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TRANSCENDENCE AFTER DEATH: THE CURIOUS EVOLUTION OF GUS VANSANT’S DEATH TRILOGY

I was always somewhat intrigued by Gus Van Sant’s career - as in, how did the guy

ever go from making Drugstore Cowboy (1989) to Good Wil Hunting (1997) to Milk (2008)? As

such, being presented with such an enigmatic and varied director, I naturally decided to

attack his filmography from what may be its most uncharacteristic, most inaccessible point:

the so-called “Death Trilogy.”

Sounds ominous, right? And I suppose that, by most standards, it really is: the Death

Trilogy is a series of (you guessed it) three films centered around themes of (you guessed it

again; this is all quite self-explanatory, really) impending death and mortality. From Gerry

(2002), where two men lost in the desert wander aimlessly until one kills the other; to

Elephant (2003), which is centered solely around a school shooting; to Last Days (2005), which

charts the, ahem, ‘last days’ of a rock celebrity about to commit suicide; the early 2000s

evidently weren’t particularly kind to Van Sant. Then again, were the early 2000s really kind

to any of us?



While they are all thematically connected - on a surface level, at least, because

“death” is such a wide-reaching subject that I cannot, in good conscience, call it that strong

of a link - what really unifies these films is their oppressively nihilist/realist style, a forced

naturalism that leaves many audiences wondering why they’re spending so much damn time

just staring at people wordlessly walking through mediocre environments. Scenes are listless

and borderline arbitrary, set design is non-existent, the audio is often scrambled, and the

entire experience, generally, feels incredibly like a big-budget film trying its darn hardest to

come across as a found-footage VHS tape - which is more or less what is actually happening,

of course.

Within this realm of forced, morbid realism, however, Van Sant takes care to add

some intriguing artistic flourishes. Much of the audio may be indistinct for the purposes of

forced realism, sure, but it’s also fucked by Van Sant’s steadfast insistence on inter-splicing it

with the occasional avant-garde soundscape (aka random ambient noises tempered with

some smooth jazz, basically) or weird, distorting sound effect. The eerie Californian desert

in which Gerry takes place is its own type of magical flourish as well, as is the strange



mimicry of Last Days’s central protagonist, the Cobain look-alike played by real-life rock

musician Michael Pitt. Not to mention the whole Christ ascension thing that happens at

the end there (spoiler alert), where Pitt’s transparent spirit is seen calmly getting up and


leaving the shed in which his lifeless body is lying. Tempered with the appropriate avant-

garde soundscape, of course, which in this case is a whole lot of birdsong that is later


overtaken by choral singing.

All three films end in this similar manner, actually. Where Pitt’s suicide in Last Days

brings him into his Christ-like transcendence, so does, seemingly, the massacre perpetrated

in Elephant or the charged murder of Gerry; one is heralded by a similar birdsong-and-music

deal, while the other by a series of poetic time-lapses (quite a shocking choice, when you

remember the amount of dull desert-wandering that has been occurring for the previous

hour) and a shot of the rising sun. Both, furthermore, then take a moment to acknowledge

the true star of the show: a classic 1990s shot of the open blue sky. Feel free to assign

whatever meaning you wish to that one, by the way, because though it’s certain that such a

shot of the sky is spiritual in some sense, it’s also so ubiquitous that, at this point, it’s

impossible to say what it really means. It’s the perfect kind of symbolism for this sort of film

- affecting, if only through its overwhelming vagueness.

All three works, then, are not so much about death, which is an incredibly broad and

overreaching theme, but about the transcendence that supposedly follows immediately after.

I guess “Transcendence-After-Death Trilogy” just didn’t roll off of the tongue that well,

though. Overall, it’s a strange type of existentialism, with Van Sant breaking free of the

morbidity of his narratives and the nihilism that his overly mundane approach coats them

in. It’s also why I love a lot of ‘90s violence-oriented cinema: it finds a unique, poetic kind of

power and beauty in that self-destruction.



While I’ve tried my hardest to make this seem like a cohesive trilogy to all of you,

however, it’s actually quite a disparate one. I mean, we go from a surrealist trek through the

California desert to a school shooting to a weird, imitation-biopic (but not actualy a biopic.

You have to be careful about these things) about suicide; does that seem at all cohesive to

you? Artistic choices be damned, these are three radically differing settings and situations,

and sometimes I get somewhat irritated that they’re grouped together like this at all.


But yeah, okay, thematic death, transcendence, doesn’t that make it all okay? Well,

actually, I would argue that the thematic narratives of these three works are quite different

and telling as well. Simply breaking down the plots of these stories makes that evident:

Gerry is about a man who kills his friend without expecting it, Elephant is about two boys

who kill a lot of students on purpose, and Last Days is about a man/rock symbol who kills

himself, also on purpose. So while death and transcendence feature in all three, they’re

aimed at different actors in each instance, within varying degrees of pre-meditation. My



point is, basically, that there is a huge difference between committing a planned, school-

wide massacre and killing your buddy because the two of you are dying in the desert.


A really huge difference, actually. Gerry is more reserved, both in terms of stylistic

choices and the circumstances of killing, as if Van Sant was yet unwilling to commit to this

whole gloomy “Death Trilogy” thing. Who knows why that one guy killed his friend? Was he

going mad? Irritated? Hoping to put him out of his misery? The film leaves it ambiguous,

and so the beautiful shots of the Californian desert sky that follow are ambiguous as well.

All that Van Sant was likely motivated by, really, was a desire to find some sort of ascension

and morality in the wake of an ambiguous murder, preceded by a near-Biblical amount of

mundane desert-walking.

Then, a mere year later, comes Elephant. This time, Van Sant overcommits: the

murder is pre-meditated, and multiplied across an entire student body, and underscored

with the brutal sentimentality of making the audience get to know all of the victims first

(half of the film is just tracking shot after tracking shot following various students going

about their usually quite miserable days, and the other half is all carnage). Already quite a

hateful and destructive premise, the film is twisted further by that crucial moment of

transcendence, which comes when one of the killers is left alone. What can that scene, in

which a young teenager calmly hauls an assault rifle into a corpse-laden cafeteria while

ambient bird-noise overtakes the airwaves, mean? What can be said about the last lines of

dialogue in the film, in which he taunts his two remaining victims before we cut to that blue

sky? Any ambiguity here is imposed by the audience themselves, in hopes of not coming to

the conclusion the film is offering them: that perpetrating mass death will take you higher,

that within such an act lies some kind of spiritual power. That transcendence follows not

simply the occurrence of mass death, but the taking of that occurrence into your own hands.



It’s an utterly ugly conclusion, one that I hate deeply. How can the gentle, ambiguous

ending of Gerry at all be placed on the same par as this, which clearly hopes to draw beauty

from mass tragedy? Whatever fascination Van Sant had with death has been multiplied,

overcharged, and sent towards disgustingly immoral and destructive means. The well of

negative emotion from which he has been drawing from has been inadvertently revealed,

and boy, is it ugly.


Which brings us to the third, and final, feature - Last Days, my personal favorite.


Because here, here Van Sant finally turns the violence inwards, acknowledging the self-

destructive, desperate, miserable nature that has defined his work all along. This ‘well of


negative emotion’ is absolved, more or less, through this acknowledgement, allowed to exist

comfortably at last.



Most importantly, however, here the transcendence finally makes sense. It’ll take a

whole ‘nother essay for me to describe how and why exactly I love its placing here so damn

much, but suffice it to say that the peace of ascension makes a lot more sense in the context

of depressed suicide than raging murder (though I hate the fact that I have to compare the

two at all) (there’s also a fun bit about pop-culture image and the whole Cobain thing but,

like I said, different, much more personal essay) (as if it could get much more personal than

this). No matter what, it’s an incredibly apt resolution to Van Sant’s troubling and varied

evolution, from unclear fascination to untapped rage to, finally, holy absolution. The birds

sing, the chorus kicks in, and Van Sant finds an appropriate peace at last.


A. DZH

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