Friday, July 24, 2015
JEFF OF THE CINEFILES & UNFINISHED BUSINESS : HALL OF FAME: FILE #40: ELEPHANT (2003)
Written, Edited & Directed By: Gus Van Sant
Cinematography By: Harris Savides
Cast: Alex Frost, John Robinson, Timothy Bottoms, Matt Malloy
A day in the lives of a group of average teenage high school students. The film follows every character and shows their daily routines. However two of the students plan to do something that the student body won't forget.
Based on Columbine and other school Shootings of the time
Based on a short story written by friend of Gus Van Sant and fellow writer/director Harmony Korine.
Much of the film was improvised.
The original script draft was written by Laura Albert.
It seems more experimental and a interpretation rather than story driven.
Gus Van Sant has always managed to not only make experimental film, but also well shot, smart studio films. Here he took on a current event and offers a meditation on it. He doesn't offer any answers or any real insight, but offers suggestions while he doesn't majorly focus on the killers though they are characters. Instead the film is more of an ensemble piece focusing on many characters throughout the fateful day.
The film even flashes back to flesh out the characters and some of their arcs. The film stays in the mundane activities of their lives, but has a sense of dread as you know what is coming.
I give the film credit as it is never heavy handed nor gratuitous. The film focuses on characters you hope will play some kind of role in the proceedings. Be saviors or something like that, unfortunately most end up as victims. It also let's the tragedy and victims have a human face as once they become victims, it hits harder and really makes you emotional. They are not random and faceless like in some action film.
The film is never exploitive though as we watch the massacre the killers act more like it is a video game and though you know the outcome. The film still manages to shock you here and there.
The whole film while it flows and really captures normal teenage day to day life still manages to have a never ending tension. That is never revealed it's never manipulative with soundtrack cues or script. It comes off natural.
I'm glad most of the films cast are non professionals as it gives the film the realism It deserves. To make a deeper impression. The cinematography is breathtaking as with half the shots you try to figure put the logistics of how they managed to get them.
To tell you the truth unusually skip these ripped from the headlines films unless they are documentaries. As I usually wait for DVD and time to pass before I can take the subject and films on. I never see these films in theaters as I know my emotions will get the better of me. This film is special to me as I believe it is Gus van Aant's masterpiece. I can see others likening it, but for some reason I can't explain. it really Touched me and I find the film admirable.
At one point Alex and Eric watch a documentary about Hitler on TV. The Columbine High School massacre, upon which this film is based, occurred on April 20th 1999, the 110th anniversary of the birth of Adolf Hitler.
Gus Van Sant's DRUGSTORE COWBOY was the first independent film that I remember being praised and I really sought it out once it came onto video. It was easy as the title seemed strange but cool. As I watched the film right after finishing THE MIGHTY DUCKS. Yes it was a Double home video feature on a Friday night which was the norm for me in high school and jr. High school unless i actually went to the theater and saw a movie. With drugstore cowboy it was one of the first times I really paid attention to a film and all of it's details, really opening my eyes that I was fully aware of what I was watching and why I loved it. (sort of like falling in love completely with a person) It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of storytelling and to the world of independent cinema. I'm sure eventually i would have discovered, but him and his films were the gateway drug to my addiction drug to my official addiction and eventual passion at the beginning of a noted era in film GAS FOOD LODGING quickly followed.
Which all makes sense as I watched and worshipped films all through my youth often using them to guide what I wanted to do when I grew up. That eventually reached a peak in high school with the films GOODFELLAS and PULP FICTION. Both of which made me realize I wanted to be involved in films in some way. Even of just to affect audiences or individuals as much as those films did to me.
This is the type of film that made me remember why I love film and why I want to make it so much. This would be the type of film I would aspire to make.
When we see Alex and Eric sleeping, we can see the cover of the book Eric has been reading: US Army Technical Manual #31-201-1, which covers the making and use of Incendiary devices.
This film is heavily influenced by the Alan Clarke TV drama from 1989 of the same name Elephant. Both films chronicle senseless killings and contain many long and wandering takes of its main characters.
Gus Van Sant borrowed the title from Alan Clarke's film of the same name, and thought that it referred to the Chinese proverb about five blind men who were each led to a different part of an elephant. Each man thinks that it is a different thing. What Clarke's title actually referred to was the idea of the "elephant in the room", where something is so obvious that to miss it would be the equivalent of not seeing a huge elephant in an ordinary room, yet is still not recognized out of either stupidity or willful ignorance. In this film, the "elephant in the room" is the homicidal rage of Alex and Eric, which leaves them free to precipitate the last-scene massacre at their school.
Van Sant has used his type of filmmaking quite a few times with films like GERRY and LAST DAYS even PUNISHMENT PARK. None of them made the impression on me as much as this film. The others seemed more pretentious and not as interesting or centered. This one seemed more heartfelt. Though it might also be because those other films were solitary, where as this film feels full.
This film, GERRY and LAST DAYS form Gus Van Sant 's "Death Trilogy", which he edited himself. This film centers on death at the hands of a stranger.
The films comes across as unflinching and more cerebral. even though it seems a bit abstract. It manages to make you feel something even if you don't always understand. That is a quality i admire about the film. rather then following a narrative and then proven wrong or giving a personal opinion. the film is left open more to interpretation. It remind sme a bit of a modern Kubrick-esque film in style and content. Saying something, but also leaving it open to interpretation
There are approximately 88 shots in this film. More than half of those shots are in the last twenty minutes of the film.
Most of the shots in the movie are very long and Steadicam-based. The shot of the three girls walking through the cafeteria is 5 minutes and 19 seconds long.
The film feels more like a presentation or an offering of art like a non musical opera. While it functions as a film it feels like something more then that it's unique, different and special.
Home library addition. Surprised it's not on criterion.