Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Bit of a long and pompous review here I'm afraid, but that's the way it goes...

Elephant, directed by Gus Van Sant

Hailed, so I'm led to believe, as a 'return to form' for Van Sant after the ridiculous Psycho remake, various other fooling around and a few forgettable feel-good pictures, Elephant is a film that takes a good bit of pondering to really get an angle on..

As you may or may not be aware, Elephant is essentially a fictionalised reconstruction of the events surrounding the Columbine high school shootings. Although the school is never referred to by name in the film, and garish 'based on a true story!' proclamations are avoided, the events portrayed, right down to characters' names and fates, seem almost obsessively factual.

The first two thirds of the film uses a narrative technique similar to that of both Slacker and Kids , both defining moments in the same 80s-90s US indie cinema world that Van Sant emerged from, oddly enough. (Although the lo-fi realism of both of those films couldn't be more distant from the slick, high definition aesthetic adopted by Elephant, including, I'm afraid to say, that same old drained colour look that's gonna be 'oh-so-turn-of-the-century' in a few decades.) So basically, Elephant goes about building a picture of life at the school in the hours leading up to violence by focusing on one character for a while until the camera wonders off and begins following somebody else etc., until the moment at which the killers are observed entering the school gates, at which point the film rewinds and gives us a different perspective on the same period of time. This happens several times over, and characters wander in and out of each other's narratives as their activities and movements around the school are built up layer by layer, meaning that by the time the film stops hitting rewind and the inevitable bloodshed commences, an almost architectural picture has been built up of who's where, doing what. The result is, in purely technical terms, absolutely stunning. As a tour-de-force piece of carefully crafted film-making, the way characters are introduced and their personalities and relationships to each other developed whilst never betraying the naturalism of their actions or the off-screen geometry of their geographical placement, it is truly something to behold. It's the kind of self consciously impressive structural cleverness you'd expect from Welles or Hitchcock, to throw out two stupidly obvious comparisons.

And as to the stuff actually going on within this structure... well, the cast all turn in excellent performances, although it has to be said that their universal good looks detract somewhat from the film's attempts at realism. At times Van Sant seems determined to avoid the inevitable stereotyping that goes with the high school subject matter - there are no obvious jocks and nerds and so on and most of the characters are allowed an identity independent of easily defined stereotypes. At other times though he seems to sabotage his own efforts by indulging in some of the lowest of teen movie cliches, most notably when three popular and fashion-conscious girls meet up in the toilets to simultaneously sick up their lunches. It’s the kind of thing that would be obvious gag fodder for any number of dire teen movie spoofs and here it just comes across as hackneyed, distasteful and completely out of place. I mean, what's Van Sant trying to say here? Is it just a lazy attempt to shock - if so it's about fifteen years out of date - or has he become naive enough to think that "hey, pretty teenage girls are bulimic!" is, like, a real slice of ugly reality to make those stuck up middle classes choke on their popcorn? Presumably he was too busy watching Psycho over again when that particular theme was being absolutely run into the ground by the last decade or so's pop culture.

But, of course, it's impossible to watch or discuss this film like a straightforward teen soap opera, because of course, we're all aware of what's coming, and the future events overshadow the film like a monolithic storm cloud, hanging over the various miniature dramas and everyday life snapshots that develop, and investing them with an inescapable sense of unease, heightened by the singularly cold atmosphere created by the cinematography (very heavy on the blues, whites and yellows) and the quiet understated performances. This invests the early parts of the film with a sense of distance and emotional vacuum reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides - you feel like the events of the film should be generating some kind of connection or emotion, and yet you don't feel anything, and the resulting emptiness is disturbing in a whole new way.

That lack of emotion quickly disappears though once the shooting starts. As you might expect, the final section of the film draws heavily on the chilling firsthand accounts and security camera footage from Columbine, and reconstructed via the lens of a masterful filmmaking team it's almost unbearable to watch as the camera accompanies the killers, and characters who you've grown accustomed to over the course of the film, just like you'd grow accustomed to classmates in school, are slowly drawn into the firing line and thoughtlessly gunned down. A burst of gunfire. Silence. Slow footsteps. Long, long corridors. Let's just say the way this section of the film is presented makes particularly unsettling viewing for those of us who grew up addicted to Doom and Wolfenstein..

So, in summation, Elephant's presentation of the 'WHAT' of the Columbine shootings is extremely impressive, but the question that's going to be foremost in the mind of anyone leaving a screening of the film is, WHAT HAPPENED TO THE 'WHY'?

At first it seems as if the film's investigation of the motivations of the two killers, surely the most fascinating element of the whole story, is woefully inadequate, bordering on non-existent.

One explanation for this (and thanks are in order to the person who pointed this out to me) comes from the title of the film. The title Elephant, I'm reliably informed, was inspired by a piece of avant garde theatre in which a lot of people shoot each other for no clearly defined reason (possibly as a comment on violence in modern culture or something, who's to say..). This in turn was inspired by the classic absurdist play 'Rhinoceros', in which a rhinoceros sits in the centre of the stage throughout, dominating the proceedings, but the characters make no reference to it and fail to remark upon its presence.
So, one way of looking at Elephant, the film, is to say the lack of insight into the reasons behind the killing is deliberate. Just as no easy answers were forthcoming to the millions of newscasters and pundits who in real life asked 'why?', no explanation is provided by the film - it's a narrative which is deliberately left with a vast hole at its centre to which the viewer's attention is inevitably drawn - just like the rhinoceros. It challenges the audience to either try to conceive of the processes which motivated the violence for themselves, or, perhaps even more unsettlingly, challenges them to come to terms with the utter randomness of the event, the fact that as far as we, the public at large, are concerned, there was no logical reasoning behind it, it just happened - an utterly random manifestation of human destruction that left a handful of utterly random people bleeding to death in hideous pain and hundreds more fleeing in terror.. just because.

An uncompromising message for a film to leave you with and no mistake.

But the problem is, this reading of the film doesn't quite work. Just like with the bulimia scene, Van Sant seems to completely undermine his film's intentions. You see, he *does* take steps to try and address the killers' motivations, dangling some carrots for those who are watching avidly for any answers to 'why?', only he does it in a really superficial and half-arsed manner, ruining both the Rhinoceros interpretation of the film, and the hope of any intelligent discourse on the causes of the massacre.
He shows us one of the killers getting bullied at school - only briefly and casually, but the connection is still made. He insinuates that the two boys are lovers - only once, and the theme is never elaborated upon. He shows them playing violent video games with looks of intense concentration on their faces. No, seriously. He shows them unwrapping a new gun whilst watching a holocaust documentary. For some reason, scenes relating to all these stupid tabloid pseudo-explanations are thrown in like afterthoughts, meaning that despite the film's solemn artistry and captivating technique and the superbly emotionless performances from the two killers ("dude, what the fuck?" deadpans one of them when a bomb fails to go off on time), it narrowly misses out on the opportunity to embrace the truly daring conclusion outlined above, instead lumping for a thoroughly unsatisfying compromise which could almost be used to foster a conservative conclusion that they did it because they were bullied/gay/nazis/brainwashed by video games. End of story.

Basically this is a classic flawed film - the frustrating thing is that it's only a few inches away from being a pretty profound statement of the failure of reason and the horrors of randomness, and it still contains enough moments of stunning and shocking beauty to make its existence well worthwhile, but a few inexplicable and miscalculated scenes prevent it from ever being a fully satisfying experience.

Review by Ben at 12:33 pm
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Thursday, January 15, 2004
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (out now on DVD and VHS).

(For the benefit of any passing morons: *SPOILERS!*)

I went to see The league of Extraordinary Gentlemen when it came out on the big screen. I'd been really looking forward to it for ages; at the time I hadn't read the comic, but then I haven't read much X-Men either and both those films kicked my head in my head's nuts. (Well, the second one, anyway. The first one actually missed my head's nuts and caught my head in the thigh. The blow connected, certainly, but there was no power behind it if you see what I'm saying.)

So anyway, League of blah blah blah. I'd like to say how much I enjoyed it and how it put a new postmodern spin on some of my favourite characters from Victorian adventure fiction, but sadly I can't.

The film sucked. It sucked like an Electrolux factory that got sucked up by a big sucky tornado and smashed into a Dyson factory to form an enormous megatornado of imponderable suckosity. For starters: Captain Nemo. Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea kicked my head in my head's nuts repeatedly and at length, so my feelings on hearing that Captain Nemo was going to be in the film could be summed up as "Yay! Captain Nemo!"

However, Nemo was cocked up from the word go. First off, Captain Nemo is not an Indian. He is of indeterminate and enigmatic origin. He might be an Indian, or he might not. You don't know. You just don't know. He is also NOT a pirate--he attacks ships because of some kind of enigmatic vengefulness that we never get to the bottom of in the original story. And what's he doing on land? Captain Nemo HATES land! In the book, when he gives everyone else shore leave, they ask him "so, you wanna come and, y'know, be on land for a bit?" and Captaion Nemo goes: "Land? What would I want to go on land for? To hell with land! Land sucks! I'm all about the SEA, dudes! Frikkin' land. Wankers." (I may have paraphrased slightly but that's the gist.) Also, even if you somehow managed to get Captain Nemo to go on land-- which you couldn't-- there is no way in hell he would work for a government because Captain Nemo hates governments as much as he hates land. He may or may not worship Kali, but we don't know that because! He's! ENIGMATIC! That is the whole POINT of CAPTAIN NEMO! Okay, the turban with the little nautilus shell was funky as hell and I may have to get one myself, and the Nautilus submarine was astounding, but minus several million points for screwing up Captain Nemo, everyone.

Now, as to the rest of the League. Okay, Allan Quatermain, good call. Not exactly a superhero, but in keeping with the feel of the thing. Jekyll and Hyde-- an obvious choice which was unfortunately cocked up by making Edward Hyde into a big fluffy teddybear. What the--? He's evil, you fools! EVIL! The only way Edward Hyde would join in that stupid one-potato-two-potato group handshake would be if he was going to rip off everyone else's arms and make a big arm parasol and then beat them to death with it! Dorian Gray? Well, yeah, whatever. He's invincible, sort of. An invisible man (not the Invisible Man, but he's invisible so I guess it's irrelevant): again, fair enough, if slightly irritating in the accent deptartment.

But special agent Tom Sawyer? Gerroutofit. If you were going to be all "look at us, we've read loads of books, we've read so many books we shit Cliff's Notes", which is basically the whole point of the film as far as I could see, you could have raided American literature and got someone quality. You could've stuck with Mark Twain and got Pudd'nhead Wilson, who's at least got some detective skills. Tom bloody Sawyer. For Pete's sake.

And finally, Mina Harker. Frankly, I'm not quite sure what she's doing in here because a) Stoker's female characters are so unbelivably boring you actively want them to get eaten to death, and b) she's a vampire in this and you almost never need vampires in anything, except as an excuse for swords and crossbows or stake-guns. Being a chemist is okay, but it's not really that interesting to watch. To be fair Mina also kicked people in the face and jumped around in leather clothes and did backflips and failed to die in a cool and photogenic manner, which is entry level stuff but just about makes the grade. More swords would have helped.

The plot? Some guy was going to kill people or blow something up or whatever, but it was really this other guy, or something. I don't know, I decided to see how many Jelly Tots I could fit up my left nostril and got sidetracked. It was that kind of film.

The whole thing looked wonderful and had plently of action but I left feeling let down and sullied. It could have been a thrilling steampunk romp through Victorian adventure fiction and instead it was just all "Look at us, we shit Cliff's Notes." I realise that a lot of the flaws in the film could be blamed on the comic, but that's a poor excuse. Maybe the film-makers could have gone back to the original stories and looked at what made them so enduring in the first place, then combined these elements with Moore and O'Neill's work to create a really enjoyable movie.

Oh, well. Nice submarine, shame about the film.
Review by Mordant Carnival at 8:14 pm
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League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
01/01/2004 - 02/01/2004
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