Promised Land (2013) – Gus Van Sant

ImageThis film was a collaboration by a lot of people I love.  Story by Dave Eggers, screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, score by Danny Elfman.  Directed by Gus Van Sant, the love of my life.  I was very excited to see this movie.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a salesman for the natural gas company Global Crosspower Solutions.  When he and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) arrive in a small Pennsylvanian farming town, their goal is to convince landowners to grant Global permission to drill for natural gas trapped underground — a process known as fracking.  Steve and Sue are surprised to find members of the community expressing concern about fracking’s environmental ramifications. The situation is aggravated by the arrival of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a young representative of an environmental group, determined to stop Global at all costs.

The setup is something we’ve seen before: a grassroots movement pitted against a large, greedy corporation.  This rendition, however, isn’t quite so black and white.  While Dustin presents a compelling argument for a wholesome cause, there is something slightly off about him.  His comments to Steve are a little too snide, and his charismatic rapport with the townspeople seems somehow disingenuous.  Steve, on the other hand, is earnest and likable, despite the fact that he is promoting potentially environmentally unsound plans.  His interest in introducing fracking into the town is sincere, motivated by the financial collapse of his own rural hometown, and — most importantly — right off the bat he is introduced to us as the film’s hero.  We learn to like him, to laugh along with his jokes, to appreciate his friendships, and to root for his romantic pursuits before the fracking conflict even begins.

As a result, the film’s tone is uneasy.  It’s unclear which side of the conflict is the “right” one — which side Van Sant is intending us to root for.  This vague cognitive dissonance is really what makes the film interesting.  Somehow, Van Sant manages to tell a story that is both understated and thrilling.  The pace is slow, but I found myself literally thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen next.”

The cast does much to carry the story.  Krasinski finally breaks out of his Jim Halpert persona to bring a performance that is subtly unsettling.  He uses his “nice guy” identity to his advantage, exaggerating it into a caricature.  McDormand is also, unsurprisingly, wonderful, once again demonstrating her ability to be at once gruff and lovable.  Sue provides comedic relief, as well as a perspective to contrast with Steve’s: while he struggles with the ramifications of what they are doing, she insists that “it’s just a job”.  Her desire to return home to her teenage son is a (slightly under-developed) subplot.

The film wraps up with a twist, which is always fun, although this twist is perhaps a little too extreme.  As an audience we want to feel surprised and exhilarated, not completely bamboozled.  But in the end, the film is satisfying.  The story is rendered in the small scale — a showdown between two men over a small amount of land — but has clear larger relevance.  Perhaps not a particularly optimistic movie, but a certainly creative and interesting examination of the roles individuals play in the larger machine.

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Psycho (1998) – Gus Van Sant

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As a Van Sant fangirl and a lover of Hitchcock, I’d been meaning to see this film for a long time.  I had also heard some truly terrible things about it, which intrigued me.  This is essentially a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, with some minor changes.  In the film, Marion Crane (Anne Heche) blows out of town after having stolen $400,000 from her boss.  She stops to spend the night in a motel, where she meets the lonely and mysterious young owner, Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn).  Meanwhile, a search party composed of her sister Lila (Julianne Moore), Marion’s boyfriend Sam (Viggo Mortensen), and a private investigator Inspector Arbogast (William H. Macy) looks into Marion’s disappearance.

For me (and probably for many viewers), the question that first comes to mind is “Why?”  Hitchcock’s film is a classic that has stood the test of time, and a remake doesn’t seem necessary.  After watching the film, the answer is still not clear to me.

Sadly, I think this project does no favors for either filmmaker.  What I find to be one of the most compelling things about Van Sant’s films is his very present camerawork, and by remaking Hitchcock’s film shot for shot, none of the camerawork is his own.  Hitchcock’s camerawork is fabulous, of course, but if I wanted to enjoy that, I would have watched the original film.  On the other hand, the remake is set in 1998 Phoenix, AZ, and many aspects Hitchcock’s classic story do not translate to present-day.  It is harder to suspend our disbelief.  In present-day, the film seems melodramatic, tacky, and just plain not-that-scary.

This is quite the cast, and Van Sant makes some really strange casting choices.  I don’t love Ann Heche as Marion.  Janet Leigh’s Marion is mysterious and impenetrable, and that is an essential part of what makes the first half of the film suspenseful.  Heche, on the other hand, is almost goofy throughout the film.  She paces around her bedroom, almost laughing to herself as she looks at the envelope of money on her bed, trying to decide whether to steal it.  It’s as if she is trying to make up her mind on whether to go on a date with the guy she knows is bad news.

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Vince Vaughn as Norman, on the other hand, I actually surprisingly like.  He is not the Norman Bates we are used to, certainly.  In the original film, Anthony Perkins is slender, effeminate, and childlike, and thus pretty unthreatening.  We get the sense that Marion feels sorry for him.  Vaughn, on the other hand, is tall and muscular—standing taller than any of the other characters, male or female—so his dynamic with Heche’s Marion is completely different.  He has a much more physical presence than Perkins’ Norman.

Van Sant plays on this physical presence.  When Norman watches Marion undressing through the peephole in her wall, Van Sant makes the decision to have Bates unzip his pants and start masturbating.  Later, when Lila Crane goes into Norman’s bedroom (a scene which was not included in the original film), she finds pornographic magazines.  Van Sant turns Norman into a pervert—a choice which I wasn’t sure I liked, but it certainly heightens the tension between Norman and his mother, and adds extra weight to his line, “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.”

The other significant changes Van Sant makes to Hitchcock’s original are in the stabbing scenes.  The famous shower scene is replicated almost exactly, except for the addition of two short shots of rolling black thunderheads.  In the scene where Arbogast is stabbed, Van Sant inserts a shot of a naked woman wearing a mask, and a deer in the middle of a road.  How we are meant to interpret these images, I have no idea.  The last delirious thoughts of a dying person?  It is a very Van Sant thing to do (ie. My Own Private Idaho), but it is jarring to have his own avant-garde style inserted without explanation into the classical style of Hitchcock.

      

Overall, I did not find this film to be the terrible travesty that it was built up to be.  I did not, however, think that it added anything significant to the original film, and rather suffered by comparison.  I think the word “disorienting” would best describe it.

But in the end what I like so much about Van Sant is his willingness to experiment.  And sure, sometimes those experiments fall flat.  Just get back on that horse, buddy.

Gerry (2002) – Gus Van Sant

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What a trip.  The first of Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”—the second being Elephant (2003), the third being Last Days (2005).  Written by Gus Van Sant, Casey Affleck, and Matt Damon; starring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon.  Two friends, both named Gerry, find themselves lost in the desert with no food or water.

This film was very Van Sant.  I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but it has stuck with me all day and I think it deserves a re-watching.  Dialogue is sparse, and a great percentage of the film is just the two men walking across the anonymous landscape in silence.  Van Sant follows them with tracking shots, and most of the scenes are filmed in single takes.  I have to admit that I found a lot of it pretty hard to watch, but conceptually it was really fascinating.

The dialogue provides little explication, and we know only that the two Gerries are hiking towards “the thing”.  Eventually they abandon their journey and decide to head back, ultimately losing their way.  There is a Samuel Beckett feel to the film, the two men moving meaninglessly through their confined world, a “thing” drawing them in and leading them into destruction.  The dialogue also feels very Beckett to me—lighthearted and mundane, but somehow taking on new meaning in their unique and dark situation.

The use of the name “Gerry” in the film is bizarre.  The characters share the name, and in an anecdote Affleck’s character mentions speaking to a third Gerry, the only person mentioned outside of the context of the plot.  The two men also use the word in casual conversation; Damon points out that “we totally Gerried the scout-about,” and Affleck accuses Damon of “Gerrying the rendezvous”.  Their entire world seems to be connected by this one word.  There is a moment in the film when a man appears in the distance walking towards the two Gerries, but when he finally reaches them he reveals himself to be Damon’s character, Affleck having been sitting beside a mirage version of his friend.  Everyone and everything is Gerry.

Of course, I was especially interested in the way the film connected to Elephant (because analyzing Elephant is my favorite thing to do).  And, to my delight, Gerry filled in some holes for me.  There is a moment during the actual shooting in Elephant where Eric says, “Anyway, Mr. Luce, whatever. You know there’s others like us out there too. And they will kill you if you f-ck with them like you did me and Gerry.”  There is no character in Elephant named Gerry.  Presumably Eric is talking about Alex, his partner in crime, but there is no explanation for why he slips the wrong name.  There is the impression that the world of Gerry, the vast tundra of death (!), extends out of that film and into the death and destruction of Elephant.

Additionally, in relation to Elephant, at one point Eric plays a video game that allows him to shoot down figures walking across a barren wasteland.  The video game uncannily parallels one of the final scenes in Gerry.  One of the figures in the game is even wearing a t-shirt with a star on the chest, which is what Affleck’s character wears for the entirety of the film.  The game is called “Gerrycount”.

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I was obsessed with the concept of Gerry as a video game in its own right.  Towards the beginning of the film, Affleck’s character has a long monologue about a video game where he “conquered Thebes”.  This is one of the longest sections of dialogue in the film, and through its monotony, it presents an interesting frame for the narrative that follows.  Van Sant frequently uses long shots to film the two men, reducing them to small, anonymous figures.  To me, it seems as though the two men have fallen into a video game, trekking across landscape that is being programmed before them.  The concept of a teenage boy from another film shooting them down in this wasteland is particularly troubling.

The ending of the film is dark.  Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted saying, “Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murder scenes.”  I was forcibly reminded of that quote during one of the final scenes of the film, where the two Gerries lie together on their backs, exhausted from days of walking without food or water.  Affleck reaches for Damon’s hand, but Damon pulls away.  Eventually Damon rolls on top of Affleck, and the camera pulls back ambiguously—are they kissing?  Are they strangling each other?  Are they hugging?

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The fact that the film ends bleakly should come to no surprise to us.  Between the playful dialogue comes a loaded silence between the two men, and as their situation becomes more dire, the film becomes more and more uncomfortable to watch.  All in all, it is not a fun film, but it holds its own.  Great performances by Damon and Affleck, and as always, Van Sant’s camerawork is present and deliberate.  If you’re a Beckett fan, you might actually love it.

Shooter Films

Last week a couple of friends and I watched Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) back to back.  It was a heavy night.  Not the type of activity I usually consider fun.  But it ended up being really interesting to watch the two films side by side, and to see what the two directors did with such loaded (no pun intended) material.  How are you supposed to depict a school shooting without sensationalism, melodrama, or just “getting it wrong”?  I think both films were pretty successful in doing this, although they did it in extremely different ways.

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I always feel a little awkward when I say that Elephant is one of my favorite movies.  It’s certainly not a film you want to say you enjoyed.  Based loosely on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, Elephant is about an ordinary high school day that quickly escalates into chaos when two students come to school with guns and explosives.  I think for me, the reason this film appealed to me so much was because it was the first “artsy” film that I could really appreciate.  Throughout the film, Van Sant uses long tracking shots to follow individual students as they go about their day.  There is little scripted dialogue and almost no non-diegetic sound, and the narrative is not presented in chronological order.  Van Sant establishes a slow pace at the beginning of the film, and he maintains that pace until the end—so the same slow tracking shots that follow the students as they go to class are then used to follow the two boys as they gun down their classmates.  I found this style of filming alienating at first, but eventually I came to really appreciate it.  Instead of trying to assess judgment or meaning, Van Sant depicted this inexplicable act of violence in an inexplicable, befuddling way.

This film is the second in Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”, the other two films being Gerry (2002) and Last Days (2005).  I’m planning on watching both of those films soon, so stay posted, yo.

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Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver (I have, admittedly, not read the book), takes on the perspective of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) and her struggle to raise her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) while becoming increasingly troubled by his displays of bored cruelty.  This film is formally more conventional than Elephant, but content-wise it is comparably disturbing.  The relationship between Kevin and Eva is really interesting.  He targets her in particular, seemingly hating her from the moment he comes out of the womb, while maintaining a superficially positive relationship with his father Franklin (John C. Reilly) and his sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich).  At the same time, the film draws parallels between Kevin and Eva both physically and, occasionally, mentally.  When Eva makes a derogatory comment about fat people, Kevin says to her, “You know, you can be kind of harsh sometimes.”  “You’re one to talk,” she says.  He answers, “You wonder where I got it?”  The film raises the troubling question of how responsible Eva is for her son’s violent actions.

I was struck by the fact that both films used temporal scrambling to some extent.  Elephant obviously takes this to an extreme level—scenes are repeated, skipped, and shown from multiple angles.  One scene in which three students pass each other in the hallway is shown three separate times from the three respective perspectives.  I found this decision to be really clever.  To tell the story straightforwardly would be to simplify it.  The killers are first shown entering the high school maybe ten minutes into the film, and we are not shown their massacre until the end of the film.  Thus, everything takes on a nightmarish quality as we follow these students around the labyrinthine halls of the high school, unsure where or when we are, expecting the killers to appear at any moment.

We Need To Talk About Kevin also does not “settle” in time.  The film is a montage of several stories that are told semi-chronologically.  There is the story of Eva after her son’s crime, and her dealing with the bitterness and abuse directed at her from the community.  This is cross-cut with the story of Kevin’s childhood and his relationship with his mother, which moves chronologically towards his crime.  Further cross-cutting shows us memories out of chronological order: injured and killed classmates, Celia with an eye patch, Eva running to the high school.  There is an unsettling sense of fragmented time—we don’t really have a “present” to which we can anchor ourselves, but instead slide from memory to memory.

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I think what is the most interesting about both of these films is their depictions of the killers themselves.  Van Sant offers two killers, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), but it is clear that Alex is the mastermind behind the massacre, and Van Sant focuses the most on him.  For me, Alex makes Elephant. He is undoubtedly disturbed.  His face is hauntingly blank as he hunts and kills his fellow classmates (including, in the end, Eric), and at one point he even smiles as he jogs down the halls.  But there is also a sympathetic side to him, when we see him being pelted with spitballs in class, and when he and Eric share a surprisingly vulnerable moment in the shower together.  (Gus Van Sant, you simply cannot resist putting gay things into your movies.  I love you.)  The parts of him that seem cultured and sophisticated – his beautiful piano playing and his Arc de Triomphe t-shirt – are contrasted with his disturbed and sadistic qualities – his violent video games and his haunting line before the shooting: “Most importantly, have fun, man.”

Within Alex, Van Sant presents every stereotype of a high school shooter and then pairs it with a sympathetic quality, making it impossible for the viewer to settle on a “reason” for the shooting.  I thought it was a brave and stunning decision to give Alex so much complexity and depth, rather than taking the easy way out and simply making him violent, disturbed, and small-minded.  You can’t ignore the human qualities in the monster.

On the other hand, there really is no reason for us to identify with Kevin.  He is like a machine.  He is significantly portrayed as having a lack of personality; he is a void.  His room is spotless and completely nonspecific.  As Eva goes through his things, she finds a disc labeled “I love you” in Kevin’s handwriting.  When she pops it into her disc drive, the screen flashes “YOU LOSE” and wipes her computer.  Later, Kevin tells her that he “collects” computer viruses.  She asks him what the point is.  “There is no point,” says Kevin, pounding at his keyboard.  “That’s the point.”

Indeed, this seems to be Kevin’s mantra throughout the film.  We don’t really see any aggression building in him as we move closer to his final act of violence.  Instead, it seems that he does it out of boredom. While Elephant actively evades an explanation for Alex and Eric’s senseless acts of violence, We Need To Talk About Kevin provides an explanation: there is no explanation.  In the final scene, Eva says to him, “Two years. Plenty of time to think about it. I want you to tell me why.” Kevin looks at her for a long time.  “I used to think I knew,” he says slowly. “Now I’m not so sure.”

This scene is the first and only time that we sense any vulnerability in Kevin.  He is eighteen and about to transition into adult prison, and there is real fear in his eyes as he looks at his mother.  When she stands up to leave, the two embrace.  There is a final sense that despite everything that has happened (or perhaps because of it), they are still inexorably linked to each other.  This scene also takes us back to the haunting question of Eva’s role in the person Kevin became.

A lot to be said about both of these films.  I was impressed by both of them.  Definitely worth seeing.  I think there’s something to be said for exploring the human capacity for evil, and both these films do a tasteful and compelling job.