film feature
December '03


Van Sant's new film makes demand on the audience
by Russ Simmons

His latest film, Elephant, won the Golden Palm, the top prize at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. He received the Best Director prize there, too. Although these are two of the most prestigious awards that a filmmaker can receive, Gus Van Sant wasn’t necessarily in a celebratory mood when he agreed to chat with eKC at the recent Toronto Film Festival.

Elephant is a controversial, experimental work that dares to present a look at a violent, Columbine-style event without imposing a moral or making any suppositions as to the cause of the violence. (Indeed, Van Sant implies the unthinkable…that there is no explanation.) Many in Toronto did not receive Van Sant’s detached approach to the material warmly. In fact, some suggested that it might inspire copycats. The edgy filmmaker was having none of it.

Producer Danny Wolf and director Gus Van Sant from Elephant.

“It can also work to prevent copycat killings,” Van Sant protested, “and it can work to prevent the kind of tragedy that it was. It’s trying hard not to give ideas. It’s not trying to be inspirational in the sense that it gives you the idea to do something like that. If kids don’t already know the details of Columbine, then they’re not going to find it in this film.”

Van Sant, attempting to stretch the limits of the medium, frets that too many people see dramatic filmmaking in narrow terms.

“(Some) people consider a film entertainment and not reporting, which I’m not really sure I agree with,” Van Sant asserted. “I think that film can have a hand in illuminating an event like Columbine without promoting it.”

Van Sant, the maker of mainstream Hollywood films like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, also has made well-received independent fare like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and the cinema verite offering, Gerry. Elephant is more like the latter, structured in a non-linear style with dialogue improvised by a largely amateur cast.

The plot of Elephant revolves around several characters at a Portland high school on a “typical” school day. The title is derived from the ancient fable about the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man feels a portion of the creature and, from his perspective, perceives something different. Van Sant filmed the story in a similar manner, shooting a select series of scenes numerous times from the differing perspectives of several students.

“We were trying to get around a linear, more traditional story because, with a traditional story, you need more traditional protagonists or antagonists in a way that is less passive, character-wise,” Van Sant explained. “The notion of having a psychological description of your lead character that drives the story and affects the action within the story…is a particular style of storytelling that, I’ve read, was developed by Shakespeare. We’re trying to get away from that model and back into something where it is less proactive — the characterizations. We’re trying to make people back into models you’re watching rather than ego-driven lead characters that you’re attached to and you’re assuming. It’s more about the audience watching it than the audience becoming one of the characters.”

This approach of detachment demands more of the audience than most film fare, which, according to Van Sant, makes people uncomfortable.

“The other part is the puzzle-like quality of the same time being re-viewed. That was standing in for a different type of story. It is a puzzle that keeps you attached to the visual information rather than a device within the story.”

All of this may sound like artsy mumbo-jumbo, especially to those who want a film to have a specific point of view and give distinct reasons for why the events occur. To Van Sant, things aren’t that simple.

“I think Elephant is meant to be an investigation into your own ideas of what exactly contributed to the factors that would allow (Columbine) to happen. You can get a lot farther by not having me tell you my one, perhaps bogus, reason why I think this happened. It’s a lot better to have you guys as audience members go through the millions of reasons why you think this happened…rather than have me wasting time by saying, ‘You know what, (it’s) rap music.’ (If you’re) just getting into one issue and beating rap music to death, then you’ll finally have the audience say, ‘You know what, I don’t think it’s rap music.’ Then it’s all over. They didn’t get to think of anything else. Elephant is really trying to work as a mechanism to help the audience drift into their own ideas of what can cause such violence.”

Seemingly unafraid of the consequences and willing to stick with his unique vision, Van Sant believes that Elephant is doing something positive.

“Film is right up there with anything else as being able to promote social change. A lot of people think that film is the main promoter of social change.”

From Van Sant’s point of view, he’s only presented the problem.

“The social change,” Van Sant asserts, “would be to do something about it.”



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