PRINT October 2003


Gus Van Sant’s Elephant

WHEN GUS VAN SANT’S ELEPHANT was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May, it was taken by some Americans on the scene as a backhanded gesture. At a festival haunted by echoes of European-American tensions over the war in Iraq it was hardly surprising that the honoring of yet another movie about the Columbine massacre (a year after the same prize had gone to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine) might look like a deliberate statement about America as seen through European eyes: psychotic, gun-crazy, on the edge of meltdown. The irony is that, judged as a movie about the Columbine shootings, Elephant comes up fairly empty; it has little to offer in the way of analysis or explanation, and one is left with nothing but the same numb response produced by the original newscasts of the event: It happened, it was horrible.

Passing moments in the movie suggest explanations beyond that brutal acknowledgment: Maybe guns shouldn’t be so easily available. Maybe those kids shouldn’t have spent so much time playing video games and watching newsreels of Hitler on the History Channel. Maybe if they had acknowledged their homoerotic yearnings they wouldn’t have been so inclined to mass murder. Nothing in either the film or the interviews that Van Sant has given about it suggests he has any special insight into the motivations of the killers. The paradox is that he has made a very beautiful movie almost in spite of his explicit intentions. Elephant succeeds not as an act of analysis but as an act of mourning, a tone poem of grief in which the American high school—that locus of adolescent anguish and repression in so many movies—is transformed into a kind of holy site, suffused with a beauty that belongs only to youth.

Elephant, which makes its US debut at the New York Film Festival this month (and opens theatrically on October 25), was made in close collaboration with a nonprofessional cast of high school students and filmed at a recently closed high school in Portland, Oregon. More precisely, Van Sant has made his movie not merely with but of those students: The life the film has is theirs, and its achievement is the sense of intimacy established from the outset. That intimacy is oddly complemented by a detached, contemplative approach that lingers on passing visual details as if each might be crucial, or final. From the opening shot—a white Volvo proceeding with drunken carelessness down a residential street, sideswiping a parked car, just missing a young bicyclist—a mood of vulnerability in motion is established.

The movement never stops: Elephant, for most of its running time, follows various students through the progression of their school day, mapping a geography of high school hallways and stairwells, cafeteria and library and locker room. It is a fluid geography because everyone is always in transition from one space to another. Time is fluid also: A repeated line of dialogue signals that we will experience the same moments from different angles. These scenes, with their patterns of obsessive repetition, evoke in retrospect the unwanted thoughts of mourners as they reconstruct the world as it was just before the catastrophe, as if searching for some alternate route by which the tragedy might have been circumvented. Van Sant offers sociological details—some, like the trio of status-obsessed bulimic girls, ill-judged in that they edge the movie uneasily toward the satiric vein of To Die For (1995)—but it is the sustained elegiac intensity, accentuated by gathering dread, that makes Elephant so powerful. What the characters do is less important than the fact that they are.

Interspersed with growing frequency among these episodes of ordinary life are scenes that make us privy to the intentions of the killers, Alex and Eric. It’s like the invasion of one movie by another: the first an idyll in which being is appreciated for its own sake, the second a violent melodrama about isolated individuals whose only goal is the annihilation of being. Violence is also done to the film itself; it’s as if something that had been built up with care and delicacy were swept away in a sudden unfeeling outburst.

The teenagers who play Alex and Eric give excellent performances, but they are called upon to be actors in a way that the others are not, just as the movie at this point enters a different realm of dramatization. Structurally, the self-absorption of the killers takes over the film: They are henceforth the stars, and the movie becomes their realized fantasy. From the moment Alex and Eric enter the school and start killing, the others—all the kids we have been following with such concern—are reduced to falling or fleeing bodies. The reenacted massacre takes on the texture of the tawdriest made-for-TV docudrama; the images of Alex firing off rounds as he strides through burning hallways resemble only too closely the apocalyptic mise-en-scène of a routine action picture. The effect is nil, and it is hard not to wonder how the film would have worked if Van Sant had stopped at just the moment when the murderers enter the building. We already know what we will see from that point on; showing it adds nothing. Van Sant’s real subject isn’t the massacre but the private spaces that the massacre erased.

Geoffrey O’Brien is editor in chief of the Library of America.