For some reason Elephant was just released here. But following Rupture - 'blogland overvalues newness' - here goes:
Elephant, like Lars von Trier’s Dogville, characterises a pared-down approach to filmmaking. Customary devices or objects are stripped away, or rather withheld, leaving us with a ‘purer’ and often more effective film surface. The films share a concern with the terms of civility and the politics of morality, but differ in their resolution of these concerns. They differ too in the forms of their presentation, in aims and function of this filmic leanness. Dogville is shot entirely on a soundstage. There are no sets, only chalk outlines indicating building and objects. The action is located in a small town, not so much resembling as representing some American backwater. The movie has, if not the feel, then the look of a (extremely well-) filmed play. von Trier offers up unadorned cinema - the exposed movement of actors on stage captured on film. He eschews embellishment - the extraneous layers of decoration, the phoney agitation – that stands between film and viewer, between meaning and reception of that meaning. Elephant bears a different sort of simplicity. There is little dialogue, no contrivance of fortune or timing, none of the recognisable set pieces or allusions we might expect in a contemporary film. But this makes it less, not more, like a movie. (Or like movies happen to be.) Gus Van Sant presents a picture of life as life, not that genre of film ‘about real life’.
Both techniques achieve a state of detachment, a conscious distance from the events in the movie. In Elephant this has a lot to do with the absence of traditional narrative forms and the pacing, the monotony and sustained uneventfulness of many of the shots (the mechanical, step-by-step process of developing a photograph; the measured stacking of books). We don’t participate in the story, anticipating the standard moves, measuring our expectations against what does transpire. (‘He didn’t get the girl. And it was a romantic comedy!’) The day unfolds like a day unfolds, and we observe. Of course we’re waiting for that inevitable horrific climax. But it’s not something that is resolved through plot – there is no build-up, no explanation or imagined rationale, no internal coherence. We don’t calculate the steps towards that point. The eruption of violence is an intrusion in the film like it is an intrusion into the ordinary day that the film presents. (Not that it is unexciting or unambiguously unpleasant to watch. Rather, there is no movement in the storyline towards the event. It is something that disrupts, or alters, the space which the film inhabits.)
The plot of Dogville in contrast is highly wrought and dramatic (what would be melodramatic, but for the film’s deliberate theatricality). Yet distance is preserved through the emphasis on the film as fiction, as a produced object: the stage, the chalk outlines and corresponding absence of realistic sets. The flow of action is broken up into chapters, and there is a narrator commenting on what transpires on stage. This distance is underscored by (and conversely, this distancing effect lends force to) the film’s allegorical character. We are outsiders looking in, but this allows us a dispassionate perspective to review, to critique, to damn.
Van Sant’s is a different notion of what it means to be an outsider. He takes this as the means and motivation not to judge, to refrain from suggestion. His film is of life, but he does not pretend that this is not life through film. Elephant follows a kind of realism, but is carefully aestheticised – those beautiful tracking shots, the wide autumnal landscapes. And he uses the workings of cinema to get closer to the subject, always aware that this is a mediated familiarity. We walk with the kids, move into their space, observe and re-observe from the angles and points of their own view. But observation is the limit of our participation. There are no standard moves in life either, this film seems to be telling us, no easy conventions of judgement and damnation. Nor do our efforts to empathise, to align ourselves in thought and experience, do very much to diminish our incomprehension. Elephant refuses to stand back and watch, and exclaim shock and indignation and righteous fury. We are observers, yes, but of life, of people; not of systems and states. And when the comforting detachments of allegory, of moral distance, the detachment from life, from real people are removed - when instead we are reminded of the unavoidable failures of empathy, that distance between ourselves - then easy, sweeping judgements start to feel a little hollow. What a masterful and apt approach this film takes to something so defiant of reason, yet so demanding of reflection, as the murder of school kids by school kids.