Examining Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy (Part 1)


Gus Van Sant is one of those filmmakers people call ‘interesting’. On the one hand, the man’s capable of all sorts of good semi-mainstream films, from Good Will Hunting to My Own Private Idaho. But on the other, he’s responsible for slightly-too-arthouse-for-arthouse films like Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, the almost-shot-for-shot Psycho remake, and what has come to be known as his ‘Death Trilogy’—Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days.

The entire death trilogy sits in the high-fifties, high-sixties part of Rotten Tomatoes that seemingly means ‘slightly above average’, but in practice has come to mean ‘people either think it’s truly fantastic or total pretentious garbage’.  (And given that this is the man who remade Psycho, maybe there’s some truth to that latter view.) But each of the death films gave me some thoughts about cinema and philosophy, so I thought I’d write a piece on each of them and try and get those thoughts straightened out.

Elephant is about Columbine—touchy source material that Hollywood has never had the courage to really approach. (As a side note, Uwe Boll made a film about Columbine called Homeroom: Heart of America, and it is amazing, but I’ll talk about that some other time.) Van Sant employs his now-trademark style, utilizing long takes, tracking shots, and minimal, realistic dialogue that doesn’t waste time trying to sound like a movie. It explores the events of the day of the shooting from several character’s perspectives, and what this all reminds me of most is the writings of Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger’s most important work, Being and Time, centrally deals with what it means to be, and how people fall into the trap of simply acting as part of the world in which they happen to exist, not truly living with their human autonomy. Van Sant’s film makes a tremendous display of the processes of a high school and its social culture, characterizing it as a place people do not act of their own will, instead surrendering to the hierarchy of classes, homework, and relentless self-destructive attempts to fit in with the system and their prescribed roles.

Living authentically, for example, by confronting the eventuality of one’s death or the larger questions of what sort of person you really are, is in Heidegger’s opinion, utterly terrifying, and results in humans trying to hide from it in trivial distractions. It’s far simpler to worry about how to deal with jocks mistreating you, or wrestle with bulimia, or devote yourself to a school project, than it is to really face the world on a larger scale.

The key character of the film is a photography student who takes pictures of other characters and events throughout. He does very little else and is seemingly lost in his activity. The others observe him as a weirdo, estranged by his choice not to view them as fellow people but as subjects for his portfolio. Eventually, the massacre is about to start, and the photographer is there. He sees the guns, but rather than truly react to what’s happening, he simply and impotently takes a single photograph of his own oncoming demise.

Every single character in the film suffers from that same illness—a sense of being lost in one’s situation, blind to the other lost souls around them and the world as it truly is.  Elephant directly explores these ideas of being trapped in one’s activities—and through this, even questions whether or not the shooter’s decision to kill those around them was really a decision at all.

Even at the outset, the massacre has already been wordlessly decided upon by the shooters. A film that wanted to take a more sympathetic, liberal stance would have offered a really solid reason for them to do it, some clear turning point where ordinary boys become monsters, transformed by a situation, or bad parenthood, or some other impulse. But no clear explanation is offered. Van Sant makes this search for a reason truly scary—something I think Heidegger would greatly approve of in a narrative.

In the wake of Columbine, many chose to blame violent video games, or bullying, or homosexuality, or gun culture. The film shows the killers taking part in all of these—but it shows all of them as normal things, just what these people happen to do, the roles they play. That could be you playing a Doom clone, or taking a shower with a close friend. And by offering no core reason why the killers became what they did, the shooting simply happens.

Many characters throughout the film have similar destructive issues—several girls are bulimic, the librarian has serious self-esteem problems, and another kid has become a camera-wielding weirdo who no longer relates to other people or the reality around him. All of their problems stem from taking too seriously the role in their environment that they have been given, causing them to lose sight of their true existence. This concept is made clear by the title of the film, which refers to a very old parable (so old it exists in almost every religious oral tradition) about a group of people finding an elephant in the dark and trying to discern what they have found—while each of them has a small part of the truth, grasping a leg or a trunk, none of them truly understand the whole.

I’ve brought up Hegel before—specifically his idea that in all the most evil acts one can imagine, one can glimpse one’s own essence in a new form, and that idea has never been represented better than in this film. The story begins with an awkward-looking boy having to take over for his drunk-driving father and take himself to school—obviously someone with a difficult home life. In your head, because you know what the film is about, you already start thinking how this links into some horrible act that might be committed later. The film invites you to be terrified of what this boy might be capable of—when suddenly the real killers, carrying conspicuous duffle bags, walk right past him and offer the friendly advice that he should leave while he can. This bait and switch sets up the central idea of the film, and a unique perspective on what it is to be a human on planet earth—not only are you trapped in a world of crazy people, but if things were only slightly different, you could have been one of their victims, or, one of them.

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