Chris Schuessler The New School for Media Studies ‘Death and the Media’ Professor Deirdre Boyle Van Sant’s ‘Death’ Trilogy: Gerry, Elephant and Last Days Gus van Sant’s three films, Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, are, in essence, a trilogy, linked by their common structures, compositions, and representations of death. In this paper, I will analyze these similarities and discuss the treatment of each film’s central event. Van Sant’s early career showed a unique experimentation with story structure and plot devices. In films like My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy and To Die For, he displayed a freedom of narrative, creating esoteric, poetic pieces that challenged and often bewildered viewers. His career then became more conventional, and he hit somewhat of a lame lowpoint with the film Finding Forrester, a sappy story about a young black teenager whose writing gifts are altruistically recognized by an aging author played by Sean Connery. His next film, however, was completely different than anything he had directed. It starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who, along with van Sant, would normally create box office demand with their work. Yet the film was not widely released or widely seen. It was mostly dismissed as an indulgent experimental piece, something created by Hollywood artists bored with their usual work and with easy access to too much funding. Van Sant followed this with a film that premiered at Sundance and, surprisingly, took the top prize. It purported to be a representation of the Columbine killings, even though Columbine was never mentioned, and several liberties were brazenly taken with facts that most people were intimately familiar with. It featured no professional actors; actually, the characters were all essentially playing themselves, even using their real names and shooting in their actual school. The film was much more widely seen, and the unique treatment of time and plot proved to be very similar to his previous work. His most recent film, officially titled Gus van Sant’s Last Days, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and attempted to vaguely recreate the death of Kurt Cobain.
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The thematic elements and structure were by now easily recognizable. The film’s first reviews were harsh, but eventually, critics seemed to warm to it, and it was widely praised for its bravery and patience. Van Sant refers to them as a “news story” trilogy, in that they are all based on real events. Gerry is about two guys who get lost in the desert, and one of them eventually kills the other one. Even if we’re unfamiliar with the event, we can picture the sensational headline, probably depicting the event as horrific and the murderer as an animal. Van Sant’s portrayal of the event, from the characters losing their way to the actual murder, reveals his intent to fully immerse himself in the event and depict how such an act could occur. When we witness the murder, it appears natural and even compassionate. The circumstances under which the characters are behaving are unusual and extreme, but their intentions and humanity are always recognizable. The next two films are events with which the culture is very familiar. Almost everyone who sees them has a strongly formed emotional impression of the stories. The Columbine massacre and the suicide of Kurt Cobain are two of the most omnipresent cultural events for this generation of Americans, and van Sant chooses to take them on. His intentions are similar to those of his first film in the series; he wants to discover, through the process of filmmaking, how such acts could occur. It is unclear as to whether van Sant intended to create a trilogy, but these films are unmistakably similar in several different ways, including their shooting and editing style, their themes, and their attempt to depict a “found story”. Common Style Cinematographer Harry Savides shot the trilogy, and his style remains consistent; it can best be described as meditative. Most of the elements and techniques were developed in the process of making Gerry. The shooting period lasted twenty-one days. There were lots of problems during the shoot, and the scenes were always planned and executed on set, in collaboration with the actors, and with very little adherence to a shooting script or written dialogue. During this process, van Sant and Savides developed what would become a signature style for them. They composed very long tracking shots of the characters simply walking through the desert. Some shots were close-ups of their faces as they trudged, always with a definite purpose and determination. Others were long shots of their tiny bodies against the hugeness of the landscape.