Elephant (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Gus Van Sant
viewed: 03/14/08

This was an odd choice to follow up Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), which I watched just prior in an act of decompression after a bad day.  But I’ve been reading a lot about directer Gus Van Sant’s new film, Paranoid Park (2007), which has gotten very good reviews.  Elephant won the Palm d’Or at Cannes when it was released there and recieved a broad mixture of reaction in its time.  Roughly re-working a setting much like the Columbine High School massacre, in which two boys, heavily armed, enter a school with the intent of killing as many people as possible.

The subject matter, being as probably depressing as one would imagine, added to my lack of interest at the time of its initial release.  Van Sant was at one time a very interesting “indie” filmmaker.  His Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), were strong and interesting films.  They felt unique and compelling, despite seriously annoying flaws (just my opinion here, but the Shakespearian dialogue in My Own Private Idaho?  It just didn’t work for me.)

But then Van Sant started moving mainstream.  His first big film was To Die For (1995), which I actually liked.  But from there, it was straight to hell.  Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000)…ugh.  I thought his remake of Psycho (1998) was a bizarre and at least an interesting idea.  It sucked though.

Apparantly, Van Sant ditched the mainstream and started making a series of smaller films, closer to the world that he best inhabited, the world of young people, particularly those of his native Portland, Oregon.  Elephant is set there, and the outdoors are colored with bright green grassess and trees and tons of yellow and red leaves covering the ground.  Shooting in a local school, the landscape is very recognizable and natural.  It’s the ‘burbs.  The Portland ‘burbs.  But the ‘burbs.

The film has a beautiful visual style, with the camera tracking smoothly a la steadicam, tracking the actors through their pathways in and out of the school through a normal day, though it is a normal day that will become highly abnormal.  Van Sant follows several kids around the school, in little moments, brief conversations, little actions.  There is story and explication but its light and loose and at first it’s hard to know who will be the killers and who will be killed.  (Though I am not sure that is the point, per se.)

There is a lack of meaning in the actions of the two boys.  They are just ready to go and to kill. Though they fuel up with watching a documentary on the Third Reich, their actions and their choice of victims is largely random.  The lack of explication perhaps is a large part of the point.  There is no easy explanation.  No way to understand why these things happen, why this event would happen.

There is one little weird aside as the two boys engage is a shower and a kiss together just before the killing.  Again, there is not enough explanation to figure out what is happening.  Is this the first time?  The one boy looks a little surprised.  Or is this a significant part of their relationship?  What does it mean to inflect homosexuality onto these largely opaque and normal kids who are ultimately killers?  I don’t know.  I just note it.

It reminded me vaguely of Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), which I had found very disturbing.  Like Clark’s film, Elephant is heavily improvised with mostly non-actors in the lead roles.  This isn’t abnormal territory for Van Sant either, but it’s there, a resonance.

I have to say, Van Sant’s camera loves the faces of the young men in the film in a way that the females are not filmed.  As the camera does follow the actors through the hallways, we often see them from the back, but at a certain point a group of three bulemic girls are tracked behind their sets of long hair, just like figures, not so much like people.  Van Sant most tenderly lingers on the face of John, with his soft, skater-boy style mop of bleached blonde hair and the rosiness in his cheeks.  Again, it’s just something I note.  Take that for what you will.

It’s not so much a film to like or hate for me.  It has an aesthetic visually that carries a good deal of appeal, but due to its subject matter, again like Kids, though not nearly so strongly, it’s too much of a downer to really ever want to watch again.  Still, I am interested in Paranoid Park.  Maybe I’ll get to see it in the theater.

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