And so we come again to Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s thinly disguised re-creation of the Columbine High School shootings and the movie that, earlier this year, trampled its way across the Cannes Film Festival jury, picking up the best-picture (Palme d’Or) and Best Director prizes in the process. Writing about the film then, I said that Elephant was “the most reprehensible, blood-boiling movie” in the festival, as well as “a repugnant act of pedantry.” But that was Cannes, this is now. I’ve seen the film again, away from the Croisette hothouse, and traveled to other film festivals far and wide where, inevitably, Elephant has reared its tusks and provoked heated discussions — truly that animal in our cultural living room that will not go away. It’s a lightning-rod film — not the first to address the recent wave of school shootings, but the highest-profile one since Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, and whatever one may think of its merits, there’s no denying that Elephant leaves an indelible mark.
And there are people — intelligent, rational, film-savvy people — who believe passionately in this film, who feel shaken, deeply moved by and even find a strange beauty in what Van Sant has done. Their argument goes something like this: that the film is a blank canvas, evoking the unspectacular realities of life in an American high school in the hours leading up to a Columbine-esque massacre, but not passing judgment on the events that take place or the people caught up in them. That task falls to the viewers, who, the Canadian critic Mark Peranson has suggested, reveal something about their own ideological prejudices with each interpretation they make.
At first glance, this theory seems to hold water. As with his previous film, Gerry, Van Sant has designed Elephant as a series of long, unbroken traveling shots (lit by cinematographer Harris Savides and filmed by Steadicam operator Matias Mesa) intended to create a distance — a “dislocation,” in Van Sant’s own words — between the viewer and the events taking place onscreen. Through this visual scheme passes Van Sant’s cast of mostly nonprofessional actors — real high schoolers plucked from the Portland area, where Van Sant lives and where the film was shot — engaging in modest, teenagerly chitchat that is then replayed multiple times, from varying characters’ viewpoints, as the day closes in on its unknowable (to them), inevitable (to us) conclusion.
Yet the quest for objectivity, don’t we all know, is one of the greatest follies in all of cinema. To say otherwise is to deny the inherent subjectivity of the medium. So it’s unavoidable that, right from the start, Van Sant makes certain choices, passes certain judgments, about what he will and won’t show us — the very judgments that, I propose, are cause for alarm. For starters, there is an early scene, much acclaimed by the film’s supporters, in which the conversation at a meeting of the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance turns to the question “Can you tell whether a person is gay, straight or bisexual merely by the way he/she dresses or walks down the street?” It’s a resonant query in the wake of Columbine (and, more specifically, the mass media’s subsequent contextualization of all school shootings as the work of “outcast” loner-rebel types, possibly frustrated homosexuals, enacting revenge fantasies against the bullies who mocked them). And though this scene, like nearly all in Elephant, was reportedly improvised by the actors in concert with Van Sant, it nevertheless has the ring of a thesis statement (“You can’t judge a book by its cover”), and it casts an inescapable shadow over the rest of the film.
Except that nearly everything in Elephant, intentionally or not, registers (at least for this viewer) as a direct refutation of precisely that thesis. Just consider the students Van Sant has chosen to follow closest over the film’s course: There’s John (John McFarland), a lanky skater-type with flowing bleached-blond locks and a Keanu Reeves drawl; Elias (Elias McConnell), a budding photographer who, because he’s an “artist,” must therefore wear a weathered work jacket and a fork bent around one wrist as a makeshift bracelet; and, of course, our two shooters-to-be, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) — the first of whom gets pelted with spitballs in the back of a science class and plays a solemn, faltering rendition of Für Elise on his piano, while the other plays violent, Doom-esque video games on his computer. Females, as you may already have deduced, don’t figure too prominently — save for the trio of “popular” girls who exist primarily to gape at the boys, then vomit in unison in the cafeteria bathroom because, naturally, they’re all bulimic. There is also, most unfortunately, the bespectacled, pigtailed, leggings-wearing Michelle (Kristen Hicks), who gets disciplined by her gym coach when she refuses to dress out for P.E. and teased by her classmates when she does. (Didn’t Molly Shannon used to do this character on Saturday Night Live?)
Where in this movie are the average, middle-of-the-road kids? The ones who spend more time in class than in the hallways? The ones who aren’t either stuffed into an array of trendy, faux-vintage T-shirts like refugees from some nearby Bruce Weber photo shoot or, conversely, upholstered to look like the poster children for some Salvation Army hall of fashion shame? They are, in fact, there — tucked away in the corners of scenes like the Gay/Straight Alliance meeting and blending into the background of others. But it’s clear that such verisimilitudes do not appeal to Van Sant. Rather, what he’s brought to bear on his unnamed high school is the same sort of intense aestheticization of place that he unleashed upon the desert vistas of Gerry. In Elephant, he gives us not an unadorned snapshot, but a carefully composed dreamscape of high school, in which every floor is meticulously waxed, every shaft of afternoon sunlight unerringly placed, and where the autumn leaves are forever falling from mighty oak trees. Welcome to Abercrombie & Fitch — The Movie.
Yet, whereas Gerry was all formal experimentation with precious little context, Elephant is unmistakably Columbine — not in all of its details, but in enough of them so that the real-life carnage is never far from our minds. We know where the film is going, where it must go. But what makes its final, violent images so hard to take isn’t that they unsettle us in the way they should — as a startling expression of long-pent-up, adolescent rage. It’s that coming as they do, after 70-odd minutes of such intense prettification, and depicted as they are in such explicit detail, the killings seem a precocious art student’s crudely shocking pièce de résistance. It’s as though the Mop-and-Glo sheen of the movie’s first three-quarters had been manufactured by Van Sant solely for the purpose of being splattered with buckets of brains and blood in his grandiose finale.
Beyond which, and more intellectually troubling, is Van Sant’s unquestioning indulgence of all manner of myth and rumor disseminated (again, largely via the mass media) in the days and weeks following the Columbine shootings. Thanks in large part to the series of articles written by the Denver-based journalist Dave Cullen for Salon.com — a body of work that may be the most authoritative, well-sourced and broad-minded account we have of Columbine — we now know that, on April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embarked on “a suicide mission driven by indiscriminate hate.” That they were equal-opportunity offenders who didn’t target specific individuals or, as widely misreported, groups of individuals (such as jocks, Christians, African-Americans). That they themselves, in their portentous video diaries, anticipated (and discounted) the blame that would be foisted upon video games and absentee parents. That they were not neo-Nazis — nothing that simple. And that they were, in all likelihood, not gay. Yet Elephant’s Alex and Eric vocally target athletes during their rampage, and share, in the penultimate moment before heading off to school on that special morning, not just a kiss before dying, but a lengthy embrace and a shower together as well — shortly after watching a television program about Hitler.
Of course, Van Sant is as entitled to his artistic license as the next filmmaker, and if you think that I’m criticizing him for not making the movie I think he should have made, rather than for making the one he has, you may be right. There is very little about this present Elephant that I find useful, necessary or less than retrograde. Van Sant’s Portland-transposed Columbine exists in a mighty small world — one that allows for few ambiguities and for none of the “non-traditional jocks” or unexpectedly mournful goth kids who color Cullen’s extraordinary reports. It is, ultimately, a movie that seeks to explain, even reassure, by employing the same methods as the evening news — namely, by doing everything it can to transform these wayward kids into some distant, aberrant other. But it may only be when we begin to consider the many ways in which these kids were like “normal” kids — how they might have been anyone’s kids — that we will approach a deeper understanding of Columbine’s ramifications. In the meantime, as lead Columbine investigator Kate Battan has herself put it, “Everybody wants a quick answer. They want an easy answer so that they can sleep at night and know this is not going to happen tomorrow.” And now they have Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.
ELEPHANT | Written and directed by GUS VAN SANT Produced by DANY WOLF | Released by HBO Films | At Sunset 5, NuWilshire