Psycho Killer, qu'est que c'est?
Ohad Landesman on Elephant

There are certain people who would go a long way to redeem Gus Van Sant’s inexcusable shot-for-shot recreation of Hitchcock’s Psycho by arguing passionately that if anything, this peculiar remake is an implied argument for an overlooked homoerotic reading of the original masterpiece, a slightly more literalized suggestion of what it might have only been able to express indirectly or metaphorically. Viggo Mortensen’s bare bottom, the casting of an openly lesbian actress as Marion Crane, or Vince Vaughn’s mincing performance of Norman Bates are all manifestations, so the argument goes, of what back then could have been only implicit. But even if this were Van Sant’s main interest, it’s still unclear how putting the original metaphor tag on the film’s sleeve might excuse his artistic chutzpah. Van Sant’s worst mistake in making this film seems to be his failure to realize that manifesting the implicit in Hitchcock’s work undermines the original intention, an acute analysis of the anxieties, violence, and psychic destructiveness that lie behind human sexuality and which maintain patriarchy. To render sexuality explicit is simply to miss the point.

Elephant, Van Sant’s ambitious endeavor about real-life psychos, killing fellow students in American high schools—a problem about as easy to ignore as an elephant in the living room—is another effort to reach for what’s hidden, to dig into what only lies beneath, and then to put it on display. With much more sensitive subject matter this time, Van Sant must have realized he was perhaps aiming too high again, and tried to avoid making the obvious mistakes. He couldn’t afford to be too simplistic, condescending, or preachy if he wanted to be heard. Sadly though, by retreating again into crude thematic explicitness, adjoined by an aestheticism that often gives ground to mannerism, his elephant, ironically, remains intact, almost unnoticed.

Winner of the Palme d’Or and Best Director prizes at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Elephant atmospherically follows several suburban high-school students throughout one memorable day in American history, after which school life would never be the same again. Shot in a recently de-commissioned high school in Portland, the film penetrates the students’ worlds, tracking them during the course of their day as they walk through the school’s labyrinthine corridors, classrooms, and locker rooms. Helped by his brilliant DP Harris Savides—who keeps himself busy exploring the different possibilities of the long take—Van Sant captures the alienation and solitude that characterizes so much of adolescence. It’s when each one of these blissfully dazed kids is isolated in the frame, embodying his or her space in a disaffected environment, that Elephant’s existential formalism takes its full effect and any idealized notion of a close-knit community breaks down. As with his abstract improvisational experiment Gerry, Van Sant strips his film of almost any narrative or character development, and sets forth to achieve documentary-like realism predicated upon only a sufficient amount of artifice. Intimate penetrating close-ups, astounding observational traveling long takes, and a soundtrack comprised of both musique concrete (electronic music based on natural sounds made to minimize artificiality) and traces of Beethoven are intertwined to support a constantly retracing chronology—events and nonevents are revisited from different perspectives (a technique Van Sant openly borrows from Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó).

This balance, however, is difficult to achieve, and by walking a thin line between naturalistic realism and overtly stylized postcard imagery, Van Sant too often calls attention to the aesthetic form and artificiality of his own creation. Trying a bit too hard to prove his artistic merits to his supportive parents at HBO, Van Sant forgets that he needs to think of his characters as subjects, not objects. Because if the kids are not alright, they deserve a better treatment than a purely aesthetic one. Besides, a film which seeks to maturely revisit a collective trauma could not (or should not) feel so often like a horror movie—the camera slowly wanders corridors in a terrifying spatial closure right out of The Shining, the dreaded imminent slaughter is saved for the eagerly awaited climax, and, yes, even an African-American, Benny, introduced into the narrative just minutes before he is shot, must die.

Which brings me back to the problem of explicitness. During the 2003 New York Film Festival press conference, Van Sant made it clear that his intentions were obviously different than Michael Moore’s in Bowling for Columbine. Following almost no previous research done about high-school shootings (besides reading the papers and watching a tape of Columbine), Van Sant was not trying to grasp at any hardcore insights about the massacre. His Elephant is intended to operate as a “thought machine,” from which the audience is required to extract the right answers themselves. In other words, it resists instant interpretation precisely because it refuses to impose it. However, by trying so hard not to provide a one-stop solution during the last 15 minutes of the murders, Van Sant fires in all directions; it’s mindless, superficial, and betrays his own attempts to provide context for the massacre in the first half of the film. In a condensed puritan blend of social and moral clichés about the roots of violence, he depicts the shooters’ last afternoon as full of violent video games, Nazi documentaries, internet gun shopping, and even a sudden Larry Clark moment, where the two boys exchange an intimate farewell kiss in the shower (I can only thank Van Sant for not listening to his non-actors, who originally suggested the killers would instead gang-rape a girl before they go on their mission). Finally, on their drive to school, both kids momentarily become Travis Bickles, as one clarifies to the other: “…most importantly, have fun, man.” (After all, revenge is a dish best served cold, right?) Nuanced subtlety in the first part is replaced by simplistic transparency in the second.

Many critics labeled Elephant as irresponsible, accusing it for not being insightful enough, or for not providing sufficient rationale for the massacre. This, however, seems to be missing the point. Because if there’s one thing Van Sant achieved in this film by painstakingly observing a typical high school day, is to provide context, and a fairly sufficient one. What I still fail to understand, though, is why he needed to offhandedly disperse further moralizations when he had it all in his hands in the first place. So we come back to Psycho, wondering if both films, hardly cautious about their thematic challenges, can be seriously taken as anything else besides mere exercises in form.