A day in the life
Columbine. Massacre. Premeditated evil knotted these two previously unrelated words together into a chilling death knell of middle-class lives and complacency. In Elephant, the 1999 slaughter of teens and faculty by two students at the suburban Colorado high school has been revisited and reshaped by filmmaker Gus Van Sant into a disturbing, haunting, exasperating, superficial and provocatively passive rumination on modern violence.
The shockwaves from this notorious landmark in public-school history reverberated throughout the core and outer limbs of America. Van Sant avoids the fishbowl approach of most media coverage of the mayhem and instead submerges us intimately in the milieu in which the horror wagged its ugly head. He sends a Steadicam through the hallways, classrooms and playing fields of a school as the film wallows in the mundane while ticking like a time bomb. The effect is more seductive than revelatory, as style overwhelms substance.
Elephant—the title of which refers to the proverbial pachyderm in the living room that no one mentions—is a film that fractures time and prods rather dreamily our often false sense of personal security. Its flashpoint is a shooting, but Van Sant—as writer, director and editor—has several food groups on his platter. The film does not explore the inner clockwork of the killers at work here nor hammer out solutions to calm our shredded nerves. Nonetheless, it does decipher some of the mystery and misery of adolescent twilight into universal terms and remind us that there’s much more on a high-schooler’s daily agenda (teen pregnancy, gay sex, dysfunctional family life, bullying, cliques, self-image and bulimia) than just the three R’s.
Van Sant is an adventurous if not completely embraceable filmmaker. He clambered onto my radar screen with the gangly, grungy Drugstore Cowboy. He artfully wrestled gay, family and street themes with the imaginative My Own Private Idaho. His attempt to mirror rather than remake Psycho was a strategic mistake. And, thankfully, he was talked out of having the Ben Affleck character in the excellent Good Will Hunting killed in a construction accident (he reportedly wanted the Oscar-winning script to include the line: “He was squished like a bug!”).
With Elephant, Van Sant follows his characters around with a Steadicam, allows the camera to remain stationary at times as the world sort of blossoms and stumbles around it, and ratchets up the suspense by popping back and forth in time from the viewpoints of several different characters. The closeness made me feel like I was brushing shoulders with the students at times. Elephant is seeded with nuances and minor elements that keep the general shallowness of the script at bay, but it ends before the actual siege is complete.
In a spare 80-plus minutes, we surf patches of school life and even the same scenes from several different perspectives, as the camera tails characters from class to class. We are introduced to the blond-haired John who is driven partially to school by his inebriated father and consoled by sympathetic Acadia. We follow hunky jock Nathan and his girlfriend Carrie into and out of the school office. We watch photographer Elias take snapshots and follow him through lab class. We eavesdrop on hallway conversations, a lecture on atoms and electrons, and a debate on distinguishing people’s sexual orientation by how they walk or dress, all with the camera gliding from face to face from the midpoint of an apparent circle of students.
We follow Brittany, Jordan and Nicole to lunch and into the bathroom as they bitch about their parental snooping and pine for the freedom of college. We visit Eric and Alex at home, where, in the film’s surprisingly weakest segments, they play a violent arcade game on a laptop and plan their attack. We hear overlapping idle chatter and the making of appointments that will never be met, and we stare into clouds that portend the literal as well as metaphorical storm that is brewing.
Elephant won the Palme d’Or, and Van Sant the best-director award, at Cannes. He made the film in 20 days in November 2002. The film says that any one of us could find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time very easily. The teens are non-professional actors chosen for their appearances. The drama here is no deeper than their makeup. But that vacuity may be the statement Van Sant wants to make, and it, in itself, is scary. Even scarier, though, is one gunman’s lingering words: “There’s others out there like me!” And we have yet to discover what do about it.