Have you ever been looking at a street corner when an accident occurs, when you can see what is going to happen but there just isn’t time to call out and act to stop the collision? Or, worse, have you found yourself unable to move, transfixed by what is seemingly destined to happen, and incapable of even muttering an explicitive before everything goes down?
Well, I had a good sense before watching the 2003 Gus Van Sant movie Elephant that I would be watching the Columbine-esque events surrounding a particular day at a fictional high school, being privy to the various things that lead up to and cause such tragedies. The official movie site makes this clear, and just about any discussion of this movie on the web gives you a good idea of what to expect. Disaffected youth, ignored by the adults in their lives, picked on and humiliated by their peers, taught to be disaffected by violence, living in a community full of individuals with their own stunning hang-ups, and able to acquire weapons of localized mass destruction, deliberately shoot up their high school and murder many of their classmates, teachers, and administrators.
While the subject matter of such a film is not particularly interesting, getting the story from the perspective of Gus Van Sant, director of such classic films as Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), among others, should be. For one thing, Van Sant makes beautiful movies. Many of his shots last a long time, drawing the viewer in and causing you to suspend your disbelief for the exact opposite reason many other movies accomplish the same effect today (i.e. explosions, rapid movement). For one, each shot is purposeful, deliberate, and lasting, perfectly framed, moving you from scene to scene without cuts, not allowing you to blink or look away, demanding your attention. Elephant continues this cinemagraphic excellence, almost too well, becoming a distraction from the story that at the same time attempts to help tell the story.
The other aspect is that Van Sant often has a very important message underlying the movies he chooses to make, and Elephant continues this trend. Unfortunately, it might not be the message that Van Sant is hoping for. While the viewer can tell that a tremendous amount of effort went into setting the mood for the disaster with excellent camera and sound work, much of the effect is wasted on the lame dialog, which, while trying to appear mostly pointless and obtuse in order to properly explain character motivation, fails to live up to the artistic direction of the film. Rather than create character interactions that reinforce the artificiality of high school and bolster the title concept of the movie, that the murderers were the proverbial elephant in the corner of the room that no one wants to talk about, Van Sant clearly stumbles into a pattern of moralistic messaging that seeks to present an answer to the question we want answered so badly: “Why?”
Case in point: Consider the simplistic, silly video game played by the shooters-to-be, Eric and Alex, which was modeled after Van Sant’s 2002 film Gerry. In a movie where everything is just a little too real and everyone is just a little too self-absorbed, any scene featuring violent video games should be equally as immersive, especially since violent (and wonderful) games like Doom, especially since the alternate, very real reality of the game and what you can virtually do in it serve to make it so attractive. But, Van Sant clearly knows that this would clash with his messages of “Guns are Bad” and “High School Kids are Mean to One Another” and “Grown Ups Should Grow Up,” and he seeks to minimize it, cover it up. Even if he couldn’t get a game maker to participate, he could have come up with a better game than that in only a few days that would help to explain why the real shooters spent so much time playing them. However, Van Sant doesn’t get it: The games the shooters-to-be do tells us a lot about what they are missing in their lives, and what they do after they play them tell us a lot about their skills in being able to deal with what is missing in their lives.
I have to wonder if Van Sant ever actually researched Columbine before making this film. Take a gander over at Wikipedia and see if you can figure out where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began down the path leading to the real tragedy. The arrests, acknowledged mental issues, web pages posted with instructions about making explosives, and much more make the real tragedy must more compelling than Van Sant’s vision, and he has 81 minutes of our attention to use as his canvas. Instead of building to a event that is so compelling and inevitable that you can’t turn away, Van Sant only succeeds in captivating his audience with the question of just how Elephant will collapse, like an ill-planned house of cards.