Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Some Heavy Shit's Going Down.

I brought up Gus Van Sant's 'Death' trilogy when I wrote about Gerry, and after watching it I couldn't get Elephant out of my head, so I rewatched it. (Actually, in the last week and with another coming up, I've done a bit of rewatching recently. I think it's all these 'Best of the 00s' lists coming in thick and strong at the moment - reminding me of what I've loved over the last decade and getting me craving to check them out again. Hold tight, as I'll more than likely rewatch Requiem For A Dream, Mulholland Drive and Dancer In The Dark shortly. They're all top ten of the noughties for me, I reckon.)

Anyway, Elephant would be right up as one of my favs from the last ten years. I didn't know a great deal about it coming into my first viewing back at the beginning of 2004 when it released in Australia, other than that it had won the Palme d'Or that year. And I was suitably gobsmacked by it. It was, and remains, such an amazingly powerful film, so relevant (and it's sad that it is still relevant today, showing a true ongoing tragedy both in youth, schooling and gun control), so beautiful (something its unofficial and much lesser 'remake' of sorts 2:37 tried to match but just couldn't) and so singularly striking in composition, tone and subject.

Elephant centers around a high school, just your average, run-of-the-mill American high school on an average day with nothing special going on, when suddenly 'some heavy shit' does, in fact, go on. John (John Robinson) is taken to his school late by his drunk father, and gets in trouble with the principal. Eli has been off taking photographs, and goes into the lab to develop them. Michelle has just been blasted by her gym teacher for wearing pants in gym instead of shorts like the rest of them. Nathan and Carrie are checking themselves out of school to, presumably, go for a bit of rumpy-pumpy. Jordan, Nicole and Brittany are stuffing themselves on lettuce before they decide they're too full to continue, and must purge. Eric and Alex and walking up to the school with camo uniforms on and bags full of guns. Just a normal day at school.

The film takes places with tremendously long tracking shots following each character or character set individually, watching as they cross over and move into their days. Harris Savides controls the light perfectly, rendering stunning images as the camera moves from inside to outside, room to room, character to character, slo-mo to real-mo. It's truly astonishing work that I can't begin to describe adequately so I'm going to leave it there. the performances from the primarily amateur cast are astonishing, creating characters that you know and understand (because they do entirely work off stereotypes, something entirely necessary when you're dealing with such tragedy and so many people in such a short space of time) in a very short space of time.

Despite the short space of time, Van Sant manages to explore many themes about and directed at youth, many elements troubling them. Michelle is clearly plagued with body image issues. Ditto Jordan, Nicole and Brittany. John is struggling with personal family problems that he doesn't really seem to be able to talk about. And then Eric and Alex - well, none of what you might think apply. Alex plays classical piano. They read. They joke around. Yes, they watch a documentary on Goebbels and the propaganda movement in Nazi Germany, but they also make out in the shower on the day of the shooting. There are no judgement calls here - nothing they do (short of ordering guns online - how is it that they're able to do that? And how can a delivery man just ask a kid to sign for something obviously not ordered by him? - and then shooting them) is really different to what so many kids their age would be doing in their spare time. Van Sant answers no questions - he just shows it how it is.

I think the most moving part of the story for me is the truncated episode starring Benny. He only appears right at the very end as the massacre is under way. We follow him curiously wandering the halls, apparently ignoring the fleeing students around him. He helps a girl out of a window and then keeps exploring, not a word spoken, before he is finally shot. It simply reinforces the horrific randomness of incidents like this. We hadn't seen him before, and he's shot suddenly and without thought. It is true tragedy.

5 stars all round for this film. It's one of those perfect moments of cinema where everything falls into place to create something to effective, which remains effective time after time and years later. Hats off to Van Sant.

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