Elephant (2004) ** 1/2
Written, directed, edited by Gus Van Sant; photography, Harris Savides; producer, Dany Wolf. Cast: almost entirely amateurs. An HBO Films/Fine Line Features release. 81 minutes. Rated R.
The cryptic title refers to the 35-minute, wordless, 1989 TV-film “Elephant” –about violence in Northern Ireland --by the late Alan Parker (1935-1990)-- a Brit appreciated by many. Van Sant believed that Parker’s title alluded to the old situation where several blind men touched different body-parts of an elephant and came to wildly different conclusions. Later Van Sant found out that Parker meant “the elephant in the living-room,” which, I guess, is a variant of “the bull in a china-shop.” No matter, his “Elephant,” (a bad title,) is about the sudden, Columbine-like killing spree of two high-school boys.
Their school is a real one in suburban Portland, Oregon. The majority of the characters had no previous acting experience. A constantly mobile, roaming camera keeps tracking them --mostly from behind-- in slow, real-time footage. The opening scenes are of a father who drives his son to school but is under the influence, so the kid – an angelic-looking blond--takes over the wheel. Dad is played by Timothy Bottoms, just about the only “real” movie-actor in the picture.
The camera stalks motley people both on the school grounds and within the school, one that curiously seems under-populated. Most of the footage shows the kids haphazardly, in various activities or non-activities, which—as in most American HS films-- hardly include classroom work or study -- except for a boy asking a smart question in a physics class, and a discussion group about gays and straights.
There are snippets of talk here and there. In the cafeteria three girls chat --and after eating, in what is obviously a ritual, go to the bathroom and upchuck.
All this is done in cinema-verite real time, mostly slow, with randomness and/or overlapping sounds. To what extent Van Sant asked his performers to improvise is unclear. The picture is permeated by vagueness and sketchiness. There’s a blessing: no cellphones.
The last sections focus on two buddies watching Hitler and Nazis on TV, and playing a violent computer game. One student plays on the piano “Fur Elise” by Beethoven, whose “Moonlight” sonata was earlier on the sound track. “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, “ but not here.
The two pals have a package delivered to them: assault rifles ordered on the Internet. They test them. They take a shower together and kiss each other briefly. In military garb and armed to the teeth they stride to the school and do a Columbine. The end.
Some viewers and critics see the shower kiss as a blending of homosexuality and violence --a disturbing reading, all the more curious and unlikely since Van Sant is gay. I see it rather as a ritual before the young men take off on a killing spree which is also a form of suicide. Think of those gladiators in Ancient Rome who before going into action, addressed the emperor. “Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant.” “Hail Cesar, we who are about to die salute you.”
The “classic” killing spree film was “Badlands” (1973) by Terrence Malick, with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. It was based on the notorious case of Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate. It did not attempt to explain, moralize or analyze, yet at least the background and nature of the couple shed a weird kind of light on the proceeds. Van Sant’s minimalism does not.
At the 2003 Cannes Film Festival “Elephant” unexpectedly won both the Golden Palm plus “Best Director” one. It was the first American movie to get the Palm since Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 “Pulp Fiction.”
Probably the jurors’ choice may well reflected their perception of America the Violent, in real life as well as in movies and TV –even computer games. But the rest of he world may be catching up nowadays, as in the films of France’s Gaspar Noe .
Curiously, many reviewers mention Van Sant’s earlier “Gerry,” “Finding Forrester,” “Good Will Hunting,” “My Own Private Idaho” and “Drugstore Cowboy,” but omit my own favorite, “To Die For “ (1995) starring a delicious Nicole Kidman.