Friday, February 03, 2023

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

In the room

I can only guess Van Sant's thinking when he did Elephant: that there were all these docudramas and documentaries and news specials and articles trying to pin down the motives of the shooters, and the film is a response saying "there's no way to truly know." 

You get a lot of red herrings, from the ultraviolent video game the teens are playing to Beethoven to Macbeth to kissing in the shower stall (That being the funniest herring of all, I mean the way critics jumped on that moment. I thought it was so obvious--these two are about to die, they want to know, however fleetingly or vicariously, what sex or at least a kiss was like, they had no one at hand except each other, they went for it. Were they gay? They likely weren't even thinking that way, they just did what came into their heads).

Those early scenes reveal nothing; they're the kind of inexplicable puzzles that people love to work over and worry about till hell freezes over when I think the truth is, there isn't a solution in sight. Maybe one of the most unsettling thing about Elephant is that it's one of the things Jorge Luis Borges was most frightened of--a mystery without solution, a labyrinth without a center.

What Van Sant does put in the film I think he has gleaned from all his previous work; from his early features an effortless familiarity with youths; from Psycho a willingness to make an entire film out of a thought experiment (I wonder where the inserts of ominous skies came from), from Gerry the use of freakishly long shots and little dialogue, the words pointless to the already thin plot but revealing of character.

Maybe another point to the film (aside from saying "it's all a mystery") is to shift focus where Van Sant wants it, putting the proper aestheticizing emphasis on and (in his own indirect stubbornly understated way) honoring the people these murders should have been about, the victims. A reason why the killings are so upsetting is because they're the meaningless slaughter of people we've come to know, feel affection for. We've been immersed in their lives for about an hour and when in the last half-hour they're being picked off we want to know why, and we realize we're not going to get any answers. It happens, they're gone ("like flies to wanton boys" to quote an expert on tragedy); all we have is our memories of them.

And the rewind button, of course (I've looked at the film three times). But no matter how often you view these people--who are wonderful and special not just in the way Van Sant frames and follows them but also on their own terms, in the way they live and care and hurt, you can't help but be aware that if you keep the DVD running too long you wander into the portion where they all start dying all over again, a knowledge that is almost too painful to bear.

(Thoughts scribbled down 9.14.04)

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