The New Essentials By Nicolas Rapold - Elephant (20th Anniversary)
Back in the day, “Essential Cinema” was the name given to a (still thriving) canonical collection of movies created by the great Anthology Film Archives decades ago. Anthology’s ambition was to define the art of cinema, but mine is a little more humble: I just love these movies from the 2000s, and I want you to see them in all their glory. The twisty nature of time’s passage has sent too many good movies into a postmillennial memory hole, and it is high time for them to shine on the big screen again.
And so, welcome to the New Essentials Cinema Series at Roxy Cinema New York! It’s a showcase of a time when many filmmakers were hitting bold and beautiful new highs, often forgotten now—when new directions in international cinema were exploding left and right—and when film and not digital was still largely the modus operandi. You won’t hear me saying that these are the only movies to remember from the 2000s, like some mad Noah’s Ark of cinema. But I will stand by their absolute loveliness!
This month’s choice is the 20th Anniversary Screening of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant! The biggest surprise of Gus Van Sant’s landmark 2003 film might be its unearthly beauty. Teenagers at a sprawling Portland high school hang out, gossip, go to gym or lunch or a darkroom, with a touching innocence—gorgeously filmed by master cinematographer Harris Savides. The gliding Steadicam shots are hypnotic, the ambient sound is immersive, the on-point cast drawn from actual high schoolers. It all feels lovely in its ordinariness, and heartbreakingly fragile.
The rest is history, which has tragically kept repeating itself. Slowly looming in Van Sant’s brilliantly designed film are the two young outcasts who resemble the Columbine killers from only a few years earlier. Elephantdoesn’t shrink from their senseless actions, but it’s also not a TV movie explaining what happened. Van Sant described his approach this way: “The way I thought the film is supposed to work is that it leaves a space for you to bring to mind everything you know about the event. It doesn’t give you an answer.”
Van Sant’s Elephant is both the work of the lyrical poet of youth from My Own Private Idaho, and a peak in visionary formal adventures that span the desert walks of Gerry and the enigmatic Kurt Cobain elegy Last Days (plus that Psycho remake). In the 2000s, it presented a definitive fusion of American invention and milieu, and international art-film bravado. It was acclaimed, debated, awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and much imitated since. See for yourself, only in 35mm, the film Amy Taubin called: “Tender, fiercely intelligent, achingly beautiful, and in the end, properly upsetting.”
Words by Nicolas Rapold.
Past screenings in The New Essentials Cinema Series have included Movern Callar and A Serious Man on 35mm and Synecdoche, New York on 35mm.