My experience with this film is completely random. Basically, it was the next thing on my Netflix queue. I have about sixty things on there at any given point. So, right now, it is a Gus Van Sant art film. Next, it is some Swedish movie about vampires. After that, who knows?
Anyway, this film became pretty famous for a while, especially since it was released (and obviously inspired by) The Columbine High School Massacre. It takes place in a fictitious high school on the day of a massacre, unaware of what’s about to unfold. Some of the kids engage in debates. Some go to detention. Some have to deal with alcoholic fathers. Some encounter the killers right before they unleash their fury. It is the closest example of “slice of life” that has ever been used.
Let me pause here for a moment. Considering the baggage that comes with this, I feel it unfair to address it. I was still in elementary school when the Columbine High School Massacre occurred. Yet I still vividly remember the fall out. Suddenly, everyone was expected to do rudimentary drills to hide from intruders. This basically involved hiding under our desks. I suspect that our desks would not have stopped bullets any more than they would have stopped atomic fallout. Yet, there we were. The other amazing thing was the shear amount of ink spilled over the issue. It made the cover of Newsweek at least twice (probably more…torpidity prevents me from looking it up.) Everyone had something to say…without realizing that they were caving into the demands of the shooters for recognition.
With all that in mind, there were many notable items of the film that I just could not figure out. The one thing was why Van Sant chose to fictionalize it. Well, OK, making an actual film about it what have just given more publicity to the events. And trust me, we did not need any more discussion of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. On the other hand, is there really a need to fictionalize it? There have been so many instances of this sort of thing…people pretty much have their pick about which one they want to use. Yet, amazingly, the fiction does not kill the film. It still seems utterly recognizable to the point that it almost could have passed as a documentary. The events in this film never happened, but I almost found myself googling certain things to find out more. So, the approach works.
There is one aspect of the film that doesn’t work as well. Gus Van Sant took a lot of heat upon the premiere for never actually saying anything about the massacre. Everything stated above: the examination of motivation, the blaming of Doom, discussions of the victims, even attempting to create martyrs….none of it is even addressed. I am frankly not as bothered as some were. It keeps the film from being preachy. Plus, what exactly was Van Sant going to say? I can almost picture the interview: “Well, the shooters were right. Kids should be shot.” Yeah, sure. I do feel Van Sant was brave for not falling into the trap so many others fell into. But there was a cost to this approach. At times, the movie has the feeling of nothing. There is action on screen, but it feels unimportant. Usually, action adresses an overall theme. With no real overall theme (except to present the action as raw and unglamorously as possible) there will be times the film feels slow. For an 80 minute film, this does not bode well. Yet it still all comes together. Plus, if you really listen to it, you will realize just how authentic it sounds. High school kids talk about nothing. It was sort of the same approach that Richard Linklater took with Dazed and Confused.
So there you have it. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. It will not be for everyone. Some will shut it off in the first ten minutes, complaining nothing is happening. For those who stick with it, it is vastly rewarding. This is Gus Van Sant…at his least Hollywood. Check it out if want to see the anti-media circus