Just got back from seeing Elephant

Call me irresponsible, but I/we really liked it. We'll never send our kids to public school now, of course, or let them out of our sight, ever, but we thought it was subtly and extremely well made.

David Edelstein's already written a good review, some of which I can agree with: above all else, this movie is the result of directorial decisions and intentions. His take on the supposedly amoralist or non-judgmental approach to obviously abhorrent teen-on-teen killing is right on: "You need to complete it in your head." I think Van Sant's quite clear in his moral view; the onus gets pushed back onto the people who don't get it, or who need movies to shout at or preach to them.

If there's a feeling of detachment in the movie, it's the shrugging silence which teenagers present to the "outside" or adult world. The obviously amateurish performances: a directorial choice; Van Sant had to know what he was getting, and he wanted it. My wife--a veteran of the high school Shakespeare stage--immediately read this as interpretive, not an attempt at realism.

Elephant still, image: elephantmovie.com

Van Sant chose to combine this artificial dialogue with hard core vÈritÈ framing, the consistent over-the-shoulder camera positioning, which forces the viewer into an uncomfortably intimate spot--if someone were standing that close to me when I was developing film, I'd freak out. Back up, man, personal space. Underneath it all is a decidedly complex, not-vÈritÈ sound design, which heightens the atmosphere and intensity of key scenes. The shy girl (and the audience) barely able to pick words out of gossip in the locker room, for example, but catching just enough to know it's about her and it's bad.

Gerry still, image: viewlondon.co.uk a video game just like it

I've written before (and before that) about seeing Gerry as a video game, and in case you don't believe me, Van Sant drives the point home in Elephant. As the killers loaf around, buying guns online, one plays a first-person-shooter game in which the targets are literally Gerrys: two guys, unarmed, dressed in clothing identical to Casey Affleck and Matt Damon, staggering through a featureless desert.

Elephant still, image: elephantmovie.com and vice versa

The hard, flattened hallways of the high school now read as the CG-levels in Quake. The over-the-shoulder camera reads as a FPS player's perspective. Even more than in Gerry--which, to me, is clearly a companion to Elephant--Van Sant is developing a new cinematic language, one which connects narrative filmmaking to the seemingly-mindless-yet-engrossing experience of video games. I have to say, it's working for me...

[Heads up: Gerry finally comes out on DVD Nov. 11.]

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

comments? questions? tips? pitches? email
greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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first published: November 1, 2003.

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