Friday, March 19, 2004

The Big E's

More on von Trier another time. Today belongs to ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and ELEPHANT.

I've been chomping at the bit to see Gus Van Sant's ELEPHANT for some time. I went over the moon for GERRY, and then his subsequent film won the Palm D'Or at Cannes. Cue waiting, lots of waiting, until the film finally unspooled here today, about nine months after it took the prize in France. Watching ELEPHANT is not unlike that, lots of waiting and anticipation, although you trade excitement for dread.

Van Sant explores the day in the life of a high school, with it culminating in two students executing a Columbine-like attack on their teachers and peers. ELEPHANT is little more than a series of tracking shots that follow various students. We get small insights into their lives--John has an alcoholic dad, Elias is a budding photographer--but never become deeply acquainted with them. Van Sant also introduces us to the killers and shows how they prepare for the fateful day.

Naturally, this is combustible subject matter. The threat of death hovers over the film like the time-lapse clouds Van Sant returns to time and again. Some have accused Van Sant of exploiting the tragedy, but what makes school shootings off limits when other historical atrocities are fair game? To the director's credit, he is judicious in showing the violence. The audience knows what is happening and doesn't need to be bathed in blood and guts to get the effect.

What's most shocking is that ELEPHANT isn't shocking. The idea of teenage boys bringing guns to school to kill classmates isn't out of the ordinary. I got home from the film and found a story on the internet about a Nebraska teen with twenty homemade bombs and a rifle in the high school parking lot. (Another report on the story includes an incident in which two second-graders and an eleven-year-old in Montana hid weapons in a plan to shoot and stab a third-grade girl.)

Van Sant makes no effort to explain why this violence erupts. The usuals--feeling of insecurity from bullying, hatred of the popular, violent video games, fixation on guns, the devil, and Hitler--are trotted out, but none of these things are singled out as the reasons why these two boys choose this particular path. Non-judgemental observation is a key element in Van Sant's films, and that's how he approaches the characters in ELEPHANT. It's a wise choice. Viewers don't need to be spoonfed that what the killers are doing is wrong, and there's no mistaking that Van Sant abhors their actions. Where ELEPHANT comes up short, though, is in failing to provide insight for any of this. The deep truths are probably unknowable, but ELEPHANT frustrates in not making any conjectures. Simply, what happens happens. It's an existential perspective that worked for GERRY, a film where the characters are in search of something larger. In ELEPHANT, the message seems to be that bad things happen. While that's true, it isn't exactly news to anyone.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND features another brilliant Charlie Kaufman screenplay. Oh yeah, Michel Gondry's film lives up to it. More at another time...

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