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Gus Van Sant's Journey

A review of Elephant

I’ve long thought of Gus Van Sant as American cinema’s wayward traveller, and now the name seems perfect. His new film Elephant is all in the travelling shots (also known as tracking or dolly shots), and in using them, it feels as if he is trying to come back home. Jean-Luc Godard’s notion that “le travelling est affaire de morale” is an old saw now, brought up to prove that form and content do have some tangible relationship. But for Van Sant, the use of long, obsessive tracking shots actually is a moral question; the shots seem to offer us some way of remaining detached as we are willingly drawn in by the sheer kinetic power of the images. These shots are complex pieces of choreography, and yet they also seem random, our understanding of them always incomplete. They are Van Sant’s analysis of the Columbine shootings (and the high school shootings that occurred in its wake); if asked what he thinks those events mean, I hope that he’d just point to these smooth, haunting images. As Susan Sontag wrote about the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson, “he has worked out a form that perfectly expresses and accompanies what he wants to say. In fact, it is what he wants to say.”

It has not always been so smooth, so passionate, for Gus Van Sant. His early work is masterful, and I’ll get to that. But it’s the middle Van Sant that troubles. Things started to look bad for him around 1993, the year of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. A minor novel by Tom Robbins became a passable movie; it had flashes of passion, but for the most part it was mediocre, if eccentric. 1995 brought To Die For, a pious, badly acted media critique; that it starred both Matt Dillon, who had starred in an earlier, better film, and the brother of River Phoenix, the by then dead star of what was for some Van Sant’s best film, only added insult (if not blasphemy) to injury. Then there was Good Will Hunting in 1997: surely it could not get any sillier, any sappier than this? It could. 1998 brought an insane (that is the only word; it was shot-for-shot obsessive) remake of Psycho. Any lower? Yup. The year 2000 brought Finding Forrester, a sappy, mediocre imitation of a sappy, mediocre Gus Van Sant film, Good Will Hunting. Truly this was the height of career-collapsing-in-on-itself meltdowns. I wrote Gus Van Sant off. Thanks for the memories.

Van Sant’s debut feature film was 1985’s Mala Noche, which I still haven’t seen, but which enjoys a very respectable following in cinephile circles (the film is rarely screened and isn’t available on video). Van Sant came to wider attention in 1989, with Drugstore Cowboy. This made great use of Matt Dillon (then still stuck in the purgatory of teen idoldom) and introduced Heather Graham; it also had a vivid sense of place, seeing the Pacific Northwest as a damp, seedy world where redemption is just over the horizon, never lost but never quite available either (the film is a very clear influence on Lynne Stopkewich’s Suspicious River). And then came the masterpiece: My Own Private Idaho in 1991. River Phoenix’s performance as a narcoleptic, mom-obsessed hustler is still seared in my memory, and so, oddly, is Keanu Reeves’ spacey, terminally stoned scion of wealth, slumming it for a year on the Portland streets, Prince Hal style. The part of the film that takes place in Italy unfolds with only ceremonial attention to narrative clarity; the point of that voluptuous sequence is, like the passages in the burnt-out houses or the rundown coffee shops, to savour a quiet, sweet melancholy, the melancholy that permeates the rainy side of the continent. I went to the University of Oregon from 1989 to 1992, and believe me, Van Sant was our filmmaker. It wasn’t just the odd references to Portland suburbs or the presence of furniture dealer Tom Peterson (who has cameos in Drugstore Cowboy, Idaho, Cowgirls and To Die For). Van Sant understood the place. He got it right.

I didn’t expect to feel that way about Van Sant again, until I saw Gerry (2002). This minimalist tale of two friends (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) lost in the California desert was not a masterpiece—too long, too goofy—but it was sure ambitious. And it looked great. No Van Sant had looked this good since, well, My Own Private Idaho.

So Elephant doesn’t quite come out of nowhere, but almost. It has the desert-of-the-soul bleakness that we saw in Gerry and is a considerable step from the depressing content of My Own Private Idaho, which had a sadness to it, but nothing like what we see in this most recent film. Similarly, Gerry had a formal austerity to it; it unfolded mostly in long takes with the camera set well back from the characters, clearly evoking Van Sant’s desire to distance us from the characters. But in Elephant, that formal austerity has also been cranked up several notches.

The stillness that we saw in Gerry has, in Elephant, been replaced by a relentlessly moving camera. These elaborate movements are visible from the very beginning of the film, but they reach a fever pitch once we move inside the high school. There the halls are long and wide, and it is as if the camera can stretch out, really move intensely, follow characters obsessively, with only passing attention paid to linear narrative development. Because linearity is barely the point; we follow a character until he or she hears a gunshot, then we cut to another character until another gunshot, and on and on. We’re not totally immersed in this world of the huge high school: as the film moves forward we move out of the school and into the house of the killers. And toward the end of Elephant Van Sant does, in essence, go linear, following the killers all the way through those first gunshots we have been hearing, and then well beyond. But what we have in these tracking shots is a deeply restless sensibility, a hope that if we watch these kids closely enough, and absorb their world fully enough, we might come to some sort of understanding of the horror of American suburban violence. Of course we do not; the situation is still unspeakable, beyond understanding. All we can do is look patiently, intensely and piecemeal.

This loss of faith in the cinema’s ability to illuminate or to explain sounds like chilly postmodern stuff indeed, and so it’s a happy surprise that the film features such rich performances. Elias McConnell, playing a young photography student, and Nathan Tyson, playing the school jock, are particularly good. There’s nothing simple or easy about their performances; we are not meant simply to tag them as character types. There is a relaxed sense of confidence here, a richness that invites the viewer in, even as the highly artificial camera work is trying to hold us back. The two kids playing the killers, Alex Frost and Eric Deulen, are of course also memorable, though I think of their work as a smaller part of the film. The scene where they embrace in the shower right before going on the killing spree is delicate and sad, and probably the clearest look back at My Own Private Idaho. But the real surprises in Elephant are in the smaller elements, the emotional risks that the young actors at the fringes of the film take. When a young man clad in a yellow tank top (Bennie Dixon) hears the gunshots and swaggers off to investigate, acting as though he’s going to do something, it hardly seems to matter that this is obviously insane, that there’s nothing he can do. And of course he winds up dead. But the sheer self-confidence—and perhaps most importantly the belief—that this simple, seconds-long performance communicates is formidable. These kids make it clear that this is not simply an airy formal exercise. A real crisis exists here, even if it’s a crisis that no film can ever hope to fully evoke.

Much has been made of the film’s title, and it seems to me important to understand the way that it evokes the aforementioned link between detachment and genuine emotion. Yes, the title is supposed to refer to the elephant in the living room: school violence is the thing nobody wants to talk about. But it’s also named after a thirty-nine-minute film by British filmmaker Alan Clarke (truly a master of the televisual form, but that’s another article), also called Elephant. That film was made in 1989, when senseless sectarian murder in Northern Ireland seemed endemic and unstoppable. The film is made up entirely of a series of smooth, obsessive tracking shots (steadycam shots, actually) that follow an assassin as he kills person after person. We don’t know who is Catholic or who Protestant, who British or who Irish, and we don’t know who is being killed or why. That semi-abstract minimalism upset a lot of people, who charged that the film reduced a very complex political situation to seemingly random violence. But in fact, that film, like the new Elephant, brought you in with visceral images (flashes of bloodshed for Clarke; rich performances, along with flashes of bloodshed, for Van Sant) in order to give you an emotional wallop. But at the same time, the film made it clear how serious, how complex the situation was by holding you at a distance, by using a camera constantly in a state of unrelentingly smooth motion.

Look at this, both Clarke and Van Sant are saying, and pay close attention; I will give you some emotional depth, but that will not be enough. Situations such as these do not always unfold in simple, straightforward ways. Those tracking shots, and the sense of restless searching that they convey, are for both these filmmakers a serious ethical position.