The White Stripes: Elephant

Tim Alves

Just one listen to Elephant, the fourth and latest offering from Jack and Meg White, is proof enough that the Stripes have come to take us to rock nirvana.

The White Stripes


Label: V2
US Release Date: 2003-04-01
UK Release Date: 2003-03-31

The White Stripes are our saviors, and they will lead us to the promised land that flows with milk and honey.

"How scandalous! What unfounded hyperbole!" you scream. You are wrong. So very, very wrong.

Just one listen -- a singular exposure -- to Elephant, the fourth and latest offering from Jack and Meg White, is proof enough that the Stripes have come to take us to rock nirvana, a place last visited in . . . well, it's been so long I can't even remember when the rock has been this hard, this grimy. Nay sayers beware! Judgment day is upon us, and, like Kirk Cameron, you will be left behind.

Jack and Meg have on a collision course with this kind of defining moment from the opening blues riffs of their self-titled debut. Each album, from the White Stripes to De Stijl to White Blood Cells, has shown their evolution from Blind Willie McTell cover band with a pop sensibility to full-fledged, honest-to-goodness rock 'n' roll gods, a status finally reached on their latest disc. Don't be fooled -- I don't care if the peppermint-swaddled duo is on every damn music magazine from here to Basra -- Jack's guitar will eviscerate you and drag your entrails around while Meg goes smashy-smashy in the heaviest, most simplistic way possible.

No, the songs on Elephant aren't any more complex or intricate than anything else the Stripes have done, but the quality throughout the album is new. While White Blood Cells had a stellar first half, stomping its way from "Dead Leaves" to "Little Room" before slowing it down for the kids on "The Same Boy You've Always Known" and in general throwing the so-so tracks towards the end. Doesn't happen this time around, as the songs from beginning to end rarely falter.

There are striking similarities to previous songs -- Jack may be prolific, but there isn't a need to start repeating ideas. Luckily, "There's No Home for You Here" apes "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground", the best song on the last album. The differences between the two are, uh, subtle -- hey Jack, how about adding female backup singers to throw listeners off the scent? But any song with a snotty Jack spitting out these lyrics is a-okay with me:

Waking up for breakfast
Burning matches
Talking quickly
Breaking bottles
Throwing garbage
Drinking soda
Looking happy
Taking pictures
So completely stupid
Just go away

And don't you come near my trailer park no more! "Hypnotize" is this year's "Fell in Love with a Girl", all lighting-fast punk riffing with Meg bashing the skins as fast as she can. But why quibble with a song that cribs from the best rock single of the past two years?

Elephant will grab you from the first note, I can guarantee you of that. Through some fancy guitar chicanery, Jack appears to whip out (gasp!) a bass on "Seven Nation Army", the first single and album opener. Everybody cool out -- Mr. White had some free cash and decided to buy some crazy contraption that twists his trusty gee-tar into some low-toned monster, ready to rub you out if you turn away. No one's stupid enough to do that, right? Not when the chorus kicks in and Jack unleashes his fury on the masses.

Then comes to explosive "Black Math", for which Mr. White becomes a taunting, evil child, yelling at his antagonists "unh unh unh unh unh!" The taunting eventually melts into frustration (and possible insanity) when the duo takes a stab at Burt Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself". It begins with a strained Jack muttering, "Going to a movie only makes me sad / Parties make me feel as bad / Because I'm not with you / I just don't know what to do" before exploding in sexual and romantic frustration with the poor sap strangling out "I need your sweet love to beat all the pain / I just don't know what to do with myself" in a maniacal, cracked delivery. Does Jack ever go big on that scene … and still manages to sell it. Riveting.

And all those clamoring for a solo Meg get their wish (what, there are only two of you?). "Cold, Cold Night" delivers a quiet song as sung by the female half of the Stripes, and Meg does a competent job. She also gets in on the jokey final song, "It's True That We Love One Another", as Jack, Meg and special guest star Holly Golightly all express their love … for one another. Cute, but it feels tacked on so as to continue the mythology that Jack and Meg have created around their relationship to one another.

Who knew the Stripes had a seven-minute song in them? On "Ball and Biscuit" they rip out 7:15 of stalking bluesy bombast intercut with thundering Zeppelin rampages through the thick Mississippi Delta. While Jack deals with similar themes as in the past (silly girls, broken hearts and the innocence of youth), the energy and commitment of his delivery prevents the repetition from grating on the nerves. It's tough to care if Jack sounds like a 10-year-old in a 30-year-old body when the music is trampling your will to resist.

Here's your last warning, unbelievers: Grab Jack's outstretched hand before you, lest the devils wrestle you down! Repent, for the time to ascend to the gates of rock heaven is nigh!

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In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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