View Full Version : Elephant

Chris Knipp
11-12-2003, 12:28 AM
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. Violence is 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. He gets disciplined for tardiness. That's the
whole story of living in an alcoholic family, right there.

A long walk through campus follows 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. Yet
Van Sant¹s sensitivity to teenagers shows constantly because he is recessive
as always, a casual, interactive director, who lets them take over. This,
despite obvious hints at motives for the killings - exclusion, tossed food,
violent video games, suburban anomie, glances at Hitler. But they aren¹t
explanations. No one makes a statement, though some plead for mercy.

We keep hearing Für Elise and the Moonlight Sonata, played by the boy
(Eric) - we discover two thirds of the way through -- who is planning the
massacre. His cohort (Alex) 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.
There's a time elapse sequence of sky and moving clouds and a thunderstorm.
The thunder sounds like gunshots. This is an interlude before the real

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're invisible compared with 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 when they kill, they're
visible. Even so, 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 you¹ve seen
”Gerry”. In both films, the camera follows guys walking. Just walking.
There's a kind of Zen abstraction about the director¹s vision in these new
films. They're saturated with a heightened real-time awareness and a sense
of menace behind the ordinary.

It¹s a curiously beautiful poem about death. It 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 high school forcibly
warehouses young people who are often 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. And yet still mysterious: chat-lines are accordingly 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.


oscar jubis
11-29-2003, 12:20 PM
Rosembaum nailed it with this one sentence summation of the lessons imparted by Van Sant:

The problems of high school students may be hard to ignore as an elephant in a bedroom but they're also as easy to misperceive as an elephant being examined by blind men.

Chris Knipp
11-29-2003, 05:22 PM
Thanks to you, I often consult Rosenbaum's reviews and I read that one, among many others.

I like one on Film Freak Central by Walter Chaw which has a very personal quality. He opens by saying he lives five minutes from Columbine High School.


I like this line in Chaw's review: "It opens with a beautiful boy (there are no other kinds in Van Sant, nor should there be). . ."

Also: "Gus Van Sant's Elephant is the only way that a film should be made about Columbine--at least, it feels that way after watching it. It offers no catharsis, and that's frustrating for people looking for some, but what it offers in its place is an elegy that hums with the rhythms of a crystalline tone poem. The picture's beautiful, its unknown high school performers, essentially playing themselves, are beautiful, and the idea of a picture that is at its essence a celebration of youth at its terminus, at the moment of its destruction, is almost unbearably beautiful, too." There are many other keen and personal observations. Chaw grasps Van Sant better than most do.

If you can talk about Elephant without emotion you haven't grasped it.

oscar jubis
12-01-2003, 12:02 AM
I enjoyed Chan's review too. Youth is beautiful, but Van Sant doesn't treat them as erotic objects (a la Larry Clark).

I think it's important to speak of the (re)presentation of "truth" or "reality", in that I believe it to be Elephant's primary aim. Van Sant's humility serves the movie well. His prevailing posture is Socratic-I know that I don't know- thus providing only hints at potential answers to violence and other problem behaviors. A minor flaw, for me, was Van Sant lingering too long on a tv screen showing a documentary on Hitler. He seemed to be over-emphasising that signifier.

Another correct choice is to structure the film to contain more than a single point of view of several "moments". Rosenbaum traces the structure back to Joseph Conrad. As far as content, appraisal of "truth" is more personal. I think most of Elephant gets it right. Considering the two most talked-about scenes, the boys kissing in the shower struck me as "true" while three girls' in-synch walk into bathroom stalls to vomit struck me as "false". But that's me.

Being unusually gregarious, I approached a few people at the conclusion. I had sensed some apprehension, perhaps disappointment in the audience. Some people wanted the film to take more chances at stating what's wrong and providing more character detail than an 80 minute movie can give a dozen characters.

But overall the film effectively supports a few points that are not as obvious as they seem.

Chris Knipp
12-01-2003, 12:51 AM
Chaw, not Chan. But I made a mistake too and wrote it once as Chow. (I've corrected the misspelling.)

12-10-2003, 10:30 PM
"I came to realize since I had no need to make a lot of money, I should make films I find interesting, regardless of their outcome or audience" - Gus Van Sant

I've read and watched a great deal about Columbine since its unfortunate pitiful tragedy played out on the news media. What I'm hearing more than anything is a generation without a voice... lost in a world full of technology, thrown at them by their parents, the sign "nurturing needed here" was left on the ground and never posted outside the door of idle teen minds. Playstation, cable tv, cellular telephones, cheap asian cars, malls, and fast food replaced community, knowing your neighbor, learning how to interact with others in the face of adversity, and forming the bonds which fill gaps in communication. Complacency on the part of teens and their parents leads to apathy. Ebert and Shaw are correct in assuming that violent tendencies arise not from exterior influences, but from something as simple as unchecked boredom. Van Sant's way of showing this is "Elephant". Only I wouldn't call it interesting, only sad. Brilliant, yes, but a warning to the aging generation to listen harder, and judge less.

oscar jubis
12-10-2003, 11:45 PM
What I've learned from working with dysfunctional families is that there are two main causes of the problem clearly diagnosed by Cinemabon:

Some parents are not capable of nurturing/listening properly due to past trauma, unmet affective needs of their own, addiction,etc.

Other parents simply fail to allocate the necessary time and energy due to misplaced priorities. Often, providing material goods takes precedence. I read somewhere, for illustration, that a third of payed vacation benefits expire without being used by "white collar" Americans.

My only (mild) disagreement is with the last two words above. Actually I believe that it's more common to run into parents who fail to set firm limits and fail to strongly disapprove of inappropriate behaviors displayed by their children. Several of the kids I see in my practice have parents who neglected to draw the line when children are most receptive.

Chris Knipp
12-11-2003, 12:38 AM
One could, I think, set firm limits and still avoid being excessively judgmental. I think cinemabon's last couple of statements were a fine description of Van Sant's film, though his generalizations wouldn't be ones that the film calls for. It says that we don't know the reasons. I understand also that Zero Day (which I haven't seen though) makes it clear that the two boys aren't from "dysfunctional families"; that there's no clear explanation why they killed. If there's any explanation, it's that they killed because there were guns available, and they were bored. Obviously they were not the happiest or most connected of boys. But the explanation just isn't there. Teenage boys just aren't very happy or connected in general. That's what Elephant is saying to us: don't read me too quickly. Don't try to explain. Just take it in. Like the rock musician in Bowling for Columbine, Marilyn Manson, he's saying: Just listen to them. Don't generalize.

Please explain to me why Bush and Rumsfeld kill. Can you do that, please?