Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)Alfred Hitchcock once said "drama is life with the dull bits cut out." Elephant, Gus Van Sant's controversial Cannes winner, is like life with the drama cut out - and pretty dull. Specifically, of course, we're talking about film drama. A character is set up, a complex situation is introduced and they must try to overcome it etc. Those who have seen Elephant will know it operates in a slightly different way. Sure there are characters, sure they have relationships and you could argue that the whole film is the 'situation' which I suggest. But Elephant is a film without drama - it's merely an observation. A slice of art reflecting life. Some would argue that it is going for the feel of a documentary - I would counter by saying that the film feels too cinematic and show-offy to be taken as a documentary. It is however, a document. Pretty complex stuff isn't it? In this short essay I won't be tackling the political or moral essence of Elephant but rather its cinematic style and how it fits into the body of work of one of our most interesting auteurs, Van Sant (best known for Good Will Hunting, 1997). Political context and concepts of morality surely deserve acknowledgment, but an exploration of them belongs in a whole other essay. For now, we concentrate on the filmmaker and his tale. A tale of tragedy... (It must be noted that i've intentionally left out any plot synopsis; fans of the film will already know how it unfolds and newcomers are best left to be surprised).
"We're used to making films and observing films with a sort of shorthand. You see the car going down the road. O.K. Got it. Then it's the next shot. Usually what happens then is people start talking about something that will relate to the story instead of something random and more lifelike; like dental work. We learn in English class not to have it be about dental work. But maybe watching the car going down the road is important. To really watch it - as if you were in the car."
So that's Van Sant's position sorted. It's easy to see why a filmmaker would take this stance; equally why certain audience members would respond to it. Even the most grounded and realistic of films are concerned with plot mechanics; every conversation about a dishwasher must be countered by exposition. Such is the nature of film, or even storytelling. It's hard to be subtle about changing gears when you're working a mechanical process. Van Sant's idealism is, however, important to acknowledge in the essaying of Elephant, a film that spends a good deal of its time simply following cars or people in elaborate (and stunning) tracking shots. The conversations consist of the everyday; home life, relationships, how much school sucks etc. The conversations you and I would have. As aforementioned, it sounds pretty dull. But maybe it's meant to. Here's where the theory comes in.
Maybe Elephant (a unique title in the fact that it's a portentous idiom) is more self-aware than we care to think? The movie (81 minutes in length) is dull, but so is school and so was life for these kids on that fateful day. People think of Van Sant as a serious, artistic filmmaker but I think he's a little more playful than people give him credit for. This is the guy who remade Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) shot-for-shot "so no one else would have to." People criticize his effort for being unintentionally comic, and look at the ammunition for their argument: http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi327287065/ (try and pause on Vince Vaughn in the wig). But Hitchcock once said of Psycho, "To me Psycho was a big comedy. Had to be." So, where do we draw the line? I'm not defending Van Sant's version - it clearly shouldn't exist. But seeing as it does, it's interesting co compare the two versions, knowing the perspectives both filmmakers had about the matter. Van Sant is also the guy, of course, who made gay hustlers speak like Shakespeare in My Own Private Idaho (1991). Some choice dialogue may include "Are you not a coward? Answer that, and that goes double." "You're calling me a coward? You fat duck." And consider Gerry (2002), a 100-minute trek through the desert (yes, it's as boring as it sounds). This isn't to say that Van Sant doesn't respect the weight of his subject. I'm not accusing him of being a prankster in the same way as, say, Lars von Trier (http://e-filmblog.blogspot.com/2010/06/lars-von-trier-prankster-provocateur.html). Elephant is without doubt a serious, dramatic work. But I think stylistically it's tracking shots are a little more tongue-in-cheek than we care to suspect. It's Van Sant intentionally using the ordinary to lull us into a state of boredom before shocking us with the devastating and emotional finale. Films can be accused of style over substance and vice versa but I believe that Elephant is a rare case in which the style helps inform the substance. The deliberately slow pacing and complex tracking shots (think Week End, Jean-Luc Godard, 1967, but navigating a school rather than a roadblock) allow us to feel a part of school life. It allows us to soak up the cliques of the lunch hall and eagerly await the school bell. It allows us to really watch it - as if we were there. And it allows us to be bored.
This also goes someway to outlining a proof for why the film doesn't feel like a documentary, but rather a document. A documentary is often retrospective; it will be intercut with opinions (talking heads). I don't even think Elephant has a documentary style - the camerawork is intrinsically cinematic, it's clear we're being directed by a storyteller. If it were documentary it would have perhaps been shot on video, featured handheld camerawork and limited access to the events of the day. It serves as a document in the way that it provides a record (albeit a fictionalized one) of a day in the life. It's self-aware style is totally appropriate; but for a film, not a documentary.
Elephant is wearing a mask. Behind a deeply serious, personal, affecting piece of cinema there is a filmmaker playfully toying with the conventions of film, perhaps in the same way that Kubrick did. Think of Full Metal Jacket (1987) - a harrowing and serious depiction of war, but also cinematically alive. Think of the tracking shot in that film - set to the tune of The Trashmen's 'Surfin Bird'. As the camera moves past a line of wounded soldiers you can't help but feel a sense of satisfaction amid the horror - such is the quality of the cinema. Van Sant has listed Kubrick as his favorite director stating that he "was a good model." Perhaps it's a little more than that. Perhaps behind the mask of Elephant there lies a filmmaker so confident, so assured and so skilled that even when he's boring you to death with a grin on his face he can make you cry with the sincerity of a mature and impassioned adult. Seek it out and see what you think...