Robin Clifford Laura Clifford
It’s a normal, sunny fall day for the students of a Portland, Oregon high school. School photographer Elias (Elias McConnell) snap pictures of other students; Nate Nathan Tyson) meets his girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea) after playing football; John (John Robinson) confiscates his drunken father’s (Timothy Bottoms) car keys and leaves them in the office for his brother to pickup; Michelle (Kristen Hicks) rushes to the library; Brittany (Brittany Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Taylor) and Nicole (Nicole George) gossip, complain their snooping mothers and purge their lunches. John crosses paths with Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deiden) while leaving the building and is warned not to come back by the camo-clad pair. Suddenly, it is not such a normal day, anymore, in “Elephant.”
Director/write/editor Gus Van Sant proves, once again, that he is an innovative and experiment filmmaker who can work every level of his medium from low budget, gritty independent films like “Drugstore Cowboy” to mainstream work like “Finding Forrester.” With his latest effort Van Sant returns to his independent roots and brings us into a real high school with real students as he recreates a fictional version of that fateful day when two heavily-armed teenagers walked into their high school in Columbine, Colorado.
Utilizing a minimalist script, the helmer gives his newcomer actors a great deal of latitude in forming their characters as his cameras follow each of their subjects through the halls, on the campus grounds, into the classroom, cafeteria and, even, the girl’s room. Van Sant must have become enamored with filming people walking when he did the avant-garde “Gerry” because much of “Elephant’s” 81 minute run time is footage of the protagonists walking and walking and walking. But, somehow, he manages to integrate this routine, almost hypnotic, action into the film as the tension builds to the movie’s inevitable conclusion.
The structure of “Elephant” is one of the things that make this nominal effort intriguing to watch. In a “Rashomon” like style, you follow each of the story’s students during the course of the day that will change their world. The film keeps jumping back in time as the camera follows each student. You get, over the course of the film, the same scenes but from the different characters’ perspectives. Van Sant handles the time shifts effortlessly, with the different viewpoints matching perfectly, and shows his mettle as a master filmmaker.
“Elephant” is a well-crafted film with its highly mobile camerawork by Harris Savides keeping up with the day-to-day activity in an average high school. Sound designer Leslie Shatz muffles the dialogue to help keep the just another-day-tone nature of things, until it matters what is said. The young performers are not professional actors but they give real enough performances. None are really fleshed out and there is little reason given as to why two boys would lash out in such a cold-blooded and heinous way – Alex is picked on in class, seems enamored of Nazism and has a homosexual relationship with Eric. But, I think that is the point of Van Sant’s work – he does not deign to have the answers. Instead, he simply tells us of the event and the people it impacts.
I give it a B.
An aerial shot shows a car weaving down a leafy suburban street, bumping against parked cars. A bleached blonde teenager, John McFarland (John Robinson) exasperatedly tells his father (Timothy Bottoms) to get out of the car, that his mother will kill him. Dad's drunk again and John will be late for school, but this slightly out of the ordinary event may be what saves John's life that day in Gus van Sant's 2003 Cannes Palme d'Or winner, "Elephant."
Using the same experimental techniques which made his "Gerry" so intriguing, van Sant achieves startling yet lesser results with "Elephant." Beautiful images and some moments of stark irony cannot negate the fact that not only do we know where this story is headed, not necessarily a problem in and of itself, but that combined with this observant style the film fails to engage the emotions.
After meeting John (van Sant titles the introduction of each high school student he will continue to follow), Eli (Elias McConnell) takes the time to photograph a young punker couple in a park on the way to school. Harris Savides's ("Gerry") camera stays static, letting Eli walk farther into the high school's horizon. The camera remains static after a cut to the gymnastic field where a nerdy girl in a Wildcats sweatshirt (Michelle (Kristen Hicks) is introduced in her next scene) seems to be trying to identify the music (Beethoven) that has appeared on the soundtrack before picking up Nathan (Nathan Tyson) and following him into the school where he passes a group of three admiring young women (Jordan (Jordan Taylor), Brittany (Brittany Mountain) and Nicole (Nicole George)) before meeting up with girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea, whose brief glance at the camera is the only note of unnaturalness). Acadia (Alicia Miles) leaves class to find John alone, tears streaming down his face. He says he's OK, then heads out to see if his dad has wandered from the car where John has left him. Outside, he plays with a dog (Savides goes slo-mo for this last moment of 'normality') then sees two teens approaching outfitted for battle. 'What are you guys doing?' he asks. He's advised to get out of the area, that something heaving is about to go down.
On April 20, 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold perpetrated the most notorious school massacre in Columbine, Colorado in what was to become a raft of them. Van Sant presents his interpretation of multiple looks at what it must have been like that day by repeating the meeting points of his initial scenes from different points of view while reaching back or moving forward with each character or character grouping to fill out the story. Savides's camerawork is beautiful, gliding along with his subjects, alternately placing them within their environment or isolating them with shallow focus in hallways that turn into tunnels of light. Shots of the sky comment upon events. Sound designer Leslie Shatz's ("Gerry") muted work combined with the use of Beethoven throughout adds unsettling atmosphere.
Van Sant's idea works strongly in a few scenes. Jordan, Brittany and Nicole joke about 'living long enough' to obtain a driver's license before all three vomit up their just eaten lunches in the ladies room. Friendless Michelle reenters the high school from the track field via an empty basketball court and her long walk across it presents her as a sitting duck, a target. Eli's photography takes on a different meaning when one knows what is coming. However, seeing as Van Sant roughly follows the events of Columbine, he also makes some questionable choices, presenting the killers, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) here, in an ill-defined homosexual relationship. Alex is clearly the leader ('Is that Hitler?' asks Eric as they both watch Nazi footage on TV), but Van Sant makes no attempt to delve into their motivations. Is he suggesting their homosexuality made them the target of abuse (he briefly shows a student pelting Alex with gunk in class and also shows a Gay Straight Alliance class under attack)? Another disturbing choice is the introduction of Benny (Bennie Dixon), the only character we meet after the violence has begun. He's also the only Black character. Why has Van Sant singled Benny out? Although Alex may be targeting Blacks in his plan, he distinctly verbalizes getting jocks, a group Nathan fits into. Van Sant is inadvertently making some type of comment even as he claims "We didn't want to explain anything."
Van Sant achieves realistic performances from his amateur cast (only the adults, which include Bottoms, Matt Malloy ("Finding Forrester") as the principal and Ellis E. Williams ("Antwone Fisher") as the GSA teacher, are professionals). The oddly subdued reactions of John McFarland and his father outside the smoking school contribute to the film's flat effect, though.
The film is named after a British film on violence in Ireland that similarly withheld explanations, but while Van Sant thought the reasoning lay in the blind men and elephant fable, the earlier film referred to the British saying of a problem being like 'an elephant in a living room.'
"Elephant" is a technically elegant experiment which builds tension then oddly deflates. Only the fate of Michelle, "Elephant's" Carrie, lingers.
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