It seems as though Gus Van Sant makes his movies in pairs. At the beginning of his career, we had Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, both gritty independent productions that dealt with teens living on the street. Six years ago, we had Good Will Hunting followed by Finding Forrester.
These more conventional, Hollywood films both followed young, brilliant but troubled minds. Now Van Sant has gone back to independent cinema with Gerry and most recently Elephant. With Elephant, Van Sant has returned to the improvisational and loose but beautiful style of filmmaking, which he explored in Gerry to create an intense and compelling film.
Elephant follows the interconnecting lives of several high school students on a seemingly typical day. The format is non-linear, as the audience often doubles back to see situations from an alternate point of view. To create a strong sense of realism, Van Sant employs many techniques developed by the Italian neo-realists. These includes the use of non-professional actors, natural lighting, location filming, subtle use of music, extremely long takes, addressing social issues, an open ending, and for the most part, very mundane events and characters. Many of these techniques combined with constant camera movement also lend the film the feeling of observational documentaries made by filmmakers such as Frederic Wiseman (whom Van Sant did identify as having a large influence on how Elephant was shot).
Although this film is a portrait of the diverse experiences students may have in high school, very little of it occurs in the classroom. As we all know, high school is not about what takes place in the classroom, it’s about the interactions in the hallway, library, or cafeteria. This film doesn’t homogenize or categorize students, but presents them as individuals by letting the viewer walk among them for a day.
This beautifully shot film is a sensitive and tender look at high school violence. If for no other reason, see it for the unique experience that it is. Elephant will most likely be one of the most talked about films in recent history for its merit in both form and content. Although it is slowly paced, the film never loses interest.
When it’s all over, you may ask yourself “but what does it all mean?” To this, Van Sant has replied, “We didn’t want to explain anything. As soon as you explain one thing, there are five other possibilities that are somehow negated because you explained it in one way. There was also the issue of finding an explanation for something that doesn’t necessarily have an explanation.” At Cannes this year, Elephant was awarded the Palme D’Or and Van Sant received Best Director.
Playing at Cinema Du Parc Nov. 7 to Dec. 4