🎬 #34 The Horror Of Emptiness.
Neither of the following films are ‘horror.’ They capture an indifferent world, neither good or evil. It just exists and it’s what we do in it that matters. One is about the physical struggle of humans in an environment they’re not used to, another is about the struggles of teenagers trying to fit into the world they don’t understand. Both are by Gus Van Sant. A filmmaker who happily flits from major Hollywood projects to small, almost experimental ones regularly and who seems to make no distinction between them.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: ELEPHANT
2003 Dir Gus Van Sant
Ostensibly a film loosely based on the Colombine Massacre that occurred a few years previously, Van Sant cooly follows and documents the characters as they move through their day and go about their business, without making any directorial comment on the actions. You can see why it was rumoured he originally wanted to make a documentary on the subject, this is as close to documentary narrative filmmaking can get. Van Sant and his crew employed first time actors and minimal staging and set-ups. Evidenced by the fact the film contains only 88 shots - the average film usually contains over a thousand. Dialogue is improvised and clipped, not timed perfectly, or trimmed to create snappy comebacks and musicality - this is how people speak- bare and true.
There is a literal ‘observational’ feel created by the lack of editing, allowing scenes to play out by simply ‘hanging back’ to see what happens. The emptiness that creates is quickly filled with dread, because as an audience, we know exactly what’s coming.
It’s the blankness of the every day that emphasises the violence of the act. The contrast of the stillness and the normality with something so abnormal that creates such a lasting impact. Even when the shooters don their clothes and weapons, the image of them outside the school, walking in, is approached without drama or spectacle, again his camera just observes the action. The only thing jarring is their outfits and what they carry in their hands. Harris Savides’ dislocated steadicam camera remains indifferent and without comment.
In fact, the film’s palette, setting and main location’s cleanliness lend it a ‘model’ like feeling - as if this is a knowing representation of reality. Trying to get close to the truth of a boring, normal April afternoon. Because the real horror here is that there is no warning you can see, no musical cue to alert you to action, these things just… happen.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 21 mins of my precious life watching this? Indulge in Van Sant’s Palm D’or winning tonal piece that doesn’t probe but simply observes what it might be like to be to be part of such a tragic story.
*Available for free here: https://archive.org/details/elephant.-2003 [it may take a while to load]
Fact: Both the title and approach where inspired by a BBC TV drama about the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland by Alan Clarke.
FILM TWO: GERRY
2002 Dir Gus Van Sant
If Elephant is Van Sant’s vision of what Colombine may have been, Gerry is his interpretation of the real story of a lost hiker and his friend. It was Matt Damon who drew his attention to the real event, but Van Sant decided not to use anything but the ‘premise.’ He wasn’t interested in telling the real story, he wanted him and his team to tell their own.
Gerry is the first in a series of films by Van Sant known as the Death Series. The series includes Elephant and concludes with Last Days. They’re all inspired by or based on real events. Gerry again, is an observed document, in a way, of the actions of two men both called Gerry. In that sense it’s maybe more allegorical than Elephant but still it works as a film of pure action. By that I mean not wall to wall action, but a film that, when taken at face value, is a story of two lost men struggling to cope with their physical environment.
You can see this film as the genesis of the approach he would adopt in Elephant and again use for Last Days. The camera remaining non-judgemental - simply being there to observe the action that takes place in front of it. He’s talked about being inspired by the game Tomb Raider, where the third person camera captures everything that would normally be cut out of story. Just seeing the world as it really is - and the effects of it on people who find themselves unprepared for its nature.
Harris Savides captures the locations with a beautiful monotony, we’re forced to be with the characters as they walk through their desert environment - the toll it takes on them reflected in the toll the silence, pierced by repetitive shuffling foley, has on us as an audience.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 33 mins of my precious life watching this? Sit back and observe Van Sant’s experiment in non-narrative cinema, relax enough into it and you might just enjoy this meditation on being lost in the world, like you might enjoy staring at a Turner painting.
*Available to rent for a small fee on Amazon and Apple TV.
Fact: There was no formally written script, only an outline that gave the actors and filmmakers room to improvise and form as they went along.
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