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Thinking About the Movies: Elephant and Monster

by dave heaton

One of the listings you first notice in the closing credits of Elephant, Gus Van Sant's film about a Columbine-type high-school shooting, is "sound designer." It's unusual, but logical, considering the unique ways in which the film uses sound. While the camera spends much of the film roving - especially in the first half, where we essentially float down the hallways of the school, shadowing its students - the audio portion of the film roams even more freely. As a character steps towards a room, our ears are flooded with the sounds from further within the room they're about to reach or, sometimes, the sounds of the room which they just left. Those sounds are integrated not only with the music (Beethoven mostly, a fact that gains in importance halfway through the film, as we witness the main perpetrator of the shooting playing Beethoven on the piano), but with noises that seem random, sounds which we can't quite place. Are these the sounds of events to come? Sounds of events from the past? Sounds that represent what the characters are thinking, much like the visual peak into dying people's brains in Van Sant's remake of Psycho? I don't know, but I'm intrigued to figure it out. It's one of the many reasons I long to see the film again, and wish it was distributed better (that it opened closer than an hour away from my home, for example).

The floating camera and soundscape pull us through the high school in a way feels like a dream but also a documentary. The film's main characters - all played by non-professional actors, high-school students from Portland - are each introduced with an intertitle listing the character's name. Then we follow them, get to know them without really getting to know them. And the camera will drop one and go to another, and spin back through time to show us a scene we've already seen from a different character's perspective. The camera seems to be circling around a particular moment in time, a moment when something significant is going to happen…and then it happens, and it's devastating. Elephant gives no answers as to why acts of violence like this happen, though it certainly gives hints to possible reasons. It tackles an event "ripped from the headlines" with more subtlety, artfulness, and understanding than 100 Hollywood societal-issue dramas (wanna-be Oscar winners) put together. Any viewer can probably find details that don't conform to what he or she thinks of as "reality," yet part of the point is that we don't always know as much as we think we do, and that the truth is often unknowable. Yet the film echoes with you in an emotionally real way, and has the power to scare you half to death without breaking the world down into a simplistic good vs. evil battle.

Another recent film attempting in a more conventionally Hollywood way to probe the reasons for acts of violence is Monster, the portrait of convicted and executed serial killer Aileen Wuornos which is likely to win its star, Charlize Theron, a best actress Oscar. Theron's performance, praised by Roger Ebert and like-minded critics as one of the best acting performances in film history, does stand out in her filmography as one of her first attempts at real acting (along with her smaller role in The Yards, a so-so film that she brought real grit and heart to, surprisingly enough). Yet I couldn't get past the feeling that she was wearing a mask that's hiding a fairly routine or even overplayed performance. Setting the acting aside (both Theron and the good-as-always Christina Ricci as Wuornos' lover Selby), Monster is most remarkable to me as a movie which makes me wonder why it's even a movie (as opposed to existing as a book, or a magazine article). I can't act like a film has to have its own cinematic personality or unique visual style for me to enjoy it, but Monster seems especially style-less. In other words, as a film it did nothing but tell me the story, which I might have experienced more fully via a book or a documentary. The point the filmmakers are making with the story is all-too-clear (and to me, all-too-basic): people on death row aren't monsters, and may be there because society dealt them a bad hand. This comes out especially awkwardly in a scene where Wuornos suddenly and fleetingly becomes an articulate spokesperson against the hypocrisy of the criminal justice system while explaining her actions to Selby. Message filmmaking like this works best when it stands as a quality film even outside of its message; Monster doesn't do that, and it's message feels too basic or under-developed to overwhelm that deficit. What understanding filmgoers will gain from this film, I'm not sure…and what entertainment, I'm not sure either.

Issue 20, February 2004

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