Tag Archives: teens

One Hour Mark: Elephant

By Andreas

You can’t quite see her face up there, but that’s Michelle (Kristen Hicks). At 1:00:00 into Gus Van Sant’s school tragedy à clef Elephant (2003), she’s just minutes away from death. Nothing about her milieu, with its pastels and clipboards and desktop computer, suggests that a bloodbath is about to unfold, but that’s the ace up Van Sant’s sleeve. In the middle of a perfectly routine school day, it’s here—in this safest and blandest of high school libraries—that we’re about to see Michelle’s blood splattered on a bookshelf.

The contrast is shocking, but it comes about organically. The stories of the killers, Alex and Eric, chronologically parallel those of Michelle and other students (a photographer, a jock, a trio of clique-y girls). These narrative strands wind around one another, occasionally intersecting in small but significant ways, until the massacre begins and collapses them all into a unified tragedy. Michelle is the first to go: she spots the killers’ weapons as they enter the library, and only gets out a polite “Hey, you guys—” before she’s cut off.

But until that moment, she’s just a lonely teenage girl living out her splintered vignette. She has a brusque exchange with her gym teacher, changes her clothes, then walks through the halls, breaking into a run as she nears the library. Hicks is a non-professional actor, and it shows in her remarkably unadorned performance; she’s self-contained, giving only the most minimal emotional cues to the audience. Van Sant’s direction follows suit, stalking the characters for us but never telling us how to react to them. It’s scrupulously fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.

The end result is an impeccably naturalistic movie that recreates the average high school experience with uncanny accuracy before dragging it down into hell. The school library is a dead ringer for other high school libraries across the country; Michelle’s short conversation with the librarian is utterly plausible; and the camera angle here gives the scene an incidental flavor—as if we just happened to peek in on these characters, and this is what they were up to. Poor Michelle feels less like a fictional character and more like a documentary subject.

This quasi-documentary style, coupled with Hicks’s hushed acting style, makes me wish we’d seen more of Michelle, or at least seen her in a movie where she wasn’t marked for death. We learn vaguely of her body image problems, her awkwardness, and her difficulty socializing; she’s kind of like an ultra-realistic version of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. But then, of course, she’s blown away. I know this is a movie about Columbine, but I can’t help feeling like she’s used to add adolescent color to Van Sant’s high school setting, and then perforated like a flesh-and-blood prop. I love Elephant, but I still wish it did better by its ill-fated characters.

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The Key to the Fourth World

This week’s pick for The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is a film that’s rapidly creeping up on my list of all-time favorites. It’s a keenly observed tale of adolescent love, loss, and resentment that doubles as a sensationalistic true-crime drama and is dripping with bizarre fantasy elements. It’s Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, which for my money is better than Dead Alive or any individual piece of the Lord of the Rings saga. Like Jackson’s zombie movies, it’s got a charmingly disturbed sense of humor, and like LOTR, it’s visually powerful, exploiting everything his native New Zealand has to offer.

Best of all, though, these skills are put in the service of a small, human, well-written story. Jackson and co-writer/wife Fran Walsh took the real-life tragedy of the Parker-Hulme murder in unexpected directions, letting us see the world through the wide eyes of Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet)—two romantic, volatile girls with an unquenchable passion for Mario Lanza, James Mason, and each other. Heavenly Creatures is overflowing with memorable images, but one shot captures this descent into the girls’ shared universe especially well. This is my best shot:

This arrives at the end of a delirious, gorgeous sequence in which the landscape morphs around the two girls to suit their narcissistic fantasies. It’s when, as Pauline explains, they realize that they’re not just “genii,” but also princesses of the Fourth World (a land which is, naturally, imperceptible to the commoners around them). In this image, Jackson draws the viewer into their folie à deux and we see the sheer, naïve beauty of their fantasy. We see them as they see themselves: symmetrically positioned at the center of rich, private world, one which encompasses all the natural grandeur of the New Zealand coast and then piles on a Weta-animated majesty of its own.

It’s garish and even tacky, yes, but that befits a pair of swooning teenage girls in the 1950s. It looks like a book cover, and in a perverse way it’s the dark counterpart to, say, Dorothy’s first entrance into Oz, or the Pevensies’ first glance at Narnia. But for Pauline and Juliet, it’s their first step on the road to mental illness and murder. (Oddly enough, this “best shot” is more or less the teenage equivalent of my favorite from A Streetcar Named Desire.) My second-favorite shot from Heavenly Creatures also showcases Jackson and D.P. Alun Bollinger’s extremely stylized cinematography, along with that gleefully disturbed sense of humor:

This is probably the most indelible shot in the whole movie. Who could forget the distorted, unflattering extreme close-up on the psychiatrist’s mouth as he ominously utters the word “HOMOSEXUALITY”? It feels like Jackson’s playing a cinematic prank on this quintessential Old White Guy, a man who pretty effectively embodies the widespread bigotry and intolerance of the 1950s. In a lightly satirical way, this puts a fear-mongering representative of the medical establishment in an ugly light, and makes his professional opinion look similarly grotesque.

However much Jackson may mock this psychiatrist, though, Heavenly Creatures doesn’t totally side with the girls, and that’s what makes it so great. It empathetically details their dreams and desires, but never loses sight of their immaturity and selfishness. Juliet’s family may be dysfunctional, and Pauline’s parents may be simple, unambitious folks, but they always have the girls’ best interests at heart. Honora Parker is, above all, a good, loving woman who doesn’t deserve to die. By juxtaposing fantasy and reality, Heavenly Creatures seeks to understand the girls without absolving them, and it gets that much closer to the truth.

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Sex-positivity FAIL.

The other night, Epiphora was tweeting some pretty crazy stuff from some crazy-ass website. I decided to have a gander at this website. Holy shit.

HealthyStrokes.com. It is a website that is trying to be sex positive. But failing so, so hard. There’s just so much warped advice being given. I am all for educating young people about masturbation instead of making it a taboo thing. I’m such a hardcore pro-masturbation advocate. I fucking <3 masturbation. But this website is fucking ridiculous. It makes me sad because it’s well intentioned but so poorly thought out, researched and executed. While it’s telling young people that masturbation is normal and healthy it’s also putting forth ridiculous statistics as truth, makes sweeping generalizations and seriously, at least once referred to dildos as ‘penis shaped objects’. FOR REAL? I have exactly one very vaguely realistic toy; it has a gently molded head. Other than that, the rest of my toys look nothing like a penis.  And on another occasion, when a girl asked if her father forcing her to sleep in his bed with him (even after she had expressed vocal desire to sleep on the couch because she was uncomfortable), even while the father’s girlfriend was present and THEY WOULD HAVE SEX ON THE BED WHILE THE DAUGHTER COULD HEAR AND FEEL THEM HAVING SEX NEXT TO HER, if it was abuse and was told no. WTF? But my biggest gripe with this site is its rampant, inexplicable hatred of all anal exploration:

I’ve read that stimulating the prostate will make me ejaculate a lot. How do I stimulate my prostate? (age 15)

I advise against this experiment. The prostate is stimulated through the rectum. Unless you know what you’re doing, you’re apt to hurt yourself, and unless you’re planning to make anal sex with males your main sexual outlet in life, you’re setting yourself up for a form of arousal that can’t be duplicated in ordinary sexual activity.

If I stimulate my prostate through my anus will this result in an orgasm? (age 14)

It’s possible. Distention of your rectum, bleeding, and excruciating pain are more likely results.

Oh. My. GOD. Like…seriously? So much epic fail! Let’s tackle this bit by bit, shall we:

First of all, you tell this young person that ‘unless they know what they’re doing’ they’re going to hurt themselves. Uh, how the fuck are they supposed to learn how to do it right if 1. you discourage experimentation and 2. YOU DON’T FUCKING GIVE THEM ANY REAL ADVICE OTHER THAN TELLING THEM NOT TO DO IT?!

Unless you’re planning to make anal sex with males your main sexual outlet in life… Sooooo, there’s no such thing as a strap-on? Men never get fucked by women wearing harnesses? Women never fuck other women with strap-ons? Dildos can’t go up asses? THERE AREN’T TOYS SPECIFICALLY FOR PROSTATE AND ANAL PLEASURE?! Nope. Only gay men have THE BUTT SECKS.

What is up with this irrational hatred of anal exploration? Distention of your rectum, bleeding, and excruciating pain are more likely results. Seriously, what kind of fucking bullshit is that. Uh, lubes? Proper toys (see above rant)? How about instead of shutting these kids down when they come for advice you do a little fucking research on anal sex/masturbation instead of throwing out stereotypes about it. Ya fucking douche.

My disappointment in this website knows no bounds. It is a very vast website and I couldn’t even begin to delve into its depths without going completely insane at the infuriating information therein. At times it seems to be giving sound advice (simply being a website that tells young people that masturbation is healthy and even good for you is a great thing) but then counters all of it with contradictory information (as in, giving the advice to one fifteen year old who has threesomes that she should use protection and telling another fifteen year old how to go about buying a vibrator but telling yet another fifteen year old that she ‘should wait a few years’ before using a dildo. What the fuck? I think this person is confused and thinks there’s some massive difference between a vibrator and a dildo), ineffectual information (there’s no mention of body-safe materials anywhere on the site) and flat-out sex-negative or overly traditional biases (like with the anti-anal bullshit or having weirdly puritanical views on group masturbation and an infuriating focus on ‘developing a healthy sexuality so you can have successful sex with a partner’). It saddens me to think that these young people, who are taking the initiative to try and learn are getting such unsatisfactory, unhelpful or even totally untrue answers.

Listen. If you are under 18 and have questions about sex, masturbation, toys, etc. please visit Scarleteen.com. I wish I had had a website like this at my disposal when I was younger. They have answers for all your questions and even answers to questions you might not even have. Don’t be afraid of your body, your sexuality, your anus or anything like that. There are answers out there, hard as they may be to find; Scarleteen can help you find them.

For more on this fucked up website, please read Carnivalesq’s and Epiphora’s epic post on it: MASTURBATION MANSPLATION!

And Epiphora’s epic post: Thanks for the mansplation, but I greatly prefer my vibrator.

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