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Wednesday, March 24, 2004
Columbine, sanitized for your protection
Gus Van Sant's latest film is called "Elephant," and no, it's not about Babar, or Hannibal's epic crossing of the Alps. It is about the Columbine High School massacre of 1994, and if you couldn't get that from the title, well boo-hoo for you.
Sure, there's a reason why the film's called "Elephant" -- just as there is for why the film's as dull as watching paint dry -- you just won't find it anywhere in the film itself. Go buy the DVD if you want frivolous extras like understanding the film's title.
"Elephant" marks one of those moments when we should pause and note that the world has gone completely through the looking-glass. This film, a study in minimalism bordering on nothingness, achieved the unprecedented feat at Cannes last year of taking both the Palme d'Or and Best Director, its two most honored prizes. Anti-Hollywood critics and intelligentsia, who have long decried the vapidity of formulaic entertainment cinema, are now falling over themselves to praise "Elephant" -- as did S.F. Said of The Daily Telegraph -- for offering "no insight" and being "all surface." (One wonders if Said will judge the next Jerry Bruckheimer film by the same criteria.)
All this for a film that looks at the horrific events at Columbine with absolutely nothing to say about them, with not a trace of passion, anger or blood in its veins. The idea seems to be, in these jaded postmodern days, that it's tacky, naive or even misguided to actually try to say something in a film, to include in it some sort of perspective or -- God forbid -- content.
OK, I'm being facetious. Ninety-nine percent of movies out there are attempting to expertly manipulate our response, and they're quite good at it: A recent neurological study showed all its subjects had exactly the same brainwave response to a screening of "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly." In that light, there's obviously a need to open things up a bit, to create some space for viewers to form their own opinions, their own feelings in response to a movie. That was likely Van Sant's intent, but the results are rather underwhelming.
Van Sant gives us a fragmented, listless look at an average day at an average high school. About a dozen kids are introduced over the course of the film, but we are given very little sense of what they're about. Michelle, a nerdy type who works in the library, sulks after the gym coach chews her out for refusing to wear shorts. John is late for school, because his dad is too drunk to drive him. Alex is harassed by jocks and later orders guns over the Internet. Eli, a shutter-bug, photographs some other kids and develops his prints in the darkroom. Bulimic teen-queens Brittany, Nicole and Jordan skimp on lunch and all vomit in the toilet later. A Gay-Straight Alliance meeting discusses whether you can tell whether someone's gay just by looking at them. Later Alex and his friend Eric wander the corridors and kill everybody in a direct re-creation of the Columbine massacre.
Van Sant has described his film as "a clean portrait of an event in the way that maybe the Lumiere brothers would show a clean view of a boulevard. You just watch and make the associations for yourself, as opposed to having the filmmakers impose ideas on you."
This sort of detached, observational minimalism is much in critical favor, of late, and it's not bad in and of itself. But let's not kid ourselves: We're not observing "reality" here (no matter how much Van Sant may be stylistically copying from noted documentarian Frederick Wiseman ["High School"]), but a fictional construct that the director has created. Our observation of it is only rewarding to the extent that Van Sant has put such content up on screen.
Well, try as I may, I could not find anything particularly illuminating about the six-minute tracking shot that follows a teen as he walks silently across the campus and through the vast corridors of the school until he finally meets his girlfriend and they have about 30 seconds of dialogue that is never developed in the film. Aside from the fact that Van Sant employs the dreaded "back of head" angle for the entire sequence, this scene -- like so many others in the film -- is notable for nothing but suggesting the ordinary, everyday nature of this high school prior to the massacre.
But here's the rub: Columbine was an extraordinary event. It serves no purpose to emphasize the average, normal aspects of it. The question on everyone's mind -- except, apparently Van Sant -- is "why?" There is no way you can consider two students who calmly enter their school and indiscriminately gun down as many people as they can without wondering why. Michael Moore's documentary "Bowling for Columbine," which was the toast of Cannes the previous year, certainly showed no reluctance to examine this question.
Van Sant, however, seems to think that showing the events seems to be enough. But even here he drops the ball: When he shows Alex and Eric kissing each other nude in the shower before they go off on their killing spree, he's injecting a Leopold & Loeb reading that has no basis in the reality he's trying to "cleanly" portray. And then the director can't understand why people think he's portraying the Columbine killers as "gay Nazis." (They're earlier seen watching Hitler footage on TV.)
In the end, watching kids working in a darkroom or endlessly walking from one part of their campus to another tells us nothing about the tragedy of Columbine, except that lives were brutally interrupted. And any news interview with parents, teachers and survivors was a hundred times more moving than this unmitigated failure of a film.