Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) and Gerry (2002) are companion pieces that move in opposite directions but search out the same fundamental question. This question is touched upon in some fine observations in John Boorman’s book about the making of The Emerald Forest, Money into Light (1). Boorman talks about how man cannot rely on his own skills to survive in the modern world, how he’s reliant on many others for his sense of self. The problem of selfhood is so clearly central to both Gerry and Elephant that we might look back on Van Sant’s earlier Hollywood films, like Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000), and see them as flipside works that help to illustrate Hollywood’s genius for solving false problems, and how in his newer films Van Sant wants to work with real ones.
Let’s say that the “false problem” films take gifts as given – the mathematical genius of Will Hunting (Matt Damon) or the literary talent of the young black boy Hamil (Rob Brown) in Finding Forrester. Van Sant doesn’t question the nature of being especially gifted; this gift is present so Van Sant can weave a narrative of opportunity around his protagonists. Both kids are brilliant but from poor backgrounds, and it’s Van Sant’s job as a filmmaker to negotiate the problems that get in the way of the characters, allowing them to move on to the next stages of their lives.
In both Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester the purpose of the narratives is to move the characters towards a type of self-realisation that’s in essence social. When Will defends his sharp but far from academic mate in a bar from the snideness of a student, he does so by lecturing the other boy on American history and wins the argument hands down. When the young, burgeoning writer Hamil proves his acumen with quotation in Finding Forrester he’s not ostensibly defending anybody else, but we could say he’s speaking up for black America against the elitist prejudices of the academic system and a tutor who doesn’t take him seriously, and, by extension we could say, doesn’t take Hamil’s race seriously either. So when van Sant says that these films allowed him to go back “in sentimental fashion… to make populist art, for the populace” (2) he was doing so by creating problems that were, in essence, capable of triumphal resolution.
But in his two most recent films van Sant problematises this narrative of self-realisation: social negotiation is largely absent in Gerry and present in Elephant chiefly as psychosis. In Gerry two twentysomething friends get lost in the desert and try to find their way back to civilisation; in Elephant two teenage boys go on a murdering rampage in a high school. So where in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester the problems Van Sant offered were contained within conventional psychology, in the newer films it’s as though he wanted to see what would happen when you made films without conventional psychological carapaces.
What often happens in triumphalism is the unproblematising of a problem – so that it’s not an epistemological problem that leaves character and viewer flummoxed, but a problem that demands a more immediate reaction. If in their respective situations Will and Hamil failed to act, we’d have seen it as simply a failure of confidence. However, the problems in the two later films concern complexity of information: the minimising of information in Gerry, and the maximising of information in Elephant. In Gerry the characters don’t know how to act because of the vast landscape they’re caught within. A casual walk into the nature reserve turns into a gruelling ordeal through nature as they have neither map nor compass to navigate them through this increasingly harsh landscape. Occasionally they can act decisively. There’s one scene for example where Casey Affleck gets stuck on a rock and he and Matt Damon try to find a way in which he can get down without breaking a leg. At first Damon suggests he could try and catch his friend and break his fall, but eventually they decide a sort of sand mat would be the best idea, and we watch Damon go and gather sand in a T-shirt. What we see in this scene are a minimal number of variables that allows for a successful decision to be made, even if it takes some thought. But most of the time the decisions made are arbitrary gropes in the dark, or rather, in broad daylight: which direction should one take when faced with such broad, uncomprehending vistas? Late in the film another decision’s made. With no food or water, and completely lost, it looks as if they’ve decided to strangle each other. But Damon proves the stronger, and survives to walk a few hundred yards and towards a road where cars pass. He hitches a lift, and we’re left as pensive as the character, aware of an irony yet feeling that in his position we would have done the same. So where in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester character and viewer share an unproblematic relationship with information that confirms our epistemologically centred being, Gerry and (as we shall soon show) Elephant refuse that type of certitude.
What we have in Elephant is an overabundance of information, as though each step of the way Van Sant wants to offer motive only to cancel it out a moment later. Sure the two killers watch Nazi documentaries, but they also make tender love in the shower. Yes, they play violent video games, but one of the killers also plays classical music on the piano. Some will of course see this information as consistent – that it keys into a crypto-fascism. But it’s maybe more useful to see it as contradictory: suggesting that we can’t explain the killers’ actions in simple cause-and-effect terms, with reference to any single influence on their lives, but must instead look at the multiple variables of an existence. To put it in another way, if (as Boorman suggests) man can generally no longer survive on the basis of his own abilities, but must negotiate constantly with a world in which he’s reliant on others for his sense of self, where does that leave the boys in Elephant? When they go on a killing spree it’s as though they’ve inverted the problem in Gerry. If the two boys in Gerry are utterly unequipped to deal with a primitive or asocial realm that they suddenly face, in Elephant what counts isn’t the “motive” but precisely the lack of “fit” between the boys’ actions and the society they spring from, returning us to asociality in another sense.
Thus the high school setting isn’t simply opportunistic on Van Sant’s part, nor is the film just a comment on the Columbine killings – it’s curiously crystallising, capable of opening up onto a bigger problem. And it’s this: how do people live with a sense of self-determination when so many determining factors seem to have so little to do with a fundamental sense of self? Now when we say Van Sant answered this falsely in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, it was because he pitted strong, “brilliant” selves against weak, hypocritical society. But in Elephant society’s strong and the characters are weak – or rather society’s strong in the sense that it defines the spaces we have to fit into to be “cool”, “likeable” and “sociable”, so that the self can only gain strength from fitting into these modes of behaviour. By creating “brilliant”, socially transcending characters in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, Van Sant could comment on society from a position of smugness; here that’s not possible. So for most of the film Van Sant’s interested in following the modes and methods of high school life, whether that be watching the cool football playing jock who’s deemed cute by all the girls, or the geeky girl with glasses and lumpen body language who’s on the receiving end of snide remarks after gym in the locker room. From the point of view of causality it would make sense for the jock and his girlfriend to be the first to be killed, and perhaps for the geeky girl to go free. Even if it wasn’t the characters’ diegetic intention to spare her on the grounds that she’d been abused enough and was closer to them than to the jocks, it could be the director’s non-diegetic intention, the film’s moral and dramatic “throughline” being the revenge of victims on their tormenters. But of course neither approach interests van Sant. Indeed the geeky girl is the first victim, and the last people alive are the jock and his girlfriend. Van Sant’s camera retreats from the scene as one of the assassins plays eeny-meeny-miny-mo with the pair of them – and there ends the film.
So Van Sant has no interest in the moral aspect, he has no interest in seeing Columbine as a moral lesson. But maybe there’s something else we can learn from an event like Columbine. Something like: how can we negotiate reality in such a way that we feel we have a degree of self-definition without giving ourselves over to the primitive; or without giving ourselves too readily to the cool aspects? That is, how do we live in such a way that we don’t feel we’re just fitting into the “strong” social patterns with a weak but carefully carapaced self; or, on the flipside, that we have to try and break through the strong social patterns with fundamental acts of violence?
It’s here that the notion of motive in any narrow sense is insufficient. For example Van Sant could have played up the idea the boys were being bullied and so have found a reason for their extreme action. But if it were simply a case of being bullied, the facile cause-and-effect explanations available in earlier Van Sant films would be enough: the simple approach that works with class and racism in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. But in Elephant the director seems fascinated by a social milieu that some are lucky enough to negotiate with the minimum of self-consciousness and effort, and others negotiate with great effort but still fail within. When critics like Kent Jones talk about “a beautiful boy – is there any other kind in Van Sant?” (3) – we can say yes and no. Yes, because as Van Sant himself says, “if you’re making a film about high school kids, they are pretty much all alluring and interesting looking and beautiful, because of their age. Even Kristen, who plays Michelle [the plain, bullied ‘loser’], is very beautiful.” (4) And yet no, because despite the attractiveness of their youth, many kids haven’t managed to negotiate a way of being in their environment that works for them. In general terms we would say they lack confidence, but it might be more useful to say they lack – in the broadest sense of the term – negotiation skills. They’re unable, or unwilling, to live smoothly within a milieu that’s constantly demanding from them signification. When Van Sant follows “beautiful characters” like John (John McFarland) Eli (Elias McConnell) or Nathan (Nathan Tyson), he so does partly to show the ease with which they’ve negotiated their being in this particular world. Yet even theirs is a negotiation without communication. “The thing you’re actually watching all the time is a dislocation and non-connection”, Van Sant says. “In daily life in America there is always discontinuity…if you wander around or even go to a cohesive interaction like a party everything is made up of non-sequiturs.” (5)
What’s expected is that you don’t analyse the cultural assumption, you fit into it, read it sub-consciously and live that sub-conscious act of negotiation. But what happens if you can’t read it, or the signs don’t seem to add up and you re-scramble them and arrive at something close to psychosis? While he may seem to be showing us the elements that make a high school killer – a gay shower scene, video game violence, Nazi propaganda videos – in fact Van Sant offers these elements not as signs of inevitability but as signs of confusion. The problem then isn’t with specific items of cultural detritus, but the failure of this detritus to add up to more than the sum of its parts.
There’s a fine passage in Scottish writer Pat Kane’s article on “Authors Who Come Up With the Goods”, where he talks of Nicholson Baker’s work. In this American writer Kane sees that
narrator’s “emotional history” is largely manifested through the history of his purchases – his array of emotional responses from childhood to adulthood over such vital matters as the changes in milk packaging, or the evolutions in coffee cup engineering… This is safe materialism – a stable personality allowing you to immerse yourself in objects without fear of objectifying yourself… (6)
Now there are several ways an artist can escape this safe relationship. In a narrative context, in many ways the most extreme position remains the “degree zero” of literature represented by the nouveau roman. In Bruce Morrisette’s words this is a literature with no “attempt at psychological analysis or any use of the vocabulary of psychology, total rejection of introspection, interior monologues, ‘thoughts’, or descriptions of states of mind…” (7)
What interests Van Sant, though, is how the cultural variables do seem helpful for some in developing a stable personality, but for others less so. Hence Van Sant can’t work with conventional narrative because if he did – if he offered cause-and-effect devices allowing us to “understand” the shaping of a self, albeit a murderous one – he’d arrive at the false problem instead of the true problem, which is based not on presences but absences.
If the high school movie traditionally focuses on the desire for social integration, we can say that Van Sant inverts this tradition by creating an unbridgable distance between subjects and objects, and subjects and subjects. When he says “the thing you’re actually watching all the time is a dislocation and a non-connection. It’s visible, it’s in the representation. It’s what the film represents” he’s getting at the problem Kane talks about. For the high school film generally accepts the significance of objects and subjects, and the story often turns on characters without obvious negotiating skill at the beginning of the film mastering the tools by the end of it. When Van Sant insists though that we have to see it visibly, in the representation, he’s saying we have to look beyond the notion of negotiation as a social necessity, of mastering casual, uncommitted communication and find a different, more intensely enquiring mode of being.
We can see how he achieves this cinematically, for example, in the scene where Nathan leaves football practice, walks across the field and into the school hall. There he passes three girls who comment on his attractiveness before meeting up with his girlfriend. Clearly Nathan’s “cool” but Van Sant films the coolness with an antithetical coolness of his own – a detached, slightly chilly aesthetic that makes us wonder about the negotiating skills of cool rather than just identifying with them. It’s this aesthetic which gives credence to the inevitability of the shoot-out as Van Sant films high school life as though there’s a missing connection, and in this missing connection anything can happen because the absence reveals a sameness between subjects and objects. As Nathan leaves the football field, the tracking camera doesn’t follow him into the school as if he were a subject for our identification but holds the shot as Nathan walks off into the distance. Van Sant’s refusal to identify could almost lead us to say the camera’s identifying with the killers, but it’s rather that his detached point of view puts us into a similar position of crisis as the killers. Where we could say the killers resolve their crisis through murder, Van Sant asks the viewer to see the problem of subjects and objects with a similar detachment which, however, remains unresolved.
But why bother? After all the film’s approach could lead viewers to say the film is very much part of the detachment that generated events like Columbine. Better instead to see the film trying to comprehend rather than further detach. Yet this probing enquiry needs a certain aesthetic detachment. If Van Sant’s film is so much more significant a work than Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002), it lies in the performative analysis of how detachment takes place. Moore’s film is much more a further work of attachment, of a sort of ideological suturing into the text where we’re positioned as political good guys against the baddies who are in essence the political right and gun lobbying groups. Moore’s film still works with the epistemologically untroubling to secure our place as right-on viewers. It’s no accident that Moore’s film is itself seen as cool – it allows us a smugness in the viewing experience not too unlike the smugness we feel when we’re securely placed in our high school Nikes and Gap clothes, with our mobile phones and hooded tops.
Van Sant’s basic question is something like: what are the elements of social negotiation, and how do some people master them and others fail to do so? At the same time, and not unrelatedly, he wants to ask: is a strong personality the same as a strong persona? In what would seem one of the most obvious scenes in the film, he shows the three girls having dinner, discussing friendship loyalties, and then going off to the toilet and puking up the dinner’s contents. This is in some ways heavy-handed – all three simultaneously bulimic, and more or less publicly so – but it also illustrates a curious notion of will. This type of bulimia is far removed from the reclusive, ambivalent denial of Nicola in Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet (1991) and closer to a more contemporary bulimic psychology we find for example in a joke in Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) and also present in Irvine Welsh’s recent novel, Porno. In Coppola’s film the female action movie star regards a comment about her looking bulimic as a compliment, while in Welsh’s novel the character of Nikki, after a wonderful meal, pukes it back up. “I vomit everything up in the toilets and then brush my teeth, swallow some Milk of Magnesia and gargle with Listerine. The food was excellent, but I never digest anything after seven.” (8) So where Nicola’s bulimia leaves her a neurotic recluse, has bulimia in the new century earned a certain cache for its will-driven aspect? When the three girls go off and vomit down the toilet, there’s a certain pride familiar to the characters in Lost in Translation and Porno. What we have here is the significance of the persona, where one’s external appearance is fundamental, and one’s internal chaos secondary. It’s as though bulimia has moved from being a psychological disease to an aspect of social will. But at what cost?
So this will is a problematic one. If we’ve already talked about the negotiating elements required to succeed socially, then of course many of the negotiating elements require a body that fits the clothes, the dance moves, the walk. Now, many people fit into this mode with the minimum of internal conflict, but for others it’s an on-going crisis of personality and persona. There’s the danger that the strong persona hides a weak personality, because the negotiating elements required for a strong persona impinge on the move towards the strong personality. This is the case with the three girls when they discuss the problem they have that one of them wants to spend more time with her boyfriend. Aren’t they all supposed to be best friends, and shouldn’t best friends stick together – aren’t they a cool little combat unit? Again the strong persona suggests the weakness of personality, and thus it’s Van Sant’s job not to look for cause-and-effect reasons for an event like Columbine, but to probe into the specifics of high school being, a notion of being that of course extends way beyond high school.
Van Sant’s interest, then, lies not in what causes high school massacres, but in how we choose to live in the world, and what (peer) pressures are placed upon us to live in that world even if it’s to the detriment of one’s own well-being. The writer and thinker Robert M. Pirsig once astutely said that biological values were at odds with social values and it’s this wider problem that seems to fascinate Van Sant. When he says in interviews that he wants us each to respond to the film differently, he wants us to work not with the collective assumption that weakens personalities, but the subjective response that may strengthen our sense of self. Thus we have to work on our own uncertainty towards the artwork, work towards a sense that isn’t given but that we must take, and maybe share with others whose thinking may differ. But this is of course the opposite of the assumption that sustains peer culture, where the singular response, the right response, the cool response, is essential.
How though are we to make sense of the film’s ending? Here Nathan and his girlfriend hug each other whilst the one remaining killer plays eeny-meeny-miney-mo as he decides which character to kill first. At the same time Van Sant’s camera starts to retreat from the scene and the film ends. We could say Nathan and his girlfriend are reduced diegetically to the very state the film’s worked from non-diegetically. All the negotiating elements are absent as they plead with a killer’s basic humanity by trying to offer their own. Will the killer shoot them? Why shouldn’t he, we might ask, if a notion of one human being in relation to another has almost no value without the semantic system that props our identities up? If society’s figures so often talk about the process of dehumanisation, we could do worse than look at it not from the point of view of a deterministic cruelty being unleashed, but much more from the way the notion of being gets constructed through cultural signs. This is the ultimate question posed by Van Sant’s film: how to infuse the signs we choose to live by with a meaning that respects rather than undermines vague but necessary thoughts and feelings that underpin them, instead of the vague thoughts and feelings being undermined by the assertiveness of these signs.
- John Boorman, Money into Light: The Emerald Forest, a Diary, Faber & Faber, London, 1985.
- Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian Weekend, January 24, 2004, pp 30-36.
- Kent Jones, “Corridors of Powerlessness”, Film Comment, September–October 2003, p. 28.
- Amy Taubin, “Part of the Problem”, Film Comment, September–October 2003, pp 26–33.
- S.F. Said, “Shock Corridors”, Sight and Sound, February 2004, pp 16–18.
- Pat Kane, Tinsel Show: Pop, Politics, Scotland, pp 103–106, Polygon, Edinburgh, 1992.
- Bruce Morrisette, “Surfaces and Structures in Robbe Grillet’s Novels”, introduction to Two Novels by Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy and The Labyrinth, trans. Richard Howard, Grove Press, New York, 1965, pp 1–10.
- Irvine Welsh, Porno, Vintage, London, 2002, p. 215.