Gus van Sant’s three films, Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, are, in essence, a trilogy, linked by their common structures, compositions, and representations of death. In this paper, I will analyze these similarities and discuss the treatment of each film’s central event.
Van Sant’s early career showed a unique experimentation with story structure and plot devices. In films like My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy and To Die For, he displayed a freedom of narrative, creating esoteric, poetic pieces that challenged and often bewildered viewers. His career then became more conventional, and he hit somewhat of a lame lowpoint with the film Finding Forrester, a sappy story about a young black teenager whose writing gifts are altruistically recognized by an aging author played by Sean Connery.
His next film, however, was completely different than anything he had directed. It starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who, along with van Sant, would normally create box office demand with their work. Yet the film was not widely released or widely seen. It was mostly dismissed as an indulgent experimental piece, something created by Hollywood artists bored with their usual work and with easy access to too much funding.
Van Sant followed this with a film that premiered at Sundance and, surprisingly, took the top prize. It purported to be a representation of the Columbine killings, even though Columbine was never mentioned, and several liberties were brazenly taken with facts that most people were intimately familiar with. It featured no professional actors; actually, the characters were all essentially playing themselves, even using their real names and shooting in their actual school. The film was much more widely seen, and the unique treatment of time and plot proved to be very similar to his previous work.
His most recent film, officially titled Gus van Sant’s Last Days, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and attempted to vaguely recreate the death of Kurt Cobain. The thematic elements and structure were by now easily recognizable. The film’s first reviews were harsh, but eventually, critics seemed to warm to it, and it was widely praised for its bravery and patience.
Van Sant refers to them as a “news story” trilogy, in that they are all based on real events. Gerry is about two guys who get lost in the desert, and one of them eventually kills the other one. Even if we’re unfamiliar with the event, we can picture the sensational headline, probably depicting the event as horrific and the murderer as an animal. Van Sant’s portrayal of the event, from the characters losing their way to the actual murder, reveals his intent to fully immerse himself in the event and depict how such an act could occur. When we witness the murder, it appears natural and even compassionate. The circumstances under which the characters are behaving are unusual and extreme, but their intentions and humanity are always recognizable.
The next two films are events with which the culture is very familiar. Almost everyone who sees them has a strongly formed emotional impression of the stories. The Columbine massacre and the suicide of Kurt Cobain are two of the most omnipresent cultural events for this generation of Americans, and van Sant chooses to take them on. His intentions are similar to those of his first film in the series; he wants to discover, through the process of filmmaking, how such acts could occur.
It is unclear as to whether van Sant intended to create a trilogy, but these films are unmistakably similar in several different ways, including their shooting and editing style, their themes, and their attempt to depict a “found story”.
Cinematographer Harry Savides shot the trilogy, and his style remains consistent; it can best be described as meditative. Most of the elements and techniques were developed in the process of making Gerry. The shooting period lasted twenty-one days. There were lots of problems during the shoot, and the scenes were always planned and executed on set, in collaboration with the actors, and with very little adherence to a shooting script or written dialogue. During this process, van Sant and Savides developed what would become a signature style for them. They composed very long tracking shots of the characters simply walking through the desert. Some shots were close-ups of their faces as they trudged, always with a definite purpose and determination. Others were long shots of their tiny bodies against the hugeness of the landscape. The most famous shot is the two of them barely moving, close to death, silhouetted against the sunset, still moving slowly towards nothing.
Another element they developed is a lack of adherence to any definite sense of time or chronology. The films are edited haphazardly, with several scenes repeated at different points in each film from different perspectives. In Gerry, the two men never find water, yet the sun rises and sets at least eight times during the movie, in very different settings. In Elephant, one hallway encounter between two characters, with another character running by, is seen three times from each characters’ perspective, and continually serves as a warning that the killers are about to enter the school. There is no attempt to operate by any logical standards of time or character arc. The focus here is on a creation of atmosphere.
The flexible chronology and the long static shots create a strong sense of freedom for the actors to immerse themselves in their characters. In each movie, and especially in Gerry and Last Days, the characters operate in a trance-like state, moving through the world of the film with no attempt to relay an emotion or communicate to anyone in any way. They simply are, and we watch them as voyeurs, knowing in each case that they are moving slowly towards death. The process of close collaboration with the actors is similar for each film as well. The actors are very much a part of the development of the story and their own characters. This trust in the actors to create their own worlds adds a unique element to the trilogy.
The central theme of the three films is “young death”. The first death is a compassionate murder; the second deaths are emotionally empty executions; the last is a slow wasting away. They all seem tragic because of the age of the victims and the somewhat easily avoidable circumstances under which the deaths occur.
The deaths are also empty of crescendo. There is no sense of narrative closure in the deaths of the central characters, or an attempt to draw moral or dramatic conclusions from the deaths. This treatment of death is similar to the films analyzed by Catherine Russell in her work Narrative Mortality: Death, Closure and New Wave Cinemas. She notes that conventional cinematic narratives “codified the desire for meaning as a desire for meaningful death, and the desire for ending was formalized as a desire for death.” 1 She claims that new wave films “consistently split death from closure, and prevent meaning and ending from fitting neatly together.” These films have no plot or story; they end abruptly, with no attempt at coherent explanations. Their focus is on the world of the characters as they hypnotically and obliviously move towards their death.
Common Intentions: A ‘Found Story’
This refusal to exploit the deaths of the central characters for emotional or dramatic effect highlights van Sant’s focus on creating realist cinema. He strives to present each scene as naturally as possible, with no cinematic affectations or even unnecessary camera movements. They wanted no “moves”. He and Savides make it clear that their intention is to recreate reality on screen.
Realist theorist Siegfried Kracauer defines a ‘found story’ as one that “emerges from the filmmaking”. 2 This description aptly describes van Sant’s triptych; the process clearly defines the product. An example of this comes from the production of Last Days. Van Sant was in the costume designer’s office when a Yellow Pages salesman entered and delivered his pitch. The director envisioned the affect this would have on his drugged-out, detached lead character and threw the two worlds together.
The effect was brilliant in that it intensely highlighted the two different worlds that these characters inhabited. It also reveals van Sant’s attempts to infuse his films with as much realism as possible, down to the actors who portray the characters. In fact, the actors are usually playing themselves. In Elephant, each character uses their real name and moves around their actual high school, interacting with their actual friends. The scenes are meticulously composed, but the dialogue and relationships, the individual moments, are mostly improvised, providing the audience with a strong sense of voyeurism and recognizable interactions.
The affectations occur during editing. The sound design and aforementioned obscure chronology are the clues as to how we interpret the reality that they present. In Elephant, a character that most recognize as the eventual killer walks through the cafeteria drawing up his ‘plan’. He stops and we hear the sound slowly rise and overwhelm the boy, implying his “special mode of reality”.3
In Last Days, a somewhat bizarre element is employed in one of the final scenes. Blake, the Cobain surrogate, is lying in his garden house, close to death. Suddenly, his spirit emerges from his naked body as an apparition and hovers beside him. This mystical element meshes with the hypnotic, often spiritual mood of the film. At first glance, it seems to stand in stark contrast to the dogmatic realism of the rest of the film. However, the scene effectively illustrates the characters’ state, and in this sense, remains consistent with the production’s intentions.
These common elements all serve the common event in each film: the eventual deaths of the major characters.
Gerry depicts two characters, both ostensibly named Gerry, wandering through the desert looking for “the thing”. They see tourists with lame visors taking one path, and they decide to take another. They lose their way and spend the film attempting to survive.
Each interaction between the characters is infused with purpose and a wry humor. They always have a new plan and never lose their forward-thinking state of mind. They resist despair and anger and seem always to assume that they will make it out ok.
The majority of the ninety-minute film consists of the characters moving through the desert, searching always for the way home. There is maybe fifteen minutes of dialogue and, except for the tourists, no other characters. We see them simply walking, moving together, sometimes in what seems to be a competitive state, and other times alone, separately climbing different peaks to get a better view. The desert scenery is beautifully composed, and there are few shots less than a few minutes long.
The characters are resisting death. They are slowly succumbing to the elements, fighting thirst and fatigue, never wanting to appear weak to the other. They always keep moving.
Once, when they have stopped to rest, one of them comes to the other, tired but satisfied. He says, simply, “I found the car. I have water. I know the way out.” He is convinced of the truth of this claim, and is extremely disheartened when, after a few minutes of forceful persuasion, he realizes it is an illusion.
Eventually, after moving around for what could be days, they lie down, exhausted and in a trance. One is clearly stronger than the other and is capable of continuing; one is finished. They lie next to each other, staring at the sky. Suddenly, the strong one moves on top of the weak one, wrestling him, literally shaking the life out of him. He stabs him and he bleeds, giving in quickly to the loss of consciousness. No emotion is displayed, and the event seems natural and pure. The act is clearly one of compassion for the pain of the weak one, a hastening of the inevitable and a cessation of the pain and agony and waiting. It is an act of euthanasia. However, it is also an act of survival; the strong one is now free to move again and attempt to survive on his own, which he eventually does, seeing the highway before him shortly after the murder.
There is no lesson in the death, or any sense of closure. It is simply an act, and it bleeds into the reality of the rest of the film, having no special significance. It comes and passes in the same manner as the rest of the journey. It is a violent act, somewhat selfish, and it occurs in the vague context of an allegorical journey.
The film is about being lost and eventually succumbing. However, there is never a sense of panic from the characters, or a sense that they have lost control or even hope. There is an acceptance at one point, when they lie down, and some timid shedding of tears from the weaker Gerry. But the characters admirably remain focused on survival and getting out, on proving their strength against the elements and their own thirst and exhaustion. The stronger character’s devotion to this elusive hope eventually saves him, and he finds his way, leaving behind a friend who, all elements aside, he had murdered.
He rides away in a car, still in a trance, looking back at the desert. The film is beautiful, and it is essentially a meditation on the struggle to survive.
Elephant is a montage of different students at a public high school. Because the audience knows it is about the Columbine murders, the outcome is a given. Each ‘victim’ is introduced with a title card, and we see them in their world, interacting with their friends, with no exposition or context. We know what high school is, and we understand and recognize the basis of the conversations and relationships. Scenes and characters intertwine as new characters are introduced and followed.
Various social issues are broached in the context of the characters’ lives, issues that have all been mentioned in the context of the killings as an attempt at explanation or blame. The first shot is a weaving car, casually sideswiping a parked car and almost hitting a biker. It creates a reckless and irresponsible tone, depicting apathy towards life and danger. We see that it is a drunken father driving his son to school, and the son demands that his father pull over and let him drive. He is not angry, just exasperated, and the issue of parental carelessness and forced responsibility of the child is depicted. We see the boy being disciplined by the principal and feel pity for him and his circumstances.
We are introduced to three popular girls as they flirt with a boy and then eat lunch. They enter the bathroom, awkwardly discuss their body issues, and casually, simultaneously, vomit.
The killers are at home, receiving weapons in the mail, which they have ordered over the internet, and practicing with them in the garage. The shy, geeky one, earlier seen picking spitballs out of his hair and plotting in the cafeteria, is playing Beethoven, slyly invoking A Clockwork Orange. The blond, outgoing one, who slyly invokes Eminem, enters his room and plays a generic video game, playing a character wandering through a vast white empty landscape shooting men in suits in the back as they slowly and obliviously walk towards the horizon. Video game violence is thus invoked as a ‘factor’. Later, as they prepare to enter the school for the massacre, the blond one enters the shower with the shy one and says, “I’ve never even kissed anyone, have you?”, and they embrace. Another element, repressed homosexuality and a sense of separation, is introduced.
These issues are peripheral to the mood of the film. It is amazingly ominous. We see the killers entering the school with their arsenal very early in the film, and are repeatedly reminded of their entrance as other characters pass through the same time period. We never know when the first shots will occur. We know from the news that the library and the cafeteria were the scenes of the massacre, and we repeatedly hover there, watching characters, picturing the chaos about to occur. It is visceral and exciting, and sickening and bizarre. Van Sant, without affectation, makes us fall in love with some of the characters, simply from the purity of their interactions and their lives.
He highlights their beauty, and exposes their talents and quirks. Even the killers are presented almost sympathetically, or at least without any attempt to vilify them. We observe their normal lives, at breakfast with their family, practicing the piano and playing games, and their relationship is almost pleasant to watch. We see their psychosis, however, and realize very soon that they are capable of total detachment and extreme violence in retaliation for a vague sense of being underappreciated and emotionally tortured.
The killings finally begin, a few scenes after we hear the machine gun being cocked in the library. The geeky girl with the long pants in gym class arrives late for her job in the library, and as she speaks to the boys with their arsenal, they splatter her blood against the books. They turn and randomly shoot into the crowd of scurrying students. The killings are not gruesome or ugly; they are simple and easy. We meditate on the killers’ callousness and the painful pointlessness of the act, rather than recoil at the blood and shock of the shootings. We also never see a panicked face or hear a shrill scream; the deaths, as in Gerry, blend with the everyday we have adjusted to seeing. The world does not change because of the acts that occur.
The ending is extremely abrupt; the killers meet in the cafeteria, and as the blond brags about his kills, he is ruthlessly shot in the head by the shy one. He is speaking, we hear a shot and see blood, and he falls out of frame. At first, we are not sure if he was shot by another student or a sniper, but when we see the shy one, in the same long shot, moving towards the freezer looking for more victims, we realize. The film ends as he finds a popular couple whom we know and he obviously despises, and tortures them happily, pointing the machine gun at them and reciting eenie meenie miney mo.
The film takes place in a single morning, in the p of a few hours. The characters we meet have no thoughts of their fate, wandering through their lives as death approaches in a sedan with a devil hanging from the windshield. Van Sant chooses an extremely familiar event and gets inside what might have happened. What he manages to create is a total sense of normalcy in the high school. There is no sentimentality in this film, this depiction of an event that is so loaded with emotion and sentiment and anger and backlash and blame in our culture.
He strips it down and rips away all the sensation, and reveals easy to know people in an easy to know situation about to face something horrific and familiar to us all. His intentions and approach are similar to that of the film United 93, about the September 11th plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. We all know the details, we have all felt the sentiment, but the film attempts to forget all that and show real characters in a real situation, without any sentimental pretensions. It tries to depict how such an event really looked. In Elephant’s case, this is done in service of a meditation on the casualness of violent death.
Last Days depicts the deterioration of a rock star, based on the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The first shots are of Blake walking through the woods, urinating in a pond, vomiting, and singing Home on the Range by a fire and a tent. He returns to his house and wanders ghost-like through the halls and rooms, avoiding contact with any of the stragglers in the house, cooking macaroni and cheese and watching a Boyz II Men video. We see the state of his life intimately, and his world becomes recognizable. He is out of it and detached, and has no desire to connect with anyone. He carries around an ominous shotgun in several scenes, and at one point, he mimics shooting two of his friends as they lie in bed. He is in a trance. He literally hovers in some scenes, slowly, slowly, collapsing to the ground and resting, comatose, against the door, falling violently when it is opened and a straggler checks for his pulse.
No one in this film wants anything. No one, especially Blake, has any sense of purpose. This is the weakness of the film from a cinematic standpoint. Gerry and Elephant remain fascinating in large part because of the strength of their characters’ intentions and purpose. In this world, no one feels anything. The peripheral characters might have intentions relating to a vague sense of hedonism or greed, but that is not near enough to drive the film. This is about a wasting away, a slow, drawn out surrender to death, a suicide. The wallpaper is crumbling, the house is falling apart, no connections are made, and we are witness to a man who is totally numb to the world. It again features the long, static shots of seemingly nothing, zooming in on the television, holding on Blake’s lifeless body on the floor.
There is a beautiful shot of Blake experimenting with sounds in his studio. The camera slowly moves backward, and we watch for an extremely long time as he moves around the room, haphazardly enjoying himself with his instruments, seemingly at peace,
In the end, we see him cowering in the garden room, watching characters come and go, completely alone, and ready for an ending. This is a meditation on decay.
These films very effectively reveal worlds that simply are. The characters we follow slowly approach their death, one at the hands of his friend, others at the hands of gun-toting teenage psychos, the last, presumably, by his own hand. But, in fitting with the tone of the trilogy, death simply is. It happens just as casually as the taking of a photograph or the preparation of macaroni and cheese. When it happens, nothing is done to signify or indicate any sense of change or profundity. The realism of the films is, to me, something almost euphoric. There is a real beauty in the interactions between the characters, in how recognizable their worlds are, and because of this, the audience receives a gift: there is a chance at a profound understanding of the nature of what happens to them.
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