Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 08, 2003 9:20 pm 
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John Robinson in Elephant

Van Sant's high school death poem

"Uneven though he may be, Van Sant rivals Steven Soderbergh as the mad scientist of commercial filmmakers -- and the wildly polarizing Elephant is his most successful experiment to date."-- J. Hoberman, Village Voice.

Elephant is as cunningly constructed as it is inexplicable. It’s a tightly woven web of aimless moments at a Portland high school. They crisscross, all leading up to death. In the end: violence perpetrated by two boys from the high school who massacre their fellow students and teachers with newly bought automatic weapons, as at Columbine. Along the way, an encounter between two boys in an outside hallway keeps recurring, shot from different directions and focusing on different kids: a trio of bulemic cuties (Carrie, Nicole and Brittany); a football hunk they admire (Nathan); a homely girl loner who won't wear shorts for gym (Michele); and the two boys themselves, one posing (John), the other taking his picture (Eli). There’s a scene in a classroom where being gay is discussed: the camera moves slowly across the wall, occasionally passing over a face. Another scene shows the cuties talking in the crowded cafeteria, and afterwards going to the girls’ room to throw up.

As Elephant begins, bleach-blond John (John Robinson) finds his dad (Timothy Bottoms) driving drunk, stops the car and takes the wheel. He parks the car outside the high school and goes in, leaving the keys at a front desk for a relative to retrieve later, and he gets disciplined for tardiness. That’s the whole story of living in an alcoholic family, right there.

At various points, the hallway scene of the two boys, John and Eli, recurs, seen from another angle with the other peripheral figures appearing. Repeatedly, a piano is playing Für Elise and the Moonlight Sonata.

A long walk through campus follows the back of Nathan, the football star. The camera is close to him yet feels distant, as with Eli, whom it also follows around. The camera is like a gun: its eye is indifferent. There are misfits and kids in niches, but they’re all as mysterious as the boys who do the killing. And yet Van Sant’s sensitivity to teenagers shows constantly because he is recessive as always, a casual, interactive director, and lets them take over. This despite obvious hints of motives for the killers—exclusion, tossed food, violent video games, suburban anomie, glances at Hitler. They aren’t explanation. No one makes a statement, though some plead for mercy.

We keep hearing Für Elise and the Moonlight Sonata, which turn out two thirds of the way through to be played by the boy who’s planning the massacre (Alex), who's at home. His cohort (Eric) comes and plays a kill game on a laptop and surfs for weapons. They watch a documentary on TV about the Nazis. A package comes to the door: an automatic weapon. They practice shooting it in the basement. Then: a time elapse sequence of sky and moving clouds; a thunderstorm, with thunder that sounds like gunshots. This is a calm interlude before the real storm.

The improvised acting by real Portland students creates a sense of reality beyond either documentary or drama. There’s a feeling of daily-ness and triviality that’s as vivid as it is pointless. This equates with the violent acts that come when Alex and Eric return to the school armed and costumed to kill: they were more invisible than the popular girls or the football hunk or the photographer Eli or the cute blond caretaker for his drunk dad, John, or even the nerdy girl, Michele. But they’re visible when they kill. Still the acts are meaningless, and in Elephant that links the horror they commit to the daily life of the school.

Elephant makes more sense as a part of Van Sant’s work if you’ve seen his previous film, Gerry. In both films, the camera follows guys walking. Just walking. There’s a kind of Zen abstraction about the director’s vision in these new films. They’re saturated with a heightened real-time awareness and a sense of menace behind the ordinary.

It’s a curiously beautiful poem about death that conveys a teenage version of the banality of evil. We get so deep into monotony that the violence comes as a horrific shock. More than banal, this crime is meaningless. But it's not without a motive that all the students may feel: the humiliations, the sheer boredom, the unfair discipline, and the way very often high school forcibly warehouses young people who’re already fully ready for life. When the assistant principal is executed, we know why. He was a pouting petty tyrant, a bland prison guard. It’s the combination of abstract poetic beauty and sensitivity to teenage life that makes Elephant, with its chilling finale, a remarkable film. Elephant is threaded through with emptiness and peace. The rhythmic camerawork and the big spaces of the school are calming, like the musical themes. The film has its own style that says: Don't judge me too quickly. Don't come up with easy answers.

American viewers want answers about Columbine as they wanted revenge for 9/11. People want to know if the boys are gay (no, but the director is), and what their kiss in the shower before their killing spree means. That Elephant doesn’t provide answers explains why, while at Cannes the film got the Palme d’Or and the Director’s Prize, in the USA there have been some very dismissive reviews.

Ten characters are identified by the inter-titles that act as chapter headings for the film. Each acquires some degree of back-story in the viewer’s mind. With little sense of emphasis till the end, the “narrative” becomes hopelessly detailed, much more so than any short description of it can convey. Chat-lines are crowded with speculation about the characters. Elephant may prove as thought-provoking as Bowling for Columbine, and it's infinitely more artistic. There are already two other Columbine dramas, Zero Day (Ben Coccio) and Home Room (Paul F. Ryan), but none is likely to have Elephant’s evocative power.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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