic bore.

If Elephant successfully captures the dreariness of its high school milieu, it shows its first stumbles in defining those who roam its halls. The elegiac Steadicam shots follow each character in such a way that no one stands out beyond the extremely reductive types in which they are drawn. Well-meaning liberal kids massage each other’s egos in a discussion of gay rights, athletes and cheerleaders hook up, and, most egregiously, a gaggle of chattering girls gabs over lunch before winding their way to a bathroom, whereupon the camera remains outside the stalls as the trio purge. Even as Van Sant comes back across the characters from different angles, his deliberate desire to rob his teens of any movie character qualities to retain their sense of anonymity only makes them seem like movie caricatures.

The same issue extends to the handling of the shooters and the climactic massacre through the school. Van Sant’s film does not assign a motive to the killers’ rampage, but it does parade all the favored oversimplifications—violent video games, relaxing to TV shows about Nazis, bully victimhood, latent homosexuality—in a kind of “Choose your own explaination” format. Van Sant even shoots elements of the massacre in a first-person shooter style, leading the audience on even as he plays at hands-off. The approach to the final bloodbath is meant to shake up the doldrums of the gray elegance that preceded it, but the Steadicams have already generated so much false tension that the explosion of violence is not only expected but a release. Van Sant’s desire to privilege no one person above the other admirably strips Elephant of any clear hero or destined survivor, realistically conveying the random and pointless nature of mass death.

But what end does this serve? Is there any meaning in simply replicating the effect of a shooting, especially one that is otherwise so aestheticized? So much of Elephant reveals the worst aspects of Van Sant’s political filmmaking, which rigidly pursues some kind of even hand even as it pursues a single-minded point. The title, a lift from Alan Clarke’s own 1989 film about the Troubles, alludes to two elephant-oriented metaphors: that of blind men defining the animal by touching only one part of the creature’s diverse frame, and that of the ignored elephant in the room. Elephant approaches an event that was clearly coming to anyone who was paying attention even as it looks for the subtleties in what will lead to that attack. But Van Sant’s film, however radical a stylistic and structural departure from the usual message movie, takes as many shortcuts as the mainstream films this movie seeks to oppose.

1 comment:

  1. It's been a while since I've seen Elephant, so I might have a similar experience on my second viewing. The first time through, I was mesmerized by it. I didn't mind that the characters were one-note and not developed. It added to the feeling that Van Zant was just giving us a glimpse at what happened. The camera work is really sharp, and it's a striking film. That said, a lot of people I know also have a so-so reaction to this movie, so I may be in the minority.