Thursday, April 9, 2009


"Elephant" (Gus Van Sant, 2003) "Columbine from the Trenches." The film starts with a car out of slow-motion control smashing into garbage cans along the street. John McFarland (John Robinson) has to take the keys away from his father (Timothy Bottoms), who is driving his son—drunk—to school. Already we're given a sense of life out of control as we spend a weirdly typical day at a High School in suburban Portland, following the criss-crossing paths of several strata of students in long floating camera tracks down the long corridors of lockers and linoleum. The shots follow the gaze of the walkers extending to vanishing-points down the halls, leading what? Usually, another hall-way. After many minutes of this you begin to feel trapped in a maze, and Van Sant's doing enough obscure things with his mumbling non-actors (most of the film was improvised) to keep an audience-member on-edge. It's "The Shining," all "Greased" up and nowhere to go. Around each corner, there may be the photo class guy who wants to take your picture, or it might be the last thing you ever see.

The film is an homage of sorts to
Danny Boyle and Alan Clarke's experimental film about an IRA shooter, using long tracking shots and a chilly minimalist approach. But Van Sant (and his producer Diane Keaton) have changed the "elephant in the room" to school violence and the 1999 Columbine Massacre, which the carnage from "Elephant" somewhat resembles. The film plays out dispassionately without any answers and no questions asked. The Act simply is. Kids get pissed. Kids arm up. Kids get revenge. The shooters aren't glorified. They have little on the ball, get abused by the jocks, play first-person shooter video games, experiment with gay sex, and build bombs that don't work. Their assault is shooting fish in a barrel, with no rules and no thought. What could explain it? And nothing could justify it. In the end, you're left drained and hopeless and questioning why you wanted to see it in the first place.

But Van Sant excels in draining feeling out of his movies. Oh, emotions are there, but there's a chilly null-void surrounding the actors as they float through the landscapes. The kids in the school are chirpily distracted, turning drama from the trivia. They're not even thinking, so much as using brain-energy and you can feel the complacency in their hall-walkabouts—("This is where I'm supposed to be, and okay, I get to do things I like to do, so no problem") They're innocent cows in a field, ill-prepared for armed assault, and death unfathomable given their age. They're the slowest of targets.

The shooters have that same null-void cocoon around them and through them. They shoot, sometimes watch the results, but mostly just randomly pick off kids they encounter by chance. All the earlier intersections we've seen (and re-seen from other perspectives) come to an abrupt ending, the wanderings stopped with a bloody, crumping jolt. This is death by violence, but it's not a crime of passion. These kids feel nothing, not even satisfaction, wandering through their little cloud of atrocity, while the other kids wander in theirs of complacency. The gun-shots are the lightning that form when they meet.

It's a disturbing film for its utter lack of feeling, remorse or empathy. As such, it provides a bit more insight to a senseless killing than any speculation of its cause might serve.

What could explain such an act?


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