American Film Criticism
Harvard University

Elvis Mitchell
VES 173X
Spring 2005

Moving Towards Stillness
Michele Macrakis

Elvis Mitchell invited cinematographer Harris Savides to Harvard to participate in our viewing of Elephant. 
Our assignment : A  feature length review-essay of Gus van Sant's Elephant (2003)  for a major news and arts magazine such as The New Yorker, Harpers or The Atlantic.


Elephant is a conceptual film by Gus Van Sant with a strong visual and aural style. Inspired by the Columbine Massacre in Littleton, Colorado, 1999, influenced by the snapshot aesthetic of Southern photographer William Eggleston  ( Eggleston's Guide 1976 )  Alan Clarke's hard-core documentary Elephant 1989   (included in the French DVD), Wisemans High School (1969) and the camerawork of Bela Tarr.
This film has a fresh new vision all its own.
American Director Van Sant succeeds in portraying the emptiness, boredom and solitude of Suburban High School life in an subtle, understated way.   It is not a sensationalist investigative report like Michael Moore's  Bowling for Columbine or a film with a strong narrative structure like Donnie Darko (Kelly,US, 2001)  or Chumscrubber (Posin,US, 2005) ( other films exploring the darkness beneath the sunny tree-lined streets of suburbia )  but reveals everyday life through the fluid, objective lens of Cinematographer Harris Savides in a direct image of time.
Shot with a brightness and graphic simplicity that could be introduced as evidence in court. There are no kids in therapy or on drugs; no six foot rabbits or chumscrubbers influencing them to become rebels and commit crimes;  no technical problems like first time director Posin..
They walk, play Beethoven, take pictures, walk, gossip in the cafeteria, play football, shoot, even go to class.
Director of Photography Savides maintains a respectful distance in his close-ups, ( often tracking the walking students/models from behind or in profile ) and mysterious depth in the long takes .  Showing affection and a perception for his subjects.
Much in the way James Agee and Walker Evans went to the South to photograph Tenant Farmers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men the crew of Elephant document social problems in a typical American High School.
Here, Van Sant found a recently closed high school renamed it Watt High and filled it up with real live high school students, improvising from there into a free build up of tableaux vivants.

Visual Style and Story

The film opens with a Steiglitzian cloud equivalence with a telephone pole and then follows a white Mercedes down a trellised street in a scene reminiscent of a drivers ed instructional video. An opening shot typical of the director of photography's camerawork; in   The Yards, Birth and Gerry.  A long traveling plan.
The car bumps into another parked car. A teenager with a shock of yellow hair and yellow T- Shirt with a bull imprinted on it jumps out and orders his drunk dad (Timothy Bottoms) out of the car.  John, with his rosy cheeks and red lips helps set the smooth and stylish feel to the piece.  Later we see him posing for the lanky student photographer, Elias, who also moves through his world with ease, traveling down the corridors with his camera . We'll see this one scene again. Three times and from three different angles, in one of the most intriguing affects in the film. The third time, time is reversed and you start to feel that something is going to go wrong. The gliding, slow flow rhythm of the film is romantic somewhat reminiscent of the films of Max Ophüls only here and in Caught (1949)  an American production , the lingering camera brings out the performances rather than distracting us with dashing, swirling, tracking camerawork like in the Earrings of Madame de (1953)  where the camera moves so fast that we hardly can follow the story or the performances but are fascinated by going up and down stairs, looking through windows....
The camera then shows you the football playing field, we hear Beethoven in the background, a day in the life of teen-age America.  Michelle, the shy, self-conscious girl who won't wear shorts, chest caved in and spectacled, cuts across the playing field. ( In Wisemans High School (1969)  it's the teacher that tells the girls to wear long pants, here it's the other way around. The gym teacher tells her she has to wear shorts ! )  We see Jordon hoofing it down the infamous corridors of Watt High School with his red and white lifeguard's T-shirt followed from behind by Savides tracking camera.  "He's so cute" say's one of the three girls huddled, gossiping in the corridor.  We are starting to get to know the student/models at this mock High School in Portland, Oregon.  Each one of them has a placard introducing them like name cards set at a dinner table. Brittany, Nicole and Jordan.  John and Elias.  Michelle played by Kristen is the library assistant and Alex and Eric, the shooters.  African-American Benny has a place at the table.
Along with the names I would have liked to see Elias  photos in a black and white freeze frame.  With its long takes, fluid travelling shots, and crystal clarity the film feels like a still moving image, a cool hyper-reality.   Savides camera is apathetic, he doesn't care .
Could be one of the killers. Eric goes to a physics class and the other kids throw spit balls at him. He looks angry .  Other people are rubbing him the wrong way.  Maybe someone ignored him.
Michelle has to endure other girls at the locker room gossiping about her. Her teachers reading her personal email in class.  The camera takes stock.  Elias glides down long corridors, through the school to the darkroom where we see a close-up of him developing film in a metal canister for a full minute, rocking it back and forth, slowly, for the required 30 seconds and then tapping it on the counter. ( You know it's not real life but a movie because it would have taken 10-15 minutes to really develop, stop and fix his film, as though you were watching time develop.)  The eye is on the metal developing can for over a minute. This is where you start to feel like a bomb is about to explode.  Meanwhile, Eric is preparing his plan. Time starts to repeat and reverse itself.  Something is going wrong. "What plan ?" asks another student. "Just my plan." We don't know what he is up to until we see him and Alex purchasing guns over the Internet, as they play computer games ( shooting at Ben Affleck and Matt Damon from Gerry, (2002)   a previous Van Sant movie )  and Beethoven's "Für Elise" on the piano in one of the most beautiful and evocative scenes of the movie;  Savides signature French clouds ominously, slowly,  flow across the sky,  passing through every atmospheric nuance. Blue clouds, not grey because the film is in colour.  Then comes the shower scene; the two boys kiss.  A black and white documentary on Hitler plays on the TV, we hear that Hitler hates intellectuals.
Michelle is the first to get killed.
They pack their bags and head off to school dressed in black army fatigues and carrying duffles and weapons . Alex says "Most importantly, have fun" and  as the camera swirls around him in the hallway I wonder if he is dizzy with excitement as he goes on his killing spree.
They enter the library;  geeky Michelle in her red sweater is the first to get shot.  Later we see Benny (many have called him the hero)  walking through flaming, orange corridors, helping a stunned girl escape out the window. Almost saving the day with his warmth, like Russell Crowe in Jocelyn Moore's Proof, in an otherwise cold conceptual piece. But he gets shot.  The final scene of the movie in the cafeteria refrigerator, hanging with meat carcasses, starts to resemble an autopsy room and it is this image of a student gunman in black that will remain frozen in our memory.  Evil entering, our clinical and clean spaces;  According to Hitchcock killing can not happen anywhere else.

Sound Design

The movie's visuals are matched by Leslie Shatz's subtlety expressive sound design, mixing Beethoven's classical piano (Moonlight Sonata in C sharp minor)  Ambient noise, musique concrète ( a mix of electronica and natural sounds) and ecological sound from Hildegard Westerkamp "Türen der Wahrnehmung" Supernal Infinite Space (Kawabata) Waikiki Easy Meat (Mano) .  
Why do I feel like I'm on a ship that is about to sink, as Eli walks and walks through the hallways to the darkroom .    Music from a cruise ship ?   
Chopins Funeral March might have been more appropriate.

What the Critics wrote

So, on October 10, 2003, when Van Sant's Elephant opened at the New York Film Festival, nobody was exactly sure what they were watching.  It wasn't a documentary without characters or narrative like Alan Clarke's drama.  It wasn't a teen's fantasy life like Donnie Darko but had a spare and unconventional  ( for Hollywood , not artists )  style that divided critics and viewers alike.
For Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times including the spectator in the film and the film in the mental image made it into a haute horror film, and he says : "By making the camera an observer, we get a perspective that often comes out of horror movies, a choice that whips the ordinary with the terrifying, an unforgettable mix."   Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, in Spirituality and Health     see " pain, loneliness, anger, irresponsibility, cruelty, self-disgust, and violence everywhere."  
" Rarely do form and content add up with such harmonious grace and power." says the Los Angeles Times . The New York Film critics agreed : A Best Cinematography award. Two more nominations.  A Palme d'Or at Cannes and Best Director. 
Some people saw the original Elephant Clarke film and Van Sants earlier work as authentic masterpieces and this Elephant as trite.  The very beauty of the directors work used against him and regarded as a lack of substance.  
For me, removing the situation from the real world of ugliness and vulgarity,  distills the essence of the experience, and turns it into art.


Towards a Non-linguistically based Cinema

The problem with Chumscrubber and Donnie Darko is that they are linguistically encoded rather than relying on the language of cinema; kinetics, the infinity of images and their rhythm .  They ignore what is distinctive about the movies ;   time, space, kinetics, the infinity of images and their rhythm.
Being.
Elephant works because it is a succession of open events rather than being based on a literary narrative like Chumscrubber and Donnie Darko.
Becoming.

Mirror-Memory Image

This is one of those films that reminds you of your self walking through sprawling slabs of concrete, developing your portfolio for art school,  working in the library,  dreaming in Physics class.  
Little did I know when I was watching the film at Harvard's Carpenter Center that Gus Van Sant went to my Alma Mater ;  Rhode Island School of Design and perhaps, that is why I felt, that this was a movie I might have made myself.  Sister souls with the director.    
 A mirror-image of myself and of my own experiences as an outsider, during my two years, at Belmont High School in Belmont, Massachusetts and as maker of very fine, high quality, large format still colour photography at RISD.

Virtual Cinema
(more coming here)

and So,  this optical and sound situation becomes an image, but instead of becoming an action image, it becomes virtual like the image of Gerry in Elephant : A simulation or computer game. Virtual reality.
Working,  well, on the computer monitor, as well as, on the big screen.

For lovers of Fine Art photography;  moving or still.
An experience that you will remember, everytime you go into a  public space, and wonder who the next gunman will be.

               I pray to Ganesh: Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles.
                            God of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth.
                      Son of Shiva and Parvati, with an elephantine countenance ,
                          curved trunk and big ears, and a huge potbellied body.

                                      please send comments to: Michele Macrakis