Watts starting to turn up the amps
By GUY DIXON
Globe and Mail
Friday, Sep. 12, 2003
Everything that's colourful about Gus Van Sant is in his movies. The man himself is rangy and middle-aged, with greying hair, a nondescript windbreaker and a hesitant, poking-in-the-dark fashion of answering questions. ''Some directors,'' he says, ''want to be personalities. But I don't.''
Here is the Kentucky-born bard of the high-cattle country and the greasy urban alleys where kids stick themselves. He gave us the mock-heroic poetry of a large-thumbed magic hitchhiker (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), the retelling of Henry IV as lived by juvenile gay prostitutes in Boise (My Own Private Idaho) and the story of a physics genius who'd rather run with a street gang (Good Will Hunting).
These films were up and down in quality, veering from eccentrically independent to neo-commercial, and had no similarity to each other apart from a dogged empathy with the underclass. But they found an audience, and today you can find all of them at Blockbuster video.
It will almost certainly be the same for his latest, Elephant. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this summer, but the critics sucking back coffee at the Toronto International Film Festival are fairly baffled by it. Van Sant strikes again.
The film is a strangely casual portrayal of a day in the life of two high-school students as they gather together firearms and plan an itinerary of walking through their school, slaughtering people.
It's clear we're looking at the Columbine high-school massacre in Littleton, Colo., four years ago. But it is so stripped of dramatic texture -- there isn't even a music track most of the time -- that it feels like accidental footage of kids fantasizing about something they won't actually do. Half the time the camera is glancing over their shoulders or jogging at their feet rather than looking into their faces.
It was the outcome, says Van Sant, of four years agonizing about how to make the movie. He finally decided to leave out the story. "There is no story here. Something else is standing in for it."
He means this in a technical way. To create suspense without a story, for example, he deliberately blurred the time line of the film so that (for example) you see the kids entering the school with their guns and then you see them ordering the guns, an event that must have happened weeks earlier. "I used a puzzle of time to create suspense."
It's also suspenseful that he refuses to gratify the viewer's longing to know the psychology or motivation of the two boys. We see somebody calling one of them a "faggot," but the word seems to be applied to nearly everyone in the school. The girls avoid them but don't make fun of them. Whatever made them do what they're about to do happened somewhere else, outside the film.
"Elephant is a reaction against journalism," says Van Sant. "It doesn't investigate the incident itself. I wanted to get at what's behind it. It's like a Rorschach test. What do you see? What's been left out?' He shows the other kids at school that day, flirting in the photo lab or applying for a job in the school library.
Nothing hints at what will happen to them, which makes their blithe everyday behaviour heartbreaking to watch. The girl applying for the library job is strikingly homely and insecure, and you can't help becoming emotionally involved with her as she summons her courage for the interview. Then, literally as she places her first armload of books on a shelf, she is shot dead. "It's a poem,' says the filmmaker. "A requiem."
Apart from the two leads, the film was cast with amateurs, actual high-school students, who were encouraged to improvise their dialogue. "The kids told their own stories. John, the blond good-looking guy in the photo lab, has a history of alcoholism in his family, and he talks about that. There's another kid whose hobby is really taking pictures of punk rockers in the park, which you see him doing. The three girls really did have an argument over a boyfriend, though they aren't actually bulimic (as shown in the film). But another character was, so I thought it was all right to put that in."
Van Sant's father was a travelling salesman who dragged him around the country as a child, scrabbling until the family was relatively comfortable. Van Sant himself started out aiming for a conventional filmmaking career, but the studio chiefs in L.A. turned up their noses at his story ideas.
While being rejected upstairs, he got interested in the basement of Los Angeles, the drug addicts and rounders of the city's alleys, who showed up in his first feature, Mala Noche, and have never really left. Eric and Alex, the two boys in Elephant, are part of Van Sant's chosen tribe, the shuffling, anomie-stricken kids who walk through a fog where a society should be.
These kids have an ambiguous relationship with the official culture they're supposed to be part of. You see Eric (a stand-in for Dylan Klebold) effortlessly playing the Moonlight Sonata at the piano while his friend Alex riffles through a gun catalogue. It's not so much that these two worlds are in conflict, as that they have flattened out and flowed indiscriminately into each other, losing all significance in the process.
Van Sant mentions a fascination with Shakespeare as a cultural icon, and then unconsciously demonstrates it by recalling the writer several times in relation to Elephant. It doesn't make much sense until the third time, when he says: "Shakespeare invented the psychology of the character, who becomes responsible for his actions, rather than the action happening from outside in a classical sense."
Does this mean that society itself is going backward to the "classic" world of a Roman foot soldier who -- like the kids at Columbine -- lashes out the instant he feels the hot flash of humiliation?
"I think we're at an extreme point in our history," he replies. "The social structure which gives us George W. Bush right now, also propels something like Columbine. It's as if the ideals of the Sixties had been flipped inside out, that we panicked at the idea of treating each other as equals and went back to worshipping heroes. Look at the business magazines with the hero CEOs. Humans like something that's clear-cut."
Van Sant clearly isn't comfortable putting his ideas into words. His hands make short, abrupt moves as if they were holding a camera. And a lengthy disquisition on money as the new religion in America peters out with the conclusion: "That's an old thought . . . you know, I'm not the first thinker of anything. I'm with the group."
What he does possess is an acute understanding of imagery. He comes to life recalling the stage set the Republicans built for one of Bush's Iraq speeches. "The subject of his talk was written out on the podium behind it, spelled out in shapes and forms that were put together by somebody who knew how to deceive."
Deception -- the manipulation of citizens through billboards and TV and the thousand hidden persuaders -- kills the imagination. That's why, says Van Sant, he decided to make a film that would kick start the imagination of anyone who sees it. That's why he left out a conventional story and decided to let the viewer "drift" through the last day at Columbine High. "And in the film we only leave the barest suggestion of what the things are that are floating by. I wanted a film where it gets the imagination of the viewer working."
He is asked whether he is the "un-Michael Moore," a reference to Moore's analytical documentary Bowling at Columbine, "Yeah, I'm not like that. I have no political agenda."
He pauses and looks at the wall. "I don't want to tell people what the answer should be. What I want to the get people to rethink things. I want to elicit something from the viewer. I want to know somebody is thinking back."