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Friday, November 07, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Gus Van Sant depicts casual cruelty of high school in 'Elephant'
By John Hartl
Loosely based on the 1999 Columbine school shootings, it uses lengthy tracking shots of teenagers walking through a Portland high school to chronicle what appears to be their daily routine. Kids are punished for being late, they gossip and taunt each other, girls follow lunch by purging in the restroom toilets, bullies pick on quiet kids, and a gym teacher picks on a girl who's too shy to shower.
For much of its first half, "Elephant" resembles Fred Wiseman's great, empathetic 1969 documentary, "High School," which was so dominated by such moments that it inspired the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael to lament: "How did we live through it? How did we keep our spirit?" But not all of these kids do live through it, and the survivors' spirits are permanently damaged.
(The title was inspired by the fable about blind men trying to examine an elephant and, Van Sant has said, evolved to mean the proverbial elephant sitting in the middle of the room a problem so huge it's easier to ignore than confront.)
Van Sant opens the movie ominously with a long overhead shot of a car weaving through suburban streets, side-swiping a parked car. The drunken driver turns out to be the father (Timothy Bottoms) of the central character, John (John Robinson), who takes over the wheel and ends up paying for being so responsible.
In any other movie, this might be a setup for a demonstration of why teenagers turn homicidal. John, however, manages to brush off the injustice and control his anger. His father may be a drunkard, but they have a relationship, and they're not as alienated as Eric (Eric Deulen) and Alex (Alex Frost), the boys who do the killing. When these outcasts kiss to seal their suicidal bond, the moment seems less homoerotic than an acknowledgment of sexual inexperience.
"Elephant" has been accused of not explaining exactly why these boys take their guns to school. In fact, it hints at many reasons: uncaring parents, casual abuse by teachers and other kids, a pervasive atmosphere of oppression and indifference (Harris Savides' cinematography and Leslie Shatz's sound design do wonders for suggesting the mental state of the killers).
In the end, however, Eric and Alex do it because they can.
Van Sant has created an NRA nightmare in which kids with unreliable impulses are given easy access to true weapons of mass destruction. While most of the characters are little more than sketches, Van Sant and his collection of young, mostly inexperienced actors make them recognizable and genuine. The victims of Columbine are not statistics here.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
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