Wednesday, April 18, 2007

179. Elephant in the Room

With Elephant (2003), Gus Van Sant turned to death like a mortician: calm and direct, his hands unhesitating as he touched and adjusted--and one might argue whether he showed "respect," but again, for the quiet man at the funeral home, handling the job effectively can become a form of respect. Still, this could have been horrible: a cool observation, an uncaring gaze. But Van Sant gives all the burden of sorrow and pity to us; we need to realize that the high-schoolers his camera follows will become either murderers or their victims; otherwise, we are left with only shock, anger, weakness, recovery. Of course, that is how it happens--how it is happening down in Blacksburg--but, as in Oedipus the King, tragedy is only possible when the audience already knows the things to come, so that every action we see, casual or purposeful, well-meaning or otherwise, is fraught with the worst kind of irony, sharp like knives, awful to watch.

But in life we are never as lucky as even the unluckiest fictional characters. For us, it's always shocking. I thought of Elephant not just because it mirrors Columbine and what happened in Virginia--and happens, and is happening, and will happen--but because the movie provides comparative comfort, where I can mourn the victims before they are killed, and cherish them as I watch them still alive. Marginalized people, on the other hand, poor, homeless, displaced people, those who are "cleansed" or get to be called "minorities"--they already know it's time to mourn, right now, simply waking up and getting on with it, inventing a kind of peace. The rest of us--matter-of-factly showing up every day to fairly decent jobs, making regular purchases of non-essential items, sending off our children to tree-lined campuses--are free, and have to be surprised.

And maybe that is, after all, something we need to know: that we are all not just sufferers but "guilty things surprised." I have nothing else to write here: I read Cho Seung-Hui's plays this morning, and not even fiction feels lucky at the moment. I'm not sure what I'm touching, blind in the dark, nor how much longer I can avoid looking at its insistent bulk; but I'm hoping that my hands will know just a little, and that I can manage to at least glance at the rough flanks of the thing we're sharing space with.

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