Worth A Look: 28.05%
Just Average: 4.88%
Pretty Crappy: 8.54%
7 reviews, 40 user ratings
by Robert Flaxman
This won the Palme d'Or?Let me say that again, just so we're clear: Elephant won the Palme d'Or. The Palme d'Or being the highest award given out at the Cannes Film Festival. The Cannes Film Festival being probably the most prestigious film festival in the world.
And this won the Palme d'Or.
There is a moment about an hour into Elephant, the night before the massacre at the high school, where about a minute is spent showing gathering storm clouds. Gathering storm clouds. Juxtaposed against a shot of the killers sleeping. Right before they go kill a bunch of people.
Read that last paragraph again. Gus Van Sant has made some mistakes in his career - the Psycho remake leaps to mind - but if there's one thing Elephant demonstrates, it's that he has no sense for symbolism. At any rate he has no clue what's laughably obvious. The storm clouds are one example; another is a scene in which the killers watch a television documentary on the Nazis. Are you kidding me? Who thought this was a clever idea?
The point of Elephant is ostensibly to document one day at a suburban Oregon high school, which starts off like any other and ends in mass murder. (The film concludes with the typical disclaimer that the events and characters depicted are not based on actual events or people, but clearly it was inspired by the Columbine massacre of April 20, 1999.) Van Sant spends an hour setting up the high school, tracking various characters as they interact (sometimes showing the same scene two or three times as a result), and then twenty minutes showing the killings.
Elephant has more problems than heavy-handed symbolism. Chief among those is the film's insistence on just depicting. Rather than take an explicit stand, it simply shows what happens and figures it can leave things up to the audience.
The problem is, Van Sant tracks a few students, then loses interest in them - as you can imagine he would, since they are, for the most part, not interesting - and focuses almost exclusively on the killers, Alex and Eric, for the rest of the film. In fact, Elephant is really the killers' story. It shows them buying guns. It shows them shooting firearms in the garage. It shows Alex play two piano pieces, both of which are used elsewhere in the movie, and are more or less the only pieces so used - in other words, the killers are dictating the film's themes! They're also the only ones who appear in segments that don't take place on the day of the shootings. Worse still, Eric gets a soapbox speech where he says how this could have been avoided had the adults just listened to the kids. Then he shoots the principal. Nice.
Then there's the violence. It's certainly not stylized, but Van Sant's insistence on showing and not telling means that there are no consequences to be found. If you're a normal individual, you will still be repulsed by the violence, but think for just a second about the possible very small percentage of the population that happens to consist of angry, disturbed teenagers. The movie does not suggest consequences. It suggests that you can waltz into your school, kill whomever you want, and then - hey, why worry about it? The film's over! Is the violence completely disturbing? Yes. Is it condemned? Only by me. Van Sant has decided he's not in the business of casting blame.
Except that that's all he does. He just wants to depict, but resorts to every teen-frustration cliché in the book when it comes to showing the lives of the killers. Getting picked on in school? Check. Neglectful parents? Check. Violent video games? Check. Possible neo-Nazi leanings? Check. Uh, homosexual make-out scene in the shower? Check, for some reason. I'm at a loss here. Van Sant, of all people, should have seen the pitfalls in this scene, which risks writing off the killing spree as some sort of repressed homosexual vendetta. At any rate, he's just lazy here - rather than giving the killers one or two obvious motivations, he gives them every obvious motivation and doesn't bother deciding which really affected them. Why bother taking a stand when you're just out to depict?
Then there's the rest of the high school, which is populated by boring people or stereotypes or boring stereotypes. Van Sant is resting his hat on an intensely negative visceral reaction to the violence (at least he's right about that), because he sure hasn't given the audience anyone to root for. The characters of Alex and Eric are by far the most developed - after them there's John, whose only development is that his dad is drunk in the early afternoon; Eli, whose only development is that he likes photography; and a bunch of annoying girls I couldn't have cared less about. Character development for them consists of yapping at each other about seeing boyfriends instead of shopping, and then, in the film's most laughable scene, all going into the bathroom and throwing up together after lunch. This scene is so poorly constructed (and goes on so long) that I very nearly burst out laughing.
What Van Sant hopes to accomplish with the tracking shots is also unclear. If it was to show the high school, we got it. An hour of this was not necessary. If it was to develop the characters, it failed. It is sometimes said that anything that doesn't advance the story should probably be edited out of a film. Of course, had he done that, Van Sant would have to have entered this into the Best Short Film category at Cannes. If anything, crossing the paths of all the different characters shows that the killers were indiscriminate. Not exactly necessary, considering we see them discussing their plan and hardly naming names (aside from "the jocks" and "the principal"), and certainly not in such quantity.
In order to avoid piling on - though Elephant hardly deserves such a courtesy - I will say that the cinematography is pretty good and the acting, considering the cast is mostly first-timers and thus the style is largely naturalistic, is not bad. Van Sant also maintains a decent level of tension through part of the film by showing the killers coming up to the school early on, well before anything actually happens. Thus for a while, any eerie silence (and there are many) is cause to wonder when the shooting is going to start. After a short time, though, it becomes obvious that Van Sant is actually saving all the violence for the end, and things get dull again.
These are miniscule glints lost in a sea of problems, though. Elephant is juvenile filmmaking at best - its obtuse symbolism could have been concocted by a film school dropout - and irresponsible filmmaking at worst. Does the violence look good? Not to us, but Van Sant hardly deserves credit for a gut reaction. The last half-hour of the film doesn't look much different from what you might have gotten if you'd given Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold a camcorder on April 20, 1999.Elephant is a disturbing piece of film, but that doesn't make it profound, or even good.
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originally posted: 10/11/04 03:37:26
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.