Ghosts are notorious for getting stuck in time. Having lost track of the ongoing world, they will revisit certain hours as obsessively as they haunt a fatal spot. In Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, the camera wanders like a ghost. It trails half a dozen teenagers through their Oregon high school, looping back repetitively to a few moments in their day–ordinary moments, you might think, which grow full and weighty only because they precede the kids’ violent deaths.
Van Sant is not the first filmmaker to respond to the massacres at American high schools, in Colorado and elsewhere. He is the only one so far who has felt the need to linger over the texture of the kids’ lives. Despite its power to devastate, his ghost story is full of vitality, precisely because normal time is coming to an end–but not yet, not until you’ve walked the halls with these young people and felt what they’re about to give up.
Elias (Elias McConnell) spends his last hours doing what he loves: taking photographs, working in the school darkroom, chatting easily with everyone he meets. Michelle (Kristen Hicks) agonizes over the other girls’ put-downs but finds refuge in the library, where she’s welcomed as a volunteer. Carrie and Nathan (Carrie Finklea and Nathan Tyson), the high school’s beautiful couple, get signed out early, having a serious affair to manage. John (John Robinson) just tries to make it through a day that’s been messed up from the start by his dad (Timothy Bottoms), a middle-class drunk who needs John to take care of him. You meet other students, too, and a few adults–decent sorts, mostly–as the camera floats through the school, tracking now one character and now another. You also meet Alex and Eric (Alex Frost and Eric Deulen), the boys who stride across the lawn wearing camouflage fatigues and carrying heavy bags just as John walks through the door. “Get the fuck out of here and don’t come back,” Alex tells him–at which point, the movie itself goes back, returning to an earlier moment and another view of these events.
That scene in front of the school, with John going out and the killers coming in, becomes a chronological marker in the ghost-time of Elephant. You glimpse the scene twice more, from different characters’ viewpoints, and each time feel a deeper, more horrific undertow pulling you from a spot you’ve now learned to identify.
The danger of this elegant construction–if I may speak here of mere artistic risks–is that Van Sant, through his cleverness, may overshadow his own characters. But in Elephant, Van Sant practices a sober brilliance: creating tracking shots that are as quiet as they are complex, elongating or compressing time by changing the images’ speed, letting a mood coalesce from uninterrupted stretches of music (composed, for the most part, by Beethoven and sound designer Leslie Shatz). The direction, though hardly self-effacing, is subtle–all the more so, when you consider that Van Sant recruited a mostly nonprofessional cast for this film and had them create their own characters and scenes through improvisation.
The young performers all deserve to be called flabbergasting; but special mention must go to Alex Frost, the dark-haired, almond-eyed boy in the Triomphe T-shirt who took on the role of chief killer. Because Van Sant wisely refuses to explain the massacre, a special burden falls on Frost, who must be plausibly creepy for no plausible reason, disastrously odd yet nondescript. You see Alex memorizing grudges in the cafeteria, or bashing out Für Elise on an upright piano at home, and you understand he’s both watchful and wounded. At that point, you still think you can grasp him. Then you listen to him coolly review the plan of attack for Eric–finishing with a sporty “Most importantly, have fun, man”–and you feel the bottom drop out of the world.
Maybe it’s because of that loss of ground that Elephant so often directs its attention toward the sky. The students, when they’re outside, sometimes pause in their tracks and gaze upward; and the camera, too, has a habit of studying the treetops and clouds. Is everybody looking to heaven for answers? Or are ghosts circling obsessively over the Oregon suburbs?
By now, you will have heard several complaints against Kill Bill, Volume 1. It is drunk on bloodshed. It is infatuated with trash cinema and its own tricks of style. It is only the first half of the self-vaunting “4th Film by Quentin Tarantino” (which makes it, I suppose, a mere “1/8 of the Existing Canon of Quentin Tarantino”). True, true and true.
What you might not have heard is that Kill Bill boasts a breathtaking performance by Uma Thurman and a serious and coherent theme. For people with a principled aversion to violent cinemania, these factors will not be enough to justify ten bucks spent at the box office. For those moviegoers who don’t object in advance to Kill Bill, the following might be worth considering:
Twice within the first segments of Kill Bill, a young girl witnesses the murder of her mother. Later, the movie’s most grotesquely gory sequence climaxes not with another death (what would be the point, when there have been so many?) but with a spanking, as a young boy is released from the killings and told to go home to his mother. The character who is so devoted to maternal care–and who sins against her own devotion, almost as soon as the movie starts–is known as the Bride. She spends the movie exacting revenge for the many wrongs that were done to her, of which the most unforgivable seems to have been the killing of her unborn child.
Now, the mere presence of a theme doesn’t legitimize a movie, any more than a pattern by itself justifies a painting. The same configuration can underlie a masterpiece and a connect-the-dots picture. The validity of the maternal theme in Kill Bill–the film’s overlay of girls grieving for their mothers, of mothers trying and often failing to shield children–lies in Uma Thurman’s performance as the Bride, particularly when she awakes in a hospital and realizes that she is no longer pregnant. The film, up to this point, has been jokey; the plot turn is lurid and improbable; and yet Thurman goes all out to play the moment as if it’s real, while Tarantino nervily prolongs the scene to give the horror time to sink in. When an actress and her director have the will and ability to convert a genre premise into genuine emotion, their theme is no longer just something to distract a few critics. It’s been earned.
I think a few award nominations ought to be earned, too, since Thurman is as astonishing in her playful moments as she is at this serious juncture. Look at her walk into a little restaurant in Osaka, pretending to be just an ingenuous American tourist; see her switch, almost without transition, to speaking with fierce, voice-trembling conviction, and in Japanese at that; then watch her deliver a deliberately bombastic, post-battle tirade, with neither more nor less straight a face than Daniel Day-Lewis put on in Gangs of New York. Thurman’s range in Kill Bill is masterful. At various moments she seems to act from inside the character’s guts, from behind the Bride’s left shoulder (with a broad wink) and from the sweat-slick surface of the skin, and everything she does is right.
As for the rest of Kill Bill, Volume 1: I don’t want to overvalue the pleasures of Tarantino’s not-quite-alternative universe, where airline passengers are allowed to carry samurai swords and a Japanese girl group (The 5,6,7,8’s) shrieks out a three-chord ditty titled “I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield.” On the other hand, I won’t deny having been entertained.
No further judgment will be coming from this column until Volume 2 opens early next year. To quote the advice of the editor of Film Comment, with whom I happened to watch Volume 1: “It’s half a movie. Write half a review.”
It’s always a bad sign when a movie credits more than two writers. Intolerable Cruelty lists five–and yet this modern-day facsimile of 1930s and ’40s romantic comedies, particularly those that Stanley Cavell categorized as “comedies of remarriage,” must have needed the whole authorial roster. The script packs in more dizzy cross-talk than any other three current Hollywood films, plus enough plot twists to fill a whole half-hour of The Simpsons.
If you think the preceding paragraph is no more than faint praise, then you need to see George Clooney as a heartless but toothy Los Angeles divorce lawyer, Catherine Zeta-Jones as the Woman in Red (his antagonist in courtroom and bedroom) and Billy Bob Thornton as a tall-hatted, chattily amorous Texas oilman–the latter being an amalgam, you might say, of John D. Hackensacker 3rd and the Wienie King from The Palm Beach Story. These characters inhabit a world where the terms “exposed,” “penetrated” and “nail your ass” have legal rather than sexual meanings; where people lie automatically and really fast, agreements are put in writing for the sole purpose of being torn up and justice nevertheless gets done in the end, through nobody’s fault.
Joel and Ethan Coen are the parties chiefly responsible for making this film work so well, after a clunky first reel. They’re the ones who got such joyously highhanded performances from all the principals, starting with Clooney; and they’re no doubt the ones who decided that the characters should all essentially be bodiless heads. These people do nothing but talk; and then, when desperation strikes, they fear they’re suffocating.
Short Take: Because I have reviewed every feature film by Jane Campion, in tones that have ranged upward from respect to wild enthusiasm, I will record that she’s got a new release, In the Cut, which she based on a thriller by Susanna Moore. Campion is entitled to a mistake. Let it go.