Director: Gus Van Sant

U.S.A.| 2002. Colour. Anamorphic. Dolby digital stereo. 103 minutes.

Following his curious, almost shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho and the bland Hollywood movie Finding Forrester, it was time for director Gus Van Sant to take stock. After much soul-searching, he emerged with two bold experiments that don’t so much mark a return to his early indie roots (Mala Noche, My Own Private Idaho) as a move into new cinematic territory that draws inspiration from European sources. Elephant was clearly influenced by British director Alan Clarke’s remarkable 1989 TV film of the same name. More surprisingly, Gerry acknowledges a debt to the work of Hungarian director Bela Tarr, three of whose films were shown in the last IFI programme. As anyone who saw Satantango or Werckmeister Harmonies will know, Tarr specialises in spinning strange tales of imminent disaster and apocalypse through the use of long takes and elaborate tracking shots.
With Gerry, Van Sant borrows some of Tarr’s camera techniques to serve an American fable of his own devising. More accurately, he and his principle actors, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, collaborated in putting the film together after reading a story about two guys who got lost in the American desert. In the film, Damon and Affleck are two travelling companions in search of a trail in the wilderness. They take
a wrong turn and after a few days of wandering they finally face their mortality. There’s hardly any dialogue and even less narrative momentum, but the very physical performances, the harsh desert landscape and the long, winding tracking shots provide a palpable sense of awe and desperation. The film is an experiment, an attempt by Van Sant and his collaborators to escape the constraints of Hollywood storytelling and its associated cinematic trickery. It’s a work of austere visual beauty in which the role of the camera and the withholding of narrative information paves the way for Elephant.

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