Following Gerry, Gus Van Sant continues his Bela Tarr-influenced work with Elephant, a controversial take on the Columbine massacre that won the Cannes Palm d’Or earlier this year. Partly inspired by Alan Clarke’s 1989 TV movie of the same name, the title Elephant refers both to Bernard MacLaverty’s quote about the “elephant in the living room” that no one wants to talk about and the Buddhist parable about blind men who erroneously interpret the beast. Like Clarke in his film, Van Sant avoids explaining the killings. He is only showing part of the elephant while acknowledging we will never know why some of these kids resorted to such tragic means.
Elephant opens with fast-motion clouds flitting by a telephone pole as jets streak by like falling stars. Autumnal green and gold sun-dappled leaves litter every outdoor shot. In extended takes, the camera follows students across ball fields and through winding hallways. Van Sant shoots one girl walking across an empty gym as if she were in the cavernous interior of an alien spacecraft. Altman-esque overlapping dialogue emphasizes that the texture of life – people talking, dancing, eating, smoking – is present everywhere. The film goes in and out of slow motion emphasizing simple moments in life we otherwise take for granted – a glance at the sky, playing with a dog. Van Sant boosts high school banality into a swooning, life-affirming romantic reverie. He beatifies these teenagers, flaws of insouciance and all.
Each character gets an intertitle listing their name. Fresh-faced John (John Robinson) sports sun-bright blonde hair accented by his yellow shirt. He seems to know and get along with everyone. Equally amiable Eli (Elias McConnell) is an aspiring photographer. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and Carrie (Carrie Finklea) are the perfect-looking couple. Michelle (Kristen Hicks) is a gawky bespectacled nerd often taunted by others. Brittany (Brittany Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Taylor), and Nicole (Nicole George) are three tight-knit friends always gossiping and bickering. Eric (Eric Deulen) and Alex (Alex Frost) are the Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold figures. Aloof Eric plays Beethoven’s F�r Elise and Moonlight Sonata while remorseless Alex is prone to belligerent jokes. Finally, there is Benny (Bennie Dixon), a corn-rowed black kid who is introduced late in the film as he wanders the halls echoing with gun fire. Amidst the carnage, he possesses a preternatural calm.
For all of the quotidian details of teenage existence captured, the film purposefully stays ever on the surface. It supplies no motives for Eric and Alex even as it teases every possible pat explanation – bullying, violent video games, interest in Nazis, the easy availability of guns, Satanism, even homosexuality (Van Sant himself is gay). Elephant is about experiencing the beauty of youth and the horror of seeing it extinguished, a theme Van Sant delivers powerfully as he resists playing the blame game, a fruitless endeavor. Due to its buildup, no recent film reaches the overwhelming dread of Elephant as the massacre gets underway.
Director of Photography Harris Savides gets a special nod for delivering perhaps the most beautiful looking movie of the year. He achieves the technically difficult trick of keeping each character perfectly lit as they pass through lengthy spaces. Along with the Bela Tarr-inspired long tracking shots, Van Sant also makes Elephant non-chronological as the same events are sometimes seen multiple times from different characters’ perspectives – a narrative technique Tarr used in his masterpiece, Satantango.
Van Sant is certainly not without his missteps. His method of cutting away before some students are gunned down is sadistic in holding out the slightest hope of survival even as you know there is none. A sequence of ominous storm clouds that roll in is cliched. A group bulimic purge is unintentionally funny and over-the-top as is a kiss between Alex and Eric in the shower. Still, these lapses, while brazen, are not fatal, as Van Sant has fashioned an observant movie quite unlike any other focusing on teen life.