say your piece

1594 DECEMBER 2003
Van Sant's 'Elephant' Provides Thoughtful, Difficult Meditation on High School Violence
By Jeremy Mathews

Alex Frost plays a troubled high school student in "Elephant," Gus Van Sant's poetic meditation on high school violence.

Fine Line Pictures
Written and directed by Gus Van Sant
Produced by Dany Wolf
Starring Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Alicia Miles, Kristen Hicks, Bennie Dixon, Nathan Tyson, Timothy Bottoms and Matt Malloy
Rated R

Watching Gus Van Sant’s “El-ephant” makes it clear that no other approach could do the film’s subject matter more justice. Dealing with the touchy subject of high school violence, the film resists the urge to explain away what happened in tragedies like the one at Columbine High School. Instead, it simply delivers the information with a stubbornly observational camera.

The film is a sad, strangely beautiful portrait of a day in an ordinary high school that turns tragic. Time folds back on itself as the camera follows overlapping parts of the day through long tracking shots of various students as they walk through the halls and school grounds. Early in the film, two boys, Alex and Eric (Alex Frost and Eric Deulen), walk by with large bags of supplies, and we and one of the students, John (John Mc-Farland), suspect that something horrible is about to happen.

People who aren’t in high school often forget how difficult it can be. Mainstream movies tend to present views where the biggest concern students have is who will take them to the prom or if they’ll lose their virginity. “Elephant” captures a more authentic view, showing what starts out as a day like any other day.

The camera descends from a blue sky with pretty clouds, down through the golden leaves and into a Portland, Ore., high school. John arrives at school late after having to drive for and help his drunk, alcoholic father. When he finally gets through the door and calls his brother to come help his dad, a faculty member tells him to come to his office for being late.
Another student, Eli (Elias McCo-nnell), is at the enthusiastic stage when a young person realizes a talent for and the power of an art. He walks around taking pictures of people to put in his portfolio. Van Sant also presents a happy couple, a clique of self- and fashion-aware girls, a class discussion about di-versity, an awkward girl who goes through the awkward hell that is gym class and other authentic, rarely portrayed aspects of high school life.

Van Sant spent time in Portland talking to students about what high school is like and casting unknown high school actors in the parts. There are no stars to create false drama out of vanity, and the film often feels like we’re watch-ing kids be themselves.

While the casting process recalls Italian Neo-Realism, the long, smooth, deliberate takes recall the work of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), who also influenced Van Sant’s last film, “Gerry,” about two guys who go for a hike and get lost. That film received flak for its slow pace (things don’t happen particularly fast when you’re stranded in the desert), and this film is likely to re-ceive similar reactions from people with short attention spans. It’s also likely that people won’t enjoy its disturbing elements, which aren’t at all glorified or glamorized as the film reaches its violent climax.

Scared kids run, too frightened to think, while others are so confused that they don’t know what to do. One boy, Benny (Ben-nie Dixon), walks toward what everyone else is running from, curious at the surreal scene. There are no heroes in the film, nothing that would make people of any age see this violence as anything other than horrifying.

After the Columbine High School shooting and other similar events, the media filled up with coverage and pundits obsessing over the reasons the shootings occurred. Violent movies and video games, for example, were easy scapegoats.

The title “Elephant” refers to the inability to understand a large problem in a small setting and with small details. The film refuses to place blame on anything, and proposes no easy solutions be-cause there are no easy solutions. The lack of easy explanations has already bothered many people.

The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and received the Palm d’Or (the top prize) and Best Director. The masterpiece easily deserved the award compared with the other films in competi-tion, but some usually very sharp critics, including Todd McCarthy of Variety, criticized the film for its lack of solutions to the problem, calling it irresponsible. It’s easy to understand this reaction, as the film is meant to create an uneasy feeling. But in truth, it would have been irresponsible if the film had claimed knowledge of all the an-swers. The kids-turned murderers themselves don’t really under-stand what happened.

Van Sant uses some of the theories that the self-righteous pundits cited, but through quiet observation, demonstrates that these things really couldn’t do it on their own.

We see a kid being picked on and we see an odd, haunting ver-sion of a game in which you shoot people in the back in a snowy, barren landscape. But we also see one of the boys playing Beethoven at the piano, and a moment when one of the boys is showering in preparation and the other, aware he’s going to die, asks to kiss him to find out what it’s like. The boys seem to have concocted this project and are committed to see it through, no matter how irratio-nal it might be. As they lay out their floor plan, we already know where all the students we’ve come to know through small details are—and we know that even those who might be annoying don’t deserve to die.

John serves as a sort of wit-ness as we return to him later in the film in a sad, futile attempt to warn people. Emotion strikes through Van Sant’s precise form as the kids look on in confusion. And “Elephant” leaves a bit more understanding of the high school experience, but the information, as in the real-life events, offers no easy answers to reassure us—marking a truly responsible film about a delicate topic.

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