In 2003, I ranked Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” the best film of the year. I was entralled by its mesmerizing long-take visuals, its unconventional sound design, and its eerie, unsettling position on an American tragedy. And then after last week’s shootings in Newtown, I suddenly found my favorite movie of 2003 to be a little distasteful and perhaps irresponsible. Everything I loved about it nine years ago I now disliked. Everything that impressed me now repelled me. Reaching middle-age may have something to do with it, but my shift on the film opened up an area of discussion–an age-old one, I might add–that I thought was worth revisiting.
In this week’s Docutopia column at the SundanceNow website, I ask, “In Depicting Trauma, Does Narrative Cinema Fall Short“?
Here is an excerpt:
When tragedies of this magnitude take place, is a sterile “art project”—as Salon.com critic Charles Taylor derisively called the film—the most effective way to represent them?
Taylor also suggested in his review that Van Sant “substitutes aesthetics for exploration,” which I think goes too far. The problem isn’t that Van Sant replaces aesthetics for deeper exploration; it’s that the film foregrounds its cinematic technique to explore these horrors in a highly dispassionate way. So when it comes to massive catastrophe and heartbreak—i.e. an event involving the slaughter of innocent children—can narrative illusionism really capture or retell those events with the same sense of responsibility—or force—as a more sober documentary? Yet perhaps the problem with Elephant hinges less on its status as fiction than on the kind of fiction it is: one that removes itself from the horror via a kind of stylized splendor. Recall similar critiques leveled at Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List many years ago: Should a movie about the Holocaust look so beautiful?