Van Sant film looks at an elephantine problem
February 4, 2004
Gus Van Sant doesn’t take any easy paths in “Elephant,” for which I give him credit. A film based on the 1999 shootings at Littleton’s Columbine High School could easily fall into formulating simplistic views, taking sides, moralizing and, worst of all, providing easy answers, and Van Sant, who wrote and directed “Elephant,” sidesteps all these entirely.
What we get instead is a piece of filmmaking that is artistic, provocative and open-ended in the extreme. “Elephant” is also cold, elusive and sedate ” which may be much of the point.
Van Sant’s structural style in “Elephant” is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s two 1970s classics, “M*A*S*H” and “Nashville.” There is no single story line. The camera follows one person or group, picks up some dialogue and story thread, before drifting off to follow another narrative strand. These various threads add up to a multilayered portrait of a universe. Where Altman wove mosaics of a medical unit in the Korean War and an American political rally, Van Sant focuses on the suburban American high school.
In “Elephant,” that particular universe comes across as vast and overwhelming. Much of the film, made largely with nonprofessional actors, consists of segments where the camera quietly follows the students from behind as they walk down endless halls that seem to lead nowhere. In Van Sant’s eye, high schools are education factories too big to be comforting, or even decipherable for someone as combustible and confused as a teenager.
Moreover, high school students are hardly given the support they need to survive. “Elephant” opens on a quizzical note, with a car rambling slowly down a leafy suburban street, teetering from side to side and even scraping against other cars. The obvious assumption is that a troubled teenager is behind the wheel, but the reality is even worse: The car is being driven by the drunken father of a student, John (John Robinson). John forces his father from the car, drives the rest of the way to school, parks the car, brings the keys into the school office, and arranges for his brother to pick up dear old dad. So begins John’s school day.
One story strand continuously looped into “Elephant” is that of the two dangerously troubled kids. As with every other character, these two aren’t given much background. We see that one of them is abused in class, a regular occurrence from the looks of it. Later, as the film winds toward its inevitable, violent conclusion, we see one of the few extended sequences outside the school. The two are at one’s house, playing bloody video games and watching a documentary about Hitler. In one of the more chilling and effective touches, one of the two skillfully plays a Beethoven piece on piano, before pounding out a final chord and flipping off the piano. A deliveryman brings a package ” a semiautomatic rifle ” and the boys are set onto their bloody path.
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A friend of mine thinks the title of the film refers to the proverbial “elephant in the room” ” the huge thing in plain sight of which nobody speaks. The cruelty, bulimia, loneliness and violence, she contends, are all effectively ignored. But at this point, five years after Columbine, the reality of school violence has been drummed into our heads. We are all painfully aware that any high school is a bubbling cauldron of isolation and meanness, with the potential for explosion.
Personally, I think the title refers to a different proverb: the four blind men who each examine a different part of the elephant and come to four different conclusions about the animal. High school is a different thing for every student, and Van Sant trains his camera on the various experiences: the happy and eager photography enthusiast; the homely girl petrified of gym class; the three popular girls who proceed from the cafeteria to the bathroom, to throw up their lunch.
And the two misfits angry enough to walk into school and slaughter a bunch of their fellow students and teachers.
“Elephant” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Thursday and Friday, Feb. 5-6, and Saturday, Feb. 8.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org