Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Abyss Gazes Also

 Maybe the only slasher trope that the original Psycho didn't invent is the killer's point-of-view shot (often accompanied by heavy, excited breathing), spelling impending doom for anyone caught in its gaze. As soon as an imperiled teenager appears in such a shot, they are dead: to be filmed is to be killed, which is why slashers always toe the line of sadism. That's a sin Alfred Hitchcock was endlessly accused of committing, yet he doesn't indulge this particular technique in Psycho, perhaps because such shots, despite their horrible intimacy, exist in large part to emphasize the mystery of the killer's identity. This kind of explicit ambiguity would not at all have suited Hitch's own exquisite contradictions: while his killer is not what (s)he appears, the impact of that revelation is entirely predicated on a false certainty introduced into the audience mind. Mrs. Bates has to exist beyond all doubt for her non-existence to shock; the director's manipulation of mystery relies on misleading the audience as to not only the answer, but the question as well. ("Well, if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates, who's that woman buried out in Greenlawn Cemetery?")

The audience, after all, is as much on the hunt as the killer in endlessly mysterious, under-the-surface cinema like Psycho, and those movies which play most wickedly with that hunt for information are regularly counted among the medium's finest. Yet even the most narratively opaque of such oblique teasers usually hint that something, some force, character, or the director her/himself, lies in wait behind the curtain (in Mulholland Drive's immortal words, "he's the one who's doing it.") Not so with Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Psycho, nor his subsequent Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005), thoroughly self-negating works that leave their many mysteries pointedly unsolved. Contradictions abound: these are movies with potentially intriguing content but are devoted to establishing context, obsessively stylish auterist statements that nevertheless count the Author among their many victims, long-take observances of bodies in motion that seem horribly aware of how soon those bodies will stop dead. All three are rooted in cultural flashpoints of violent death (the Columbine massacre, Kurt Cobain's final hours, Psycho itself), but Van Sant elides what we think we "should" be seeing of those subjects, emphasizing repetition and physicality over controversy as his characters are consumed by an increasingly existential restlessness: they walk and walk and walk and never seem to get anywhere, much like the director himself. Indeed, it's Van Sant's own struggle that defines the non-dramas: these movies (purposely) have little to say about their ostensible subjects, but they thereby become full-length tributes to the struggle of artistic expression and originality. That all three Nothing-Films blatantly fail to resolve that struggle makes them unquestionably frustrating, but also brave, and more than a little tragic.

(I'm skipping Van Sant's Gerry (2002), usually considered part of a stylistic and conceptual trilogy with Elephant and Last Days; while Gerry is beautiful and intriguing in its own right, it lacks the cultural raw material that grounds these other films, and so leaves itself little to deconstruct. While Psycho, Elephant, and Last Days generate suspense by trapping their "something" subjects in Van Sant's well-honed "nothing" aesthetic, Gerry is all nothing, and so remains critic-proof, which after the richly deserved collective sneer that greeted Van Sant's Finding Forrester, may well have been the point.)

Psycho was advertised (and villified) as a shot-for-shot remake of the venerated Hitchcock original, and while that's not entirely true, it's difficult to reevaluate Van Sant's take without acknowledging the expectations inevitably coalescing around such an audacious project. Which is as it should be: Van Sant's Psycho is a film utterly inextricable from its audience. The new Psycho is visually slavish in its devotion to the original, but also to the audience's relationship with Hitch's classic. Watching the new version is a process of communing with the old, the (mostly) identical framing and editing reviving sense-memories for those of us who've watched Janet Leigh get slashed apart far more times than can possibly be healthy. That wunderkind cinematographer Christopher Doyle replaces the original's stark black-and-white compositions with brilliantine, often gaudy shades of pink, orange, and green if anything only enhances the surface tactility of the new Psycho's borrowed images, forefronting their newness while subtly emphasizing the purposeful superficiality of Van Sant's project. Meanwhile, the uncanny familiarity of these sweeping camera moves and tersely delivered lines, while dampening any possible suspense regarding the story itself, creates its own kind of tension: when and where will Van Sant break the pattern? How will he make Psycho his own? And as the movie continues, resolutely refusing to answer these questions, another one creeps in: is there anything to this remake, or does Van Sant really mean for us to leave his vision of Psycho with nothing?

The answer may lie in one of Van Sant's few original adjustments. Sam (Viggo Mortensen) notes with pleasure that Marion (Anne Heche), distracted by their implicit sex, forgot to finish her sandwich. Van Sant suddenly cuts in to a close-up on said sandwich being eaten instead by a passing fly, whose buzzing momentarily dominates the soundtrack. The scene proceeds familiarly from there, but that shot sets up the whole Psycho project in miniature. If you'll forgive the indulgence: Van Sant is that bug, literally the fly on the wall in Hitchcock's towering edifice of a movie, gnawing away at the pristine surfaces of the original work only to find they're hollow on the inside. There's nothing to actually learn from Van Sant's Psycho, no trenchant insight or philosophical statement beyond the (occasionally dated) broadsides of a decades-old thriller. By momentarily asserting authorial control with this unexpected cutaway, Van Sant ends up emphasizing how little authority he has over Psycho; he can only play around at the margins. Far from the arrogant appropriation it was assumed to be, Van Sant's Psycho is actually a funeral procession for the artistic ego, genuflecting to the diamond-hard core of the original even as it muddies the surface.

And so goes the film. Van Sant inserts other cutaways during the murder scenes, but these shots (silvery clouds, a car reversing toward some cows, a blindfolded woman turning slowly toward the camera) exist only to demonstrate their own artifice, again establishing Van Sant's voice only to admit that it's hollow. These edits undermine suspense, but given the tightness of Hitchcock's scenarios, that's really all Van Sant can do; the meaninglessness of the cutaways become perverse tributes to the original Psycho's perfection. After Doyle colors in the lines, Van Sant's job is reduced to tossing in these intentionally arbitrary fragments, which hint at some greater meaning but collectively add up to nothing. Yet this strategy fits the material: as Raymond Durgnat argues, Psycho is a story of blind spots and "mental lapses," driven by the twin-piston engine of police-procedural pragmatism and visceral, violent irrationality. As such, Van Sant's meaningless shots are perhaps heir to Hitchcock's red herrings (stuffed birds, nudie magazines, an old record), a strategy which also crops up in Van Sant's Elephant, another film that refuses to unearth a cogent inspiration for murder. Hitchcock's emptiness points toward the folly of attempting to explain away Norman Bates' vicious id, while Van Sant's void acknowledges the doubled folly of recreating that non-understanding. The latter director ends his Psycho by openly admitting his helplessness: the camera cranes away from Marion's car being dragged out of a swamp, focusing instead on the gorgeous hills and mountains surrounding the Bates Motel, a shot with no precedent in Hitchcock's Psycho (see the video above). We wait, seconds passing, for something to appear, some hint at what Van Sant has been after all along, some flicker of originality. We get nothing: the soundtrack warbles, the mountains sit, and Van Sant finally cuts to black. You can almost hear him laughing.

After Psycho bombed, thus proving its own point (you can't go home again), Van Sant remade some money with the execrable Finding Forrester before abandoning all pretense of studio largesse, recommitting himself to the arthouse world that midwifed his career in the mid-1980s. Yet early Van Sant works like Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho, for all their emphasis on subjectivity and near-autistic alienation, still engaged with something resembling the real world: an indie-by-necessity American underground populated by the sort of strung-out lost souls collectively memorialized in Slacker. That stilted humanism had all but dissipated by the time Van Sant returned to The Kids Today, replaced by a creepily calm acceptance of the violence his new films framed as both inexplicable and inevitable. This may go a long way toward explaining the generally baffled reaction Elephant received when it opened stateside, Palme d'Or in tow. The controversy that greeted Van Sant's Psycho was an insular, self-satisfied kind, a cultish community resisting any attempt to replant hallowed ground. The unease engendered by Elephant, a re-enactment of the Columbine shooting, was something very different, and to be honest, I've only recently come to terms with (and come to love) a film I despised on first viewing. Psycho and Last Days, by virtue of their subjects, are prime vessels for the questions about artists and artistry that drive Van Sant's controlled dissolution of cinematic meaning. Elephant's own hermetic tendencies aren't quite so easy to forgive, as its subject doesn't lend itself as easily to extreme aestheticization; surely Columbine deserves a more respectful and realist treatment, something closer to the "truth" of the massacre? Van Sant and simpatico cinematographer Harris Savides don't alter the hypnotic, tracking-shot-laden framework they experimented with in Gerry at all for Elephant, and many interpreted this aggressive stylization as overly distant from, or even insulting to, the memory of the tragedy itself. Again, the question: if Van Sant is just playing with his toys and has nothing new to say about Columbine (as he most certainly does not), why make the movie at all?

Of course, just as with Psycho, the forefronted aesthetic of Elephant ends up removing Van Sant's presence, not emphasizing it. Savides' smooth camerawork (like the film's classical soundtrack and softly glowing lighting) makes no pretense to photographic realism, even as it taps in to the steady rhythms of the eternally wandering characters. It's worth noting that Elephant was filmed in a decommissioned high school; the place itself is dead, just as the characters are already dead, and so the director may as well be dead too, haunting Elephant's infinite corridors while lamenting his inability to stop the approaching massacre. Van Sant named Elephant after the Alan Clarke film of the same name, both casting mass murder as the "elephant in the room" that no one wants to talk about, but Elephant is ultimately more commiseration than condemnation: Van Sant can't find a way to talk about it either, and he finally stops trying. Elephant is suffused with a horrible awareness of what's coming for these average kids on this seemingly average day, but this knowledge expresses itself silently, never breaking the hypnotic power of Savides' tracking shots. His camera obsessively stalks Van Sant's typically waifish students as if desperate to unearth any detail that might explain the slaughter, but no such magic bullet can prevent the real ones from slamming home.

While it seems incongruous to imagine a director's surrogate in a film that so devastatingly disarms authorial authority, it's worth noting how budding photographer Eli reacts to the sudden appearance of armed classmates in his school library: he snaps a photo. It's an understandable instinct, as is attempting to re-capture that moment on film, but Eli's static snapshot and Van Sant's moving image are both candles in the dark, illuminating only their own feebleness. They can dance around the edge of the void, gathering the stray details that Van Sant flits through near the film's climax, but we're never given the impression that these quiet incidents (bullies throwing spitballs, buddies watching Nazi propaganda, a stolen kiss in the shower) can possibly provide the end-all explanation for the massacre, and Elephant's formally wide open "thought machine" contains an implicit critique of the media hounds eager to provide a trite cause-and-effect excuse for Columbine. Van Sant avoids the mistake of hunting for a better answer to that "Why?" His approach touches on What, How, and especially Where, transforming high school into a constantly regenerating tunnel of reflective corridors, but Elephant ultimately eludes all such bedrock questioning. Two moments in the life of his adolescent killers illuminate Van Sant's essential uncertainty. Alex wanders into the cafeteria and picks out a tray, but then stops, frantically covering his ears as the crowd noise swells to an inexplicable roar. It's a simultaneously meaningful and meaningless moment, perfectly capturing Alex's alienation from the environment Van Sant and Savides have so memorably established, but constructed from the most obvious of cinematic artifices; after all, Van Sant's just turning the volume knob. There's no statement or revelation there, no unearthing of a emotional structure hidden beneath the surface. It's the same surface, only louder. Later on, Alex and fellow future murderer Eric are playing a video game, but rather than offer up the dreaded box as an incentive to kill, Van Sant turns his investigation inward: the game in question bears an unmistakable resemblance to Van Sant's own Gerry, down to the empty desert setting and the two wandering characters who eventually turn on each other. (Alex will later kill Eric in the middle of the massacre, wandering a lifeless desert of his own making.) Thus the director admits to having no control over his own creation, his authorial judgment reduced to a literal plaything, devoid of any consequence or meaning. It's just something to pass the time before the killing starts.

That's the overall point of Elephant, just like it was for Psycho: these subjects are exhausted, wrung of all possible worth, subjected to endless hand-wringing analysis and head-in-the-clouds cultural conjecture to the point where the only way to win is not to play. Marion Crane and the shooting victims are not only physically dead, they're conceptually dead, and Van Sant's slavish re-creative efforts in Psycho and Savides' attentive but empty long takes in Elephant serve as pointed reminders of that void. Remaking Psycho can't save Marion, and recreating Columbine can't save the kids: all we can do is watch as they die, again (back to Mulholland Drive: "this is all recorded.") Appropriate, then, that the final and most powerful chapter of Van Sant's Nothing Period (yes, that's pretentious; he's pretentious, I'm pretentious, you're pretentious, everyone's pretentious, let it go) should center on Kurt Cobain, a thoroughly exploited corpse even by pop music's standards. Though a lot of Cobain's appeal sprang from his sardonic self-awareness of the hoary, tired Rawk n' Roll mythology that he and his band were reluctantly perpetuating, his genre savviness didn't save him from carrying out that myth's suicidal conclusion, dropping out of the Nirvana Story even as he made it perversely complete. What better vessel for Van Sant's own full-length self-negation? Like Elephant (and unlike Psycho), Last Days curates a real-world death, but like Psycho (and unlike Elephant), the violence in Last Days is also a pop-cultural event, already more image than reality before Van Sant and Savides got their hands on it. The intuitive skill and measured compassion with which Van Sant threads these seemingly oppositional concerns reveal the fragile heart beneath the director's austere experimentation, making Last Days the full fruition of Van Sant's millennial aesthetic and probably his greatest work to date.

The austere framing, disorienting edits, and extended tracking shots of Elephant return whole in Last Days, but Van Sant isn't using them to gather together a diffuse, alienated community this time; Cobain stand-in "Blake" (Michael Pitt, whose pale beauty has never been put to better use) has the camera all to himself, and never quite figures out what to do with it. The first shot finds Savides hanging back, keeping an anonymous patch of Northwest woods between lens and subject (object?) but we can still make out Blake puking, inaugurating the film's relentless focus on physical collapse. We then follow him stumbling, skinny-dipping and pissing before he ever opens his mouth to sing: "Home! Home on the range..." Like the noise Alex faces in Elephant's cafeteria, Blake's song reinforces his isolation (with Cobain-ready sarcasm), but it also introduces conceptual breakdown as a parallel theme to bodily failure. Just as with Eli's pointless photography in Elephant, Blake's artistic impulse is a cul-de-sac, his creativity looping back on him instead of providing him a way out, an apt description of Van Sant's filmmaking. (Also like Van Sant, particularly Psycho, Blake's choice of "Home on the Range" hints at a dearth of original spirit.) Last Days' primal scene (see the video above) remains Blake's last-ditch attempt to find solace from his restlessness in music, looping together a series of furious but stunted riffs in the hopes of finding revelation. He's left with noise, intriguing but empty, compelling in the moment yet failing to resonate once silence returns. The camera seems to know how pointless this all is, and hangs back as if embarrassed, planted outside the house and peering in at Blake's rage from afar. It's this balance of crawling intimacy and pointed distance that makes Last Days so utterly unlike most rock biopics, providing an engrossing image while working to devalue as much as possible the implicit truth-value (truthiness?) of that image. It's an intricate shell-game of a movie, one that the similarly conflicted Cobain probably would've loved--but then Last Days is utterly free of such assumptions, and is all the more powerful for it.

Reminders of the real Cobain drift in and out of the "narrative" like pollen, but since Blake ignores them (not saying a word to a bandmate on the phone, flinching from a Kim Gordon stand-in's anger regarding his neglectful parenting), why shouldn't we? If Blake is a zombie, Cobain himself is a ghost, but one that barely even bothers to haunts his mausoleum. The aura of self-consciously pointless pilgrimage hangs over Last Days, just as it did the recreated shocks of Psycho and the re-imagined high school hallways of Elephant, and as with those films, the subject of Last Days is hiding in plain sight, shambling in center frame in shot after shot, yet sapped of all meaning and trajectory. For a movie about oncoming death, Last Days is remarkably suspense-free; the liminal limbo state of Savides' images gives them the feel of an eternal present, moments floating around each other, occasionally touching long enough to produce something resembling a "scene," but mostly just following each other, one carefully lit and framed shot of rooms and hallways and trees after another, until he's finally dead and the movie can end. We see a mysterious figure in red wandering the grounds the night before Blake's body is discovered, but Van Sant again chooses to silently acknowledge our expectations of potential foul play before moving on, rather than provide false closure. The ghostly figure always reminds of the "monsters" in the criminally underrated The Village, another movie in which generic expectations are inextricable from the text. But while Shyamalan expertly upended those expectations, leaving film, characters, and audience alike in a fascinating existential quandary, Van Sant simply leaves us looking, and all we get is a body. Many have criticized the moment when Blake's spirit emerges from his body and ascends, but I doubt he gets to heaven. Like Psycho's aforementioned final frame and Elephant's closing shot of a clouded sky, Last Days' quiet epitaph memorializes the infinite nature of Van Sant's hallowed uncertainty, hinting at a final summation of all the film's drifting loose ends but denying the cathartic closure we're used to in stories about death. Instead, I get the terrible feeling that Blake's spirit (no less "real" than Blake the person, a stilted representation of the unknowable end of a long-dead man) has been condemned to keep on wandering, traversing the same damningly empty spaces Van Sant and Savides set up for him, never finding anything, never even knowing what he's looking for. While these movies find Van Sant utterly shredding his own artistic identity, their endings may reassert his presence after all, if only as a ghost.

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