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Elephant / The Passion of Joan of Arc

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  • Noel Vera
    A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma Noel Vera Elephant, Gus Van Sant s--recreation? Dramatization? Fictionalized meditation on?--the shootings at
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2005
      A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

      Noel Vera

      "Elephant," Gus Van Sant's--recreation? Dramatization? Fictionalized
      meditation on?--the shootings at Columbine High School is a strange
      creature (one day in the life of a school and its various students,
      leading up to the Columbine-like massacre at the end), and a good
      portion of the ink spilled on the picture is an attempt to try and
      interpret just what Van Sant is trying to say.

      My own guess: it's his response to all the articles and news specials
      and documentaries and docudramas trying to pin down the killers'
      motives. Van Sant provides plenty of red herrings, from the
      ultraviolent video game the two youths play prior to their killing
      spree to music from Beethoven to a quote from "Macbeth" to a kiss in
      the shower (which was funniest of all, the way critics jumped on the
      moment. I thought it was obvious, what they were doing--they were
      about to die, they wanted to know what sex or at least a kiss was
      like, they had no one to approach except each other, they went for
      it. Were they gay? They weren't even thinking that way, they just did
      what came into their heads).

      The early scenes reveal nothing; they're the kind of puzzles that
      people love to work over and worry about till hell freezes over for
      an answer, when I think the truth is that there isn't any. Maybe one
      of the most unsettling things about "Elephant" is that it's what
      Jorge Luis Borges was most frightened of--a mystery without solution,
      a labyrinth without a center.

      What Van Sant does put in the film I think he has gleaned from all
      his previous films: from his early works, a knowingness about youths;
      from "Psycho," a willingness to experiment using an entire film,
      from "Gerry," the use of freakishly long shots with scant dialogue--
      what little there is pointless to the thin plot but revealing of the
      characters.

      Maybe another main point (aside from saying "it's all a mystery") is
      that Van Sant wants to reclaim, to win back, to put proper,
      aestheticizing emphasis on and--in his own indirect, stubbornly
      understated way--pay attention to the people these murders should
      have been all about: the victims. The killings (those who haven't
      seen the film may want to skip the rest of this paragraph) are
      upsetting because they're meaningless killings of people we've come
      to know, to feel affection for; we've been immersed in their lives
      for about an hour, and when in the last half-hour they're picked off
      one by one, we want to know why, and we come to realize we're not
      going to get any answers. It happened, they're gone ("like flies to
      wanton boys" to quote another Shakespearean tragedy); all we have
      left is our memories of them.

      And the rewind button (I've looked at the film thrice). But no matter
      how often you view these people--who are special in the way Van Sant
      frames and follows them, and in the way they live and care and hurt--
      you can't help but be aware that if you keep the DVD running too long
      you wander into the portion where they start dying, all over again. A
      knowledge that, strangely enough, is almost too painful to
      contemplate.

      ("Elephant" is available on DVD)

      "The Passion" redux

      I was re-watching this work from an obsessed filmmaker, about a great
      religious figure who is vilified and humiliated, threatened with
      torture, then put to death. No, not Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the
      Christ" (2004), but Carl Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc"
      (1928), though the two bear many similarities: both are extremely
      intense, emotionally, both are (thanks to their directors'
      insistence) uncompromising and difficult to watch. The basic
      difference would be this: Gibson is a self-obsessed masochist whose
      movie bears all the hallmarks of a "snuff" film--tedious, literal-
      minded, completely ineloquent in its obsession with violence; Dreyer
      is an artist and "The Passion of Joan" one of the greatest films ever
      made.

      Dreyer's film has a consistent, instantly recognizable look: faces
      photographed against white walls that suggest they are lost in an
      ambiguous space (wonder ye at the whiteness of the whale?); sometimes
      (but only sometimes) there is a shadow or window to indicate
      distance, or depth. At the center of many of these shots is Joan
      (Maria Falconetti), who acts and speaks like a simple country girl, a
      rather tired one, surrounded by a gaggle of vellum faces (the church
      officials attending her trial). Only when she delivers a crucial
      answer (Asked if she knows she is in God's grace, she answers: "If I
      am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.") does
      her eyes widen, and she looks like she's staring beyond the person
      she's addressing, beyond the courtroom she's sitting in, repeating
      what had just been whispered to her (still hearing voices, in
      effect).

      The film is not entirely without a sense of humor: when the church
      officials have candles and paraphernalia for Holy Mass brought in,
      Joan's eyes widen as if an entire roast pig had been delivered (all
      this just for her?). Her gluttony for Catholic sacraments feels
      almost comic, her dismay when the trappings of the (spiritual) feast
      are taken away (because she wouldn't sign a self-incriminating
      statement) all the more tragic.

      The English soldiers who guard Joan have tin helmets, which viewers
      at the time must have been startled to see, they are so similar to
      the helmets the English wore during the First World War; this is one
      way the film links itself to its audience's immediate past. At the
      same time, Joan's bald head points several decades forward to the
      future, to the Second World War, when women's heads were shaven
      because they were accused of being Nazi mistresses (which makes one
      wonder: of the people who looked on while these things happened, how
      many were reminded of Falconetti's horribly naked pate?).

      Faced with execution, Joan gives way and signs the statement (which,
      among other things, includes an admission that her visions are
      false); suddenly the church officials are friendly to her while she
      acts shy and not a little embarrassed, like a woman facing men she's
      just had sex with; when they later shear off her hair, the image of a
      French woman suffering for her Nazi lovers comes even stronger to
      mind.

      The turning point as Dreyer stages it is breathtakingly simple,
      consisting of a single indelible image: a cleaner sweeping up Joan's
      shorn hair, the straw crown (a surviving detail from Joseph Delteil's
      original screenplay, which Dreyer changed considerably by drawing
      mostly from the actual trial transcripts) that she braided while in
      prison swept up as well. Suddenly Joan comes to her senses, cries out
      for her judges, and recants.

      The priests seem like tired old men, worn out from the long struggle
      with Joan, almost ready to give in when she demands that they come
      back. Cauchon (Eugene Silvain) seems sympathetic as he listens to
      her; there is a quick shot of the bald fat priest whose spittle
      sprayed her cheek, earlier in the film--now it's his turn to have
      moist cheeks, as his eyes brim over. One of the final scenes has Joan
      receiving communion in preparation for death; Cauchon, unobserved,
      sneaks in to watch her: her face glows with a serene and simple joy.
      For a long moment, Cauchon stares at what he can never share, then
      turns away. The rest of the film (a bonfire and a riot) have an
      appropriately apocalyptic feel, though considering the emotional
      intensity that had gone before, the chaos can only be an epilogue.

      ("Elephant" article first published in Menzone, Jan-Feb, 2005)

      ("La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc" is available on DVD and in Alliance
      Francais' film library)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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