Elephant: Gliding Through Columbine

By Fernando F. Croce

Elephant, Gus Van Sant's disturbing, serene rumination on American high school shootings, comes to town coddled with awards (it both got Best Director and the Palme d'Or at Cannes last May) and a weighty, inflammable subject. Like last year's equally divisive Bowling for Columbine, it was inspired by the 1999 Columbine massacre, an open wound whose bleeding seems to inspire continuous, horrified fascination. There the similarities end. While Michael Moore in Bowling pushes and prods for the roots of the tragedy through ideological crosscutting and image and idea association, Van Sant offers detached contemplation, an implacably moving camera skimming over the surfaces of its subjects. The results are revealing -- while Moore's far more confrontational movie cheapens and simplifies the events via blowhard editorizing, Van Sant's deliberately vague experiment reverberates with true tragic power.

The film depicts one autumn morning at a fictional Oregon high school, as students and teachers go about their business, unaware that hell is about to be unleashed in the shape of two alienated kids who march in with loaded rifles. Most of the cast is unprofessional, most of the dialogue is improvised, and most of the film is anticipation for the apocalypse. Movement is the key to the movie. Elephant unfurls as a collection of lengthy, languid, unbroken tracking shots, following the young characters through corridors, cafeterias and gymnasiums, picking up details as they glide along. No detail is too small for Van Sant's patient, rapt gaze -- a jock's walk across a field following a game of touch football gets just as much attention as the shooters' library rampage near the end. (If somebody edited out all the scenes of people simply walking to and from places, I doubt there would be enough material left for a short.)

Several critics have wrongly described this method as "documentary-like," when in reality it is a thoroughly stylized approach, despite the naturalistic bent of the players. The picture's tonal neutrality, aided by lenses that never heat up even when bullets start flying, mingles and blends the ordinary and the bizarre, beauty and horror, until one is indistinguishable from the other. The picture's constant, rigorous camera movements navigate the characters through this environment -- always following, never leading.

If so far I have concentrated mainly on the picture's style, it's because that is what provides Elephant with its provocative intimations. The characters themselves would need to beef up before graduating to stick figures: the sensitive loner with the alcoholic father (Timothy Bottoms, his resemblance to George W. Bush never more appropriate), the campus artist constantly snatching pics, the nerdy gal who refuses to get into shorts for gym class, the vapid princesses who yak about shopping, take two bites out of their lunch before synchronized puking in the girls' room. The list of characters reads like a cattle call for an '80s John Hughes comedy, but that may be part of Van Sant's strategy. Viewers are not supposed to learn about them anymore than they are to know why the shooting takes place -- it is all part of the movie's ethereal opaqueness, elements of a work far better at communicating moods rather than offering explanations. (In fact, the film is at its weakest when attempting to examine the killers' motives. The hints -- videogame desensitization, Nazi fascination mated with Beethoven appreciation, confused homosexuality -- could not be more facile.)

I've never been a consistent admirer of Van Sant's. The good and the near-great in his work -- a splendid painter's eye, a heartfelt fondness for rootless Americana, the courage to be arty -- gets often marred by a self-satisfied "poetic" strain that's more affected than affecting. The restless experimentation of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho segued into the facetious hipsterism of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and To Die For, only to hit the sell-out wall of Good Will Hunting. Just when I thought Van Sant had settled once and for all into comfy star vehicles and cameos in Kevin Smith comedies, he turned around again and resurrected his outsider's roots: the bizarre shot-by-shot Psycho remake and the Antonioni-meets-Chuck Jones walkathon Gerry are failures, true, but honest, fearless ones, from somebody willing to play a losing game with his newfound mainstream respectability.

Elephant could be the culmination of that impulse, and it goes a long way in restoring my faith in Van Sant's talent and integrity. Its feeling for senseless tragedy is at times overwhelming -- a boy survives while a girl gets blown apart, simply because he goes one way and she goes another, and it is as simple and as horrible as that. The film ends on a reprise of an earlier shot of clouds scuttling to ominous rumble. Inevitable doom? Cosmic fate? Nature's indifference? Van Sant's camera merely watches scrupulously. It has no simple answers, because there are none.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on November 19, 2003.

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