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van sant’s heightening of innocence

(writing the essay nyu w/ beth kurkjian)

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata starts while the camera points at students playing football on the field. It isn’t following them, though. Players come in and out of frame constantly and it is impossible to follow the action. Some girls running a lap around the field also cross the frame. The last girl stops in front of the camera to breathe in and look around. Everything slows down while she contemplates. We contemplate with her. She leaves and the frame empties itself. Moonlight Sonata continues its crescendo as the figures moving in and out of the frame become less relevant. The field itself has become the foreground; everything happening around it is part of the background. Then, as all of our focus is on a half empty field, one of the football players walks up, puts his red lifeguard sweatshirt on and walks all the way back inside the school. As we follow him, the field we left behind has become the background to the new foregrounded student.

Elephant (2003) by Gus Van Sant plays deeply with the relationship between background and foreground. In brief, it is about a high school shooting greatly inspired by the Columbine Massacre. Yet, this isn’t what the film pays attention to, it’s part of the background. As viewers, most of the time we simply follow various students through their daily routines. The smaller, everyday actions that are part of each student’s day are foregrounded, even though they are occurrences that might seem trivial in the face of such a tragic event. This is a controversial way of dealing with such a controversial subject because it never addresses it directly. But through these trivialities we truly learn about the school. Such trivialities expose us to many of the problems students face through their own perspectives. We get to be in the shoes of all kinds of students, like three bulimic girls, an introverted photographer and the shooters, amongst others. And as we follow each one of them, we become part of the halls they walk through. Van Sant also connects the shooting with violent videogames, the easiness of buying guns, bullying in school and many other controversial subjects, but he never attempts to theorize or try to explain why it happened. With Elephant, he merely contemplates various perspectives and point of views on the subject. But why does he expose us to the event without offering any clear conclusions?

First of all, it is a response to how the media treated the tragedy. In his review of Elephant, the renowned film critic Roger Ebert starts with an anecdote about an interview he had with a news program on the day after Columbine. He was asked if he thought the killers were influenced by violent movies, but he responded by pointing fingers at the news program itself. He argued that that the message they were sending to disturbed kids around the country was:

If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory. […] In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them.

Elephant clearly does the opposite of this. It doesn’t inspire this kind of behavior because it is not glorified, it is backgrounded. Van Sant also addresses this issue in an interview with Simon Hattenstone for The Guardian in 2004. In relation to recent criticism Elephant had received about it being ‘irresponsible’ because of how it offers no explanations, he responds, “this film is not a sermon. The point of the film is not being delivered to you from the voice of the film-maker. Hopefully, there are as many interpretations as there are viewers.” He exposes horrible events and taboos to us in this form so we can draw our own conclusions from it without ever venerating the act.

Van Sant exposes controversial subjects in a similar way in Mala Noche (1986), his first film. It depicts Mexican immigrants living in Portland through the eyes of a white American male, Walt (Tim Streeter). But again, this isn’t the main focus of the story. In fact, Walt never defends their being in America although he loves them. Similarly, homosexuality is not the main focus of the story even though it also features prominently. It’s not as if Van Sant ignores these issues though, seemingly he’s overcome and transcended them because in his mind they’re not really issues to begin with. Walt never questions his own sexuality or if the Mexicans should be there because it is not relevant. He just questions their personalities and behavior as he tries to understand them. This is what interests Walt and what interests Van Sant. In essence, Mala Noche is a very sad love story. It is an exploration of the human soul and condition rather than an exploration of society and its problems.

In this sense, Mala Noche plays by its own rules, just like some of its characters do. Walt is a white homosexual American who is in love with a young Mexican immigrant, Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). His attraction stems from an aura he feels surrounds Johnny, since he can’t understand half of the things Johnny is even saying due to the language barrier. This description makes him seem like a very unconventional character, but he’s not really.  It just makes him an interesting character. He’s just a man who is suffering because the person he loves does not love him back. That is the essence of his character, the feeling Van Sant is exploring through the foreground of the film.

But why even include these issues if he’s so over them? Well perhaps he understands audiences have not overcome them yet. By not explicitly defending immigrants or homosexuals he is actually defending them on a higher level, playing with the audience’s subconscious. He doesn’t convince us of their worth because he doesn’t have to. No matter what our opinions are on these matters, watching the film makes us feel as if they were just a part of life, which is why they are pushed back to the background.

This concept from Mala Noche sheds new light on Elephant. Clearly Van Sant foregrounds what interests him the most. In Elephant, he foregrounds the students’ day-to-day interactions and backgrounds the actual shooting. Then again, he is also very interested in the shooting; everything revolves around it. Both are complimentary to each other and therefore are equally important overall. But the importance of placing them on distinct planes within the narrative comes from the difference in what they represent. He is aware that society and media have heightened the subjects he is dealing with. Therefore, his portrayal of them lowers them down. By accepting these issues, he is able to explore them in much purer ways.

The purity in his approach to controversial subjects is sustained by the purity in his main characters, since they are all youthful figures. Mala Noche focuses on a young man that is in love with another young man that doesn’t love him back. Elephant focuses on various young people in the face of a tragic event. Van Sant’s exploration of youth symbolizes an innocence that is present in the worlds he’s created. His films are just as innocent as his characters, never dealing with the controversial subjects directly. But perhaps he is suggesting that there is something to be learned from innocence. This is why the themes he foregrounds are always more innocent than the themes he backgrounds. He is fascinated by the purity of looking at the world through youthful eyes; eyes that cling to matters of real importance without getting stuck in insubstantial issues.

Perhaps this is Van Sant’s voice as a director, the conceptual idea that presides in his films. However, he seems to approach it differently in his most mainstream film, Good Will Hunting (1997). In contrast to Elephant and Mala Noche, it is an optimistic film that sends a hopeful moral about life. Will (Matt Damon), the main character, is a genius that can solve even the most difficult math problems in a matter of minutes, yet he is struggling in life and can’t accept it. He claims to know all about the world because he’s read all about it, which is why he’s happy simply working as a janitor and going out to drink with his friends every night. “You’re an orphan right?” Sean (Robin Williams), his psychologist, asks him, “You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?” Sean is trying to make it clear that no matter how much he reads about something, it will never be the same as actually experiencing it. This is how he makes Will realize that there is more to life than what he thinks he knows. Sean convinces him to go out, live life and fulfill his potential. And this is the feeling the film leaves us with. Even though we’re not sure about what will happen at the end, this film offers more closure than Mala Noche or Elephant. Also, at no point does it get nearly as sad as any of them and the form of the film is much more traditional; it takes place on a singular plane on the foreground because there is no real controversial subject in the background this time. But why did Van Sant decide to experiment less with how he told this particular story and deliver a message so directly?

In the interview with The Guardian, Van Sant also comments on his views on how he perceives art and how this affected various stages of his life:

Eventually, art becomes so removed from the community that you have to know about the artist before you can even look at the painting, because there is a conceptual idea going on. So the artist himself becomes the name, and the name is the value, it’s no longer the art. […] So Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester was like me going back, or trying to, in sentimental movie fashion, going back to make popular art, art for the populace.

From this, it becomes apparent that in fact he was trying to send a more direct message in a more mainstream way in order to detach the art from himself. Yet, he clearly wasn’t trying to separate himself from his beliefs as an artist. If you look closely at the film, you can see that his voice as a director is the same as in Mala Noche and Elephant. The same conceptual idea about innocence is still there. Will is an innocent youthful figure: a young man that can solve any problem except for the problems within him. This is alluding to how we must look past certain issues and focus on the real problem. Van Sant is asking us to background these issues to solve the more interesting problem in the foreground. He applies this to the way he characterizes Will. We are constantly being told that he is an arrogant genius with no direction in life. Yet, Van Sant makes us see past this utilizing a technique that is explained by Sean within the film. “Ah, but, those are the things I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. That’s what made her my wife. […] People call these things imperfections, but they’re not, aw, that’s the good stuff. And then we get to choose who we let in to our weird little worlds.” We become intimate with Will for the same reasons, since we see him when no one else is seeing him and get to know his idiosyncrasies. This is how we truly learn about him. Consequently, we see past what has been told to us about him just as we see past what has been told to us about the Columbine Massacre in Elephant and what has been told to us about homosexuality and immigrants in Mala Noche.

With Good Will Hunting, Van Sant has simply isolated his conceptual idea about innocence in a more direct, mainstream film. Due to this straightforward approach, his message has been boiled down to its essence, with no controversial subjects to complicate it. And this message is how he approaches filmmaking. You can’t understand life until you actually live it. Even though we might believe we know about it because of what we have been told, we are innocent before actually experiencing it. But we must embrace this innocence. Acknowledging it means we will be looking at the subject with a pure vision, the first step to truly understand it. However, our innocence can get distorted if we listen to what we are told, if we listen to what the media told us about Columbine or what society has told us about homosexuals and immigrants. Besides, with a distorted innocence we will never understand the subject. Van Sant offers no clear explanations and interpretations to the subjects his films deal with because he doesn’t want to rob us of our innocence by imposing his views. He simply exposes us to these situations so we can figure out what is and what isn’t important about them, and therefore gather our own conclusions on the subject. Therefore, with his films, Van Sant makes us live life instead of making us read about it.