Massacre at Kubrick High

Gus Van Sant conspires with actor Alex Frost and producer Danny Wolf on the set of 'Elephant'
Fine Line Features

Garrett Brown spent a few precious weeks in 1973 holed up in a motel room, balancing brooms on his fingertips, tacking teensy-weensy metal pieces onto tiny lightweight cameras, and finally contriving an object that would, for a time, be known as "Brown's Stabilizer." It would have premiered in a commercial starring Arnold Palmer, but apparently the Palmer organization wouldn't sign Brown's confidentiality agreement. Instead, Brown's test reel impressed the director John G. Avildsen, who used Brown's Stabilizer in Rocky to follow Sly Stallone up those Philadelphia statehouse steps. But it was an American expat and hyper-obsessive gearhead--Stanley Kubrick--who put the onetime folk singer's gizmo on the map. Kubrick gave Brown a few notes on how to make his invention even better, and wound up single-handedly promoting, across the fluorescent-lit hardwood floors of The Shining's Overlook Hotel, what came to be known as the Steadicam.

A complex series of gears and balances keep the moving camera firm: The lens sits like a pasha borne aloft on cushions, keeping movement fluid, continuous, and--when side-to-side panning is required in mid-flight--eerily ghostly. Kubrick's use of the Steadicam had a muscularity, a hardness that suggested dolly tracks and rarely felt like a "Steadicam shot." To feel the difference between a Steadicam shot and an ordinary tracking shot, replay in your mind the opening of Scorsese's After Hours--a speedy rush across 50 feet of office space--or the famous pushes-into-a-goggle-eyed-face in Spielberg's movies. In those shots, you can feel the sweat of three or four guys behind the camera, pushing it hard. Steadicam, on the other hand, is Zen: effort-free--or so it appears. (In fact, Steadicam operators have the most muscular backs in the movie business.)

The downside of a Steadicam, generally, is its phantom nature: It has a hovering quality that's displeasingly unlike the feel of human movement through space. Gus Van Sant's current Elephant exploits that spectral flotation, and fairly maxes out its potential. Following a day in the lives of students at a Pacific Northwest high school--a day that ends with two of the kids turning the lunchroom into a Wild West show--Elephant operates under the conceit that it has been directed by an invisible Martian who crash-landed in the middle of first period and was fascinated enough to stay through study hall. Van Sant has named documentarian Frederick Wiseman as his model: Like a Wiseman picture, Elephant observes its events silently, without directorial comment. (Ever the prankster, Van Sant throws us off his scent by disrupting this strategy with some bizarre red herrings: a failed camp scene of three cute bulimic girls barfing; images of the Columbinean killers watching Der Führer on the History Channel.) There's incident, there are glimpses of character, yes, but principally this is a movie with more Big Float than Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

If there had been no Steadicam, Gus Van Sant would have had to invent it for Elephant. Indeed, three quarters of the movie was shot with a new variation on Brown's magic equilibrium: the Sidewinder, a waist-high armature that rolls on free-wheeling casters and allowed Van Sant to squeeze into the nooks and crannies of high school to capture its most intimate moments. This invention permitted Elephant a new and radical kind of transparency. A goodly chunk of the movie consists of our invisible Martian trailing along behind a student. As the Martian is transfixed by the way that humans walk through hallways (and really, isn't that at least as interesting as the puking girls' lunchtime dialogue?), there's no interference from subjective, handheld jitteriness; nor is there the impossible labor of laying dolly tracks through an entire school. Instead, there's simply the sensation of perfect seeing.

In this, Van Sant hearkens back to that maestro of the smooth surface, Stanley Kubrick. On one level, you might say that Elephant is a sustained parody of the Kubrick Steadicam shot. Finally succeeding in detaching himself from drama (a goal that Brian De Palma has been too chickenshit to achieve), Van Sant exults in the godliness of looking at and following cute kids who can't look back. Though the film is laced with compassion, the overall impression is one of a voiceless god drifting neutrally among his charges; to share in this gaze gives the viewer a pleasantly passive-aggressive buzz. We must remember that the movies made us human, but it was Brown's Stabilizer, amended by the snakeish Sidewinder, that made us divine.

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