Saturday, January 5, 2013

ELEPHANT (Gus Van Sant, 2003, USA)

Alex is an elementary particle, a charged electron unable to diffuse his energy, orbiting the periphery of his social circle. But charged by what? Director Gus Van Sant takes us on a journey inside of a high school on the morning of a massacre. He allows us to become voyeur into the lives of victims and perpetrators in this too brief span of time, but he does not travel inside of the mind, into that nebulous territory of fiction and fantasy to offer any easy answer or trite solution.
The title of the film has multiple implications. The director has stated that he believed it to stand as a metaphor concerning blind men each touching part of a whole and coming to different conclusions. But Art can be interpreted many ways also, even apart from the creator’s conscious intentions. I choose to read the film quite differently: that’s the prerogative of the consumer. I don’t pretend this is right or wrong only that I experience the film’s depth is illusory. ELEPHANT seems clear and shallow but it refracts light and meaning and is much deeper than it seems.
So what is the elephant in the room, the obvious truth that is never addressed or acknowledged? Gus Van Sant has some ideas and he offers them in very subtle and creative ways for us to consider. Does the fault lie with video game violence? Or is it easy access to assault weapons? The blame game as depicted in the film can also include bullying, mental illness, distant and uncaring parents, fascination with fascism, sexual repression…even Beethoven. My thesis involves an interpretation of the film in that Van Sant recognizes these influences but focuses directly upon the elephant in the room: the solipsistic perpetrators Eric and Alex.
I find the original poster artwork contains some very interesting details. The simple design of the poster (see above) is a white background with a small window box where John (not one of the victims) is being consoled by a friend with a kind kiss on the cheek. But this photo is dominated by a giant orange elephant, one that is too obvious to be ignored. This metaphor at first blush may seem to apply to the characters represented in the photo but watching the film dispels this idea. So what does the orange elephant refer to beyond its idiom? I believe it’s a veiled reference to Anthony Burgess’ novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, where the sociopathic killer shares the same name and appreciation of Lovely Ludwig Van as this film’s adversary. So a careful reading of this design points directly to Alex as literally the elephant. Not coincidently, there are only two elephant motifs in the entire film and both are contained within Alex’s bedroom: one is a black and white sketch upon his wall and the other is a blanket upon his bed. A subdued 360 degree pan reveals this information as Alex plays Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata while Eric lounges on the bed. Again, Van Sant pulls focus into this particular environment inhabited by the two perpetrators, this haven of respite from the rest of their world. Here they hang out, play a violent video game, and surf the internet for information on assault weapons.
The video game that Eric and Alex play is not a “game” at all; it is not a challenge. It is shadowy avatars haunting a white landscape in a static perspective. This can easily be read as a program created by these obviously bright kids in order to act out there fantasy. If so, then all cause and effect concerning this thesis (video game violence) is thrown out the window. Now, the video game becomes a safety valve that no longer fulfills its original purpose and the desire to act out physically and indiscriminately dominates. If we blame one element (and Van Sant offers us many disparate ones) then we can easily blame Beethoven whom Alex plays rather eloquently immediately before the school shooting. Or we can lay blame at sexual repression since the two boys each receive their first kiss (from each other) before embarking on their violent sojourn. The power of the narrative is that the obvious first cause is the one often overlooked because the issue becomes political instead of human.
Van Sant takes time to portray the complex social hierarchies and problems facing the other adolescents. The film begins with John’s drunken father driving him to school. His father is so drunk that John makes him get out of the car. After a brief argument, John drives them both to school (the child usurping authority) and gets punished by the Principal for being late (authority unfairly taking control). John shows very adult level decision making in taking the keys and calling his older brother to come get their father, and even as he reports to the Principal’s office for detention he doesn’t bicker and throw a tantrum: he accepts his fate with dignity. But in a later scene we see him cry alone in a room and he is consoled by a friend with a gentle kiss upon the cheek (see poster above). It is a truly lovely and heartbreaking scene. Van Sant then introduces us to Michelle, an invisible girl (even to herself) who is withdrawn and introverted, on the outside of the social structure. Her hunchbacked body language shows very little self-esteem, a girl who fears the whispers and ridicules of her peers so she doesn’t even wear shorts to gym class. We also meet a Goth couple early in the film that seems happy and well adjusted, agreeing to have their picture taken. They contradict the introverted and passive aggressive cliché often presented by the media. Even Elias the aspiring photographer is grounded by his parents (he can’t go to the concert) but accepts this punishment though not without a wisecrack. Though these teenagers each have situations that are awful (both subjectively and objectively), they don’t seem inclined to go on a murder spree or seek revenge.
We briefly see Alex in the back of a classroom being pegged with wet paper thrown by obvious “Jocks”. He then cleans himself off in front of a cracked mirror. The science teacher is lecturing on outer electrons and their increased charge but he never does answer the question as to whether a charged electron diffuses its energy or just remains volatile forever. This is another clue to the film’s thesis in that Alex (and by extension his friend Eric, whom we only know in relation to Alex) is already cracked and charged, that something inherent is wrong with him. The CLOCKWORK ORANGE analogy works here if we consider the novel (Kubrick subverted the metaphor and his film is contrary to the author’s intent) in that bad kids are born, they just are, regardless of environment or upbringing. Both Alex characters are crazy as a clockwork orange, so to speak. It begs the questions: If other kids are picked on, if other kids have very real and seemingly insolvable conundrums, if other kids are exposed to the same environment as Alex, why aren’t they killing or show desire to kill? The obvious answer is this: they’re not born to kill.
Van Sant begins the film with a clear sky that gradually becomes darker. Storm clouds brew on the horizon then take over later in the narrative, just before the killing. Van Sant uses one rather mundane scene to pivot the entire narrative upon so we can grasp perspectives and timeline. We see Elias photograph John in the hallway from three different perspectives (John, Elias and Michelle) which allow us to organize the events in our minds. This technique also allows the audience intimacy with all of the characters, following them languidly through the morning and lunch until the violent denouement. This is very important because when they are murdered we experience this as a tragedy, as real children being gunned down, not cinematic mannequins without pain or consciousness.
The film’s point of view is quite unique and apparently deliberate. Van Sant quite purposely uses a video game composition as statement to the narrative. The camera often begins by following slightly behind the characters as they go about their morning activities, then slowly wraps around to front or profile angles. For those of us who play computer or console games, we immediately recognize this perspective. But this skewed angle which seems unnatural but necessary in video games (in a virtual world, when you can’t turn your head without turning your whole body, or look down at your feet, this omniscient angle becomes valuable) and often creates a sense of distance from the gameplay, here does the opposite. The fluid camera develops an intimacy and sense of immediacy and kinship with the characters as if we the audience are sharing in the story. This faux context seems to draw a parallel concerning the fact that video games may not be as immersive (thus, as psychologically damaging) as feature films. Could Van Sant be pointing an accusing finger at the very medium he utilizes to understand this temporal phenomena?  
Van Sant portrays the carnage in a casually realistic manner and shows very little blood or gore, which condemns the violence instead of accentuating it. ELEPHANT therefore becomes an anti-action film. Michelle is the first victim (one who “deserves” it the least?) and we see her insides spattered upon the library books. Then the camera swoops in for tight focus upon Alex and we see only background shapes like video game avatars, some holding up their hands, other running (or trying to) and getting gunned down. The sound doesn’t oversaturate the film, the gunshots sound real and not overly punctuated like in action movies…or video games. The crying and begging have no effect upon Alex and Eric, who seem perplexed that their bombs didn’t go off, so on to plan B. Their attitude is indifferent, without haste or pleasure or pain they just go about their duty. Eric even pins the Principal down at gunpoint, lets him escape then shoots him in the back for some perceived wrongdoing. Then later, Alex shoots his accomplice as Eric is about to tell him how many people he shot. It’s important to note that their killing is indiscriminate because they are not seeking revenge: they are after something more. The need is to make a statement, to be something bigger than them, the desire to commit an act so despicable that it will bring them attention. In other words, to be Alex the Large.
The film ends as Alex corners the popular jock Nathan (one who threw the paper) and his cheerleader girlfriend Carrie as they hide in the freezer. Here Alex considers them with the same lack of empathy as he would a hunk of beef slung on a hook, and sadistically recites eeny-meeny-miny-mo to decide which one lives. We are never given an answer if one or both escape or die. Van Sant has shown us enough and suddenly fades out to a stormy sky. But the sky begins to clear and the sun peeks through the thunderheads. There is daylight after the storm. Nothing lasts forever, even tragedy.
Van Sant offers us a film whose answer is that there is no definitive answer. Eric and Alex are obviously to blame. To seek beneath the veneer of human motivation is to find only lies, misinformation and confusion. That’s why criminal prosecution never has to prove motive, only intent. We may never know why. We can only know whom…
Final Grade: (A+)