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Elephant Thoughts

Friday, September 15, 2006

elephant-kiss.jpg Elephant

Directed by Gus van Sant

Elephant is one of those rare films that perfectly blends style with subject matter. Taking an ultra-realistic approach, Van Sant has created a film that explores the tragedy and horror of a school shooting in a way that lets us understand multiple points of view and motivations.

The film covers a brief time period, with the day leading up to the shooting, shown several times from different points of view.


Van Sant’s vision of an American, suburban high school is about as far removed from films like American Pie, or Mean Girls as possible. He shoots from a distance, and uses long tracking shots that hover behind students as they walk down hallways. In fact, the movie feels like it is about kids walking – going somewhere – but never reaching their destination. In this sense, while the film takes a docudrama (though admittedly this term is not entirely accurate) approach, the fact that Van Sant chooses to show us moments where seemingly nothing happens, he invests in the film a kind of Antonioni-dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality, with the school becoming a maze of lockered hallways.

elephant-alex-1.jpgThe killers are two boys, teased at school, lonely, gay (or just experimenting), who play violent video games (which I don’t think are the cause but undoubtedly put fuel to the fire), and are generally the typical outcast kids one could find at any high school in North America. The important thing to note is that we are shown the kids before they go on their murderous rampage. Their evil is never exonerated, Van Sant makes that perfectly clear, but it is certainly given some motivation.

The 'uncool' girl The other children in the film are loose archetypes (so hard not to do in a high school setting), but they are regular kids, depicted doing the things that regular high school kids do. When the mayhem starts, no-one is spared. The ‘uncool’ girl who works in the library (but not like in a Hollywood flick where she would really be drop-dead gorgeous if only she removed her glasses and let her hair down) has all sorts of problems, but is gunned down in the library without even a second thought. A more traditional narrative would dictate that this character survive, because her misfit/outcast status demands that she be spared by the other misfits doing the killing, but Van Sant says no, that’s only in Hollywood, in real life, those kinds of distinctions aren’t made – just because you are a good person doesn’t mean you will make it through okay. Geesh, that sounds really bleak, doesn’t it?

Van Sant was inspired to create this film in the wake of Columbine, and I, in turn, haven’t been able to stop thinking about the film since the terrible events at Dawson College in Montreal on the 13th.

Whereas Michael Moore took the Columbine shootings and turned it into a quasi-examination of America’s fascination with firearms (however heavy-handedly), Van Sant’s reaction has been an artistic one – and surely, before I saw Elephant I would have thought that putting scenes of such terror on screen would have ended up being gratuitous and sensationalistic. Van Sant, however, handles the subject matter with a simplicity of style and such sensitivity, that any sense of the director trying to cash in on a tragic and controversial subject is abolished.

It’s a haunting film and a highly poetic one. The use of amateur high school kids as the stars helps to lend the film authenticity, and Van Sant was able to coax some great character performances, because it’s very hard to get kids to actually act like themselves. Few high school students will ever see this film, and that’s a shame, because it truly is a work of powerful art.



One Comment leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    Monday, September 18, 2006 3:12 pm

    I would say this is the seminal work about the personal side of this subject, while Bowling For Columbine is the same about the political.

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