Monday, August 22, 2011

The End of Innocence: Gus Van Sant in the Millennium

This article contains spoilers for "Gerry," "Elephant," "Last Days" and "Paranoid Park"

In the 2000s, Gus Van Sant retreated into a very minimalist, very independent cinema after poking his head into the mainstream for several years (most notably in his Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting," least notably in his sick joke of a remake of "Psycho"). These films -- "Gerry" (2002), "Elephant" (2003), "Last Days" (2005) and "Paranoid Park" (2007) -- created a space for Van Sant to rethink his cinema. Indeed, they paved the way for "Milk," where many of his quirks seem to have new, effervescent life.

But what I'm interested in is not how one influences the other, but rather a theme that seems particularly evident and tortured within each of these works (even, in many ways, "Milk") -- the tragedy of adolescence. All these films feature very young protagonists, from the high schoolers of "Elephant" to the mid-20s rock God of "Last Days," and all of them turn on death. In "Gerry," one protagonist dies because of the duo's naivete and carelessness in venturing into the desert on a whim. The adventurous impulses of youth are struck apart by mother nature's displeasure. In "Last Days," the rocker who's unable to connect to the world outside his home collapses in a drug induced stupor and his soul ascends heavenward. Both of these events, which serve as the climax to these two films, are filmed in very matter-of-fact fashion, with distanced camera positions and minimal editing. Van Sant conjures a representation of death, but does not manipulate us into feeling one way or the other about it.

"Elephant" and "Paranoid Park," however, feel like complementary pieces in setting, character, style, and tone, even if their ultimate messages may seem divergent. "Elephant" conjures an abyss of violence predicated by a social structure that can't sustain its own weight; "Paranoid Park" allows its protagonist to glimpse that abyss but gives him a rather ambiguous chance to understand the devastation violence creates.

"Elephant" is a dramatization loosely based on the 1999 Columbine killings. Its elliptically circular narrative follows a string of high school students over the course of one day that ends with two of their classmates hijacking the school and shooting almost everyone. The tone of the whole film is elegiac; distanced. What's first noticeable about Van Sant's style is how much time he spends simply following his characters. His camera lingers at safe distances, roving around corners, watching them cross reflective linoleum corridors, moving within different social cliques or by themselves. These shots are hypnotic, yes, but they signal something darker -- the duration of each comes loaded with the growing knowledge of what's to come. Our distance from the characters becomes less and less a safe viewing distance and more and more an uneasy one -- we want to cry out, to warn them of what's to come, as Van Sant cuts increasingly away to the will-be-assassins planning their raid.

We see in "Elephant" the painful triviality of high school. Each character illuminates different aspects of this cruel hierarchy, they all have different stories about love, hope, aspirations, struggles, but all these myriad emotions are cruelly snuffed in the film's brutal final third. Why though, would Van Sant feel a need to adapt such a violent, tragic American event? And even still, why strip from it any sense of manipulation, crafting it instead in a series of motions that seem to glide on air?

The answer, I suppose, might be traced into "Paranoid Park," a film that's literally concerned with gliding. Its protagonist is a skateboarder, and several scenes of the film are filmed with Super 8 and follow skateboarders as they move through pipes and perform jumps. The repetition of their motions and the desaturated look of the film give a surprising sense of grace. These moments let Van Sant peel back from his otherwise dark narrative and let us breathe. The main character, Alex, accidentally kills a security guard and tries to cover up the murder and then deal with his overwhelming grief.

Like in the other films, death is a major event for the plot, but this time it is not the death of the central character. Though the narrative is still circular, moving around in time like an amateur storyteller might relay it (as is the point, as Alex's self-correcting voiceover guides the narrative), and the death is shown halfway through the film, most of the film occurs after the manslaughter.

Alex's inner life is destroyed by his actions, from his relationship to his friends, his parents, and most directly his girlfriend. It's Van Sant's preoccupation here to detail for his spectator exactly how Alex portrays this turmoil to himself. Many shots are pointedly in slow motion to highlight the growing weight of his conscience, with tracking shots again following him around his high school's hallways. But unlike the unceremoniously slaughtered sheep of "Elephant," Alex is not caught for his crime. If he learns anything, it's the gentle nature of grace.

In these films, life and death move along a very thin line. Characters teeter near one and the other much as they also move toward humanity and sin, letting violence into their lives or evading it in favor of love. Naivete is punished; egomania is abhorred. In Van Sant's cinema, those who survive aren't necessarily good, and those who die don't necessarily deserve their punishment. Indeed, it's easy to argue that Alex should be caught, even if he tries to purge his guilt and seek a better humanity. But at the same time, the children of "Elephant" may be trapped in their high school prison, but that entrapment doesn't warrant death. At the most, it merely warrants enlightenment.

Enlightenment is not for the diegesis, however. It's for the spectator. Van Sant's films are crafted for his spectators. The events that happen in the films are circumstantial, crafted for the emotional impact they have on those who view them. There are moments where character and apparatus are wed -- when the dread in Alex's mind renders the camera's motions in extreme slowness -- or when the apparatus refuses to engage the characters -- as in many of "Elephant's" tracking shots.

At the end, Van Sant wants us all to transcend our innocence, to see the world as the stark, violent force it is, and hope that perhaps we can salvage our own sense of love in its turbulence.

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