Elephant, Man

Gus Van Sant explores the American high school

The spooky beauty of Elephant, Gus Van Sant's strange take on the Columbine massacre, arises not from the shock of sudden violence but from the filmmaker's steady gaze at the numbing routines of life inside a suburban high school. With what at first looks like cool detachment, Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting) and his longtime cinematographer, Harris Savides, roam the halls of the school on a typical day, here catching a bit of giddy teenage gossip, there eavesdropping on a classroom discussion, next slipping into the cafeteria, where a clique of three girls with identical hairdos scrunch up their noses at the sandwiches and squares of chocolate cake. In the gym, an awkward kid in thick glasses struggles with the coach's insistence that she wear shorts.

Van Sant shows us some of the encounters two or three times, from different students' points of view, and our attention might wander from this chronicle of ordinariness (one of his inspirations was Frederick Wiseman's 1969 fly-on-the-wall documentary High School) were it not for our foreknowledge of what's to come. In the four years since Columbine, no American can be led into the polished corridors of a high school without feeling the chill of dark possibility.

Van Sant's method calls for establishing the dull but intimate rhythms of day-to-day life — these are everybody's children, this is everyone's school — then interrupting them with an eruption of fury that the director doesn't try to explain. Anyone shopping for insight into the motives of two young gunmen who calmly slaughter their classmates and teachers will need to look elsewhere. Elephant provides the atmosphere in which such an atrocity can happen, but there is no attempt at dramatic resolution. Despite giving us a glimpse of video-game carnage and a suggestive scene in which a boy playing a Beethoven piano piece suddenly smashes his hands onto the keys in a discordant jangle, the filmmaker is evidently as mystified as the rest of us by the kinks in the killers' brain waves.

That's the weakness of Van Sant's movie, but in an odd way, also its strength. Using actual high school students in his hometown of Portland, Ore., as actors, Van Sant encouraged them to improvise their dialogue — riff on the fears, joys, and concerns in their own lives — to produce a kind of psychodrama. What we get in the end is an authentically messy tapestry of adolescence in which the traumas remain open-ended, the conversations unfinished, the destinies invitingly unfulfilled. Every now and then, Savides' wandering camera catches a bank of dark clouds overhead or a distant game of playground football that seems as inexplicable as the tragedy about to unfold. In the common details of high school existence, fate and luck seem more crucial than will or intention. Turn one way down a hall and you live; walk the wrong way and you die. Pointing his automatic weapon at two classmates, one of the dispassionate, seemingly befogged killers begins to chant, “Eeny meeny miney mo,” as if randomness were his only creed.

This is a deeply disturbing (if not very satisfying) view of what happened at Columbine and in other school shootings. Thinking human beings search for answers to hard riddles, but Van Sant seems even less willing to speculate about school violence than Paul F. Ryan, whose recent feature Home Room focused on the emotional effects of a Columbine-style disaster on two teenage girls. Still, Van Sant's apparent remoteness may not be what it first seems. He doesn't try to explain anything, but in his austere, almost Oriental meditation on his cast's movements and moods he vividly creates the sense that terror — incoherent but omnipresent — shadows all young lives, and that we'd best take note of that vulnerability. Off-screen, the director explains his title in two ways: First, violence is the elephant in the room, so obvious that no one sees it; second, he recalls a Buddhist parable in which a group of blind men examine different parts of the animal — ear, leg, trunk, and so forth — after which each man is convinced he knows the nature of the elephant from the one part he touched. In other words, don't jump to conclusions. Van Sant certainly doesn't.

Elephant is not an agile film, and some viewers are sure to be irked by its inconclusiveness. But in the spaciousness of its concerns, it amplifies some burning questions about American life.

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