Elephant — he said, she said — movie review
Posted on November 14, 2003 by Chris & Kris
Ce n’est pas une école. Columbine is a subject I sometimes wish would just go away. Not because it was a tragedy, but because the media never handles situations of that magnitude truthfully. (i.e.: Iraq~ Jessica Lynch). Don’t you remember High School? Sure it was fun, but it wasn’t all hunky-dory and everyone holding hands and getting along. Being a teenager meant you were forced to deal with angst. The majority overrules. The disempowering choke-hold because you’re older than a “kid” but not yet an “adult”. Peer pressure: you were either setting trends, dissolving them, or following. Discovering yourself, even if you didn’t like what you saw.
But mostly, our personalities can be constructed from other people’s expectations. That’s why we fall so easily into (or out of) our prospective cliques. We dart and do the dance. Yet there are always a few who remain out of the loop, refusing to participate in our “reindeer games” and ostracized for it. Perhaps that’s really how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold felt. Caught in a catch-22 with no redemption in sight. That’s how we are led to view Elephant’s scapegoats Alex and Eric, who, prior to violence, encourage each other saying “just have fun”.
“Invited” into his bedroom, we gather that Alex (who looks remarkably like John Cusack) is an incredibly artistic, polite and disciplined youth, who possibly shares an affinity with Beethoven. His inseparable bud Eric (who looks remarkably like Eminem) embodies utter loyalty. But in class, we see jocks throwing spit-wads at Alex, giggling and getting away with it because of an indifferent (perhaps myopic?) instructor. The simple act of brushing the goop off of his hair and jacket is almost methodical, as it illustrates how often this has happened before as he knows exactly where the target zones are. We also see Alex’s strategy, written in the deafening din of the ubiquitous cafeteria, and the ease of heavy fire-arm purchase and infiltration on campus with C-4s.
This is where DP Harris Savides steps in– Cinematographer for The Game, Illuminata, and Gerry, but probably better known as the DP for Nine Inch Nails’ Closer, R.E.M’s Everybody Hurts, and Fiona Apple’s Criminal. Stalled steadicam shots (linked in a Rashomon timeline) are likened to a forgetful father leaving the camera on a tripod and “d’oh”-ing upon playback because the football game was six feet over to the right. This exact shot of the jocks at play reveals their utter unimportance. Would the world end if these guys quit playing? Nope, even though the monotony of their grunts and hollers are set against a time-lapsed sunset, because they do this everyday as if their world would end.
High School was also about figuring out your talents and learning about loyalty. There are bulimic “triplets”, accusing each other of disloyalty for ‘dissing one day of shopping. There’s a homely girl (who represents responsibility) who refuses to wear shorts in P.E. class and is informed she would receive a demerit next time for her unwillingness to comply. This reminded me of one of my High School memories: once, on the soccer field, refs threatened us with yellow cards (equated to tripping someone) for not hiking up our shorts high enough.
In High School, “the more things are different, the more they stay the same”. In a swift scan of the kitchen of Elephant‘s eatery, the camera reveals two nameless guys and their quick “smoke break” (and it ain’t tobacco), and various drones in the confines of the understated and overlooked. This mimics the route submissive kids could wind up in, and possibly what Alex and Eric were deathly afraid of becoming. Eric also informs the principal that their killing spree isn’t an isolated case; that there are many students at other schools that would go to such extremes as well.
Surprisingly, the participants in this play (imo, van Sant’s themes are displayed theatrically, yet lack any sort of predestined “chapters”), weren’t formally trained actors at all. Just some kids from Portland Oregon (van Sant’s hometown) whom he chose after various interviews. He even used their real names as their character names. It added to the overall tangibility.
This is what Gus van Sant films excel in, among other things. Multiple characters, bromidic lifestyles, yet he engages us until we actually feel their presence in the room. We see a little of ourselves or of our friends in these characters because they are so REAL. It’s beyond suspension of disbelief. It’s downright magical.
Elephant is nothing short of amazing. Gus Van Sant has presented to first unbiased, unflinching look at what causes the sorts of violence exemplified in the Columbine Massacre. If you’re looking for the film to spoon feed you a nice little, shrink-wrapped, pre-packaged reason for why the events took place, you won’t get it. This film provides no answers, just food for thought. The answers you will find within yourself after viewing the film. Of course many people will be offended by Van Sant’s “politically incorrect” treatment of such a taboo subject, but I think he couldn’t have possibly done a better job.
The same critics that praised Kill Bill are calling this exploitive, gory, and immature. Give ‘em something that actually intelligently addresses an important issue and tries to make them think twice about their beliefs, and they take offense.
Elephant is chock full of important ideas. The only way you’ll miss them is if you’re busy yackin’ instead of watching the film.
Oh well, on with my interpretation of the film. Technically this would be a spoiler section, but as we all know what happened at Columbine and therefore how the film will end, feel free to read on.
Some interesting things I noted when watching Elephant:
Parents are strangely absent. Alex sees his family only once during the film, at breakfast time, though you never see their face. It’s sort of like Snoopy. The only parent whose face you do see is the alcoholic father of John, yet john has to play the role of the sensible parent in his father’s stead. There are no role models for these kids.
Alex is also the mastermind behind the school massacre. If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, he is strangely busy. If videogames and TV are to blame, then why do they sit dormant, stowed away in the corner of his room gathering dust? He is an outcast in a land of sheep. There is nothing more frightening to a hive mindset, such as that found in high school, than an intelligent kid who doesn’t subscribe to what his peers construe as cool and normal.
He gets out his frustration of having been spitballed unmercifully in science class is to try and play Fur Elise on the piano perfectly. He tries and tries, yet can’t quite make it. The difficulty in perfecting the song mirrors the difficulty in gaining acceptance from his peers. In the end, he gives up on both, picking up his laptop computer and ordering a machine gun from a reputable online retailer.
His best friend, Eric, looks up to Alex. Idolizes him. Alex understands this fact and exploits his friend’s blind devotion. He knows his friend will follow him to his death, so he’s the perfect partner in crime.
Much has been made of the kiss in the shower between the two best friends before they go on their spree, but I assure you they are not gay. They were two societal rejects. Virgins for life. They knew they were going to die and just wanted to make sure they checked that one block of having kissed someone before their time expired. What better person to kiss than your only friend, the only person that took the time to understand you?
Alex and Eric wear army gear while shooting the kids at school. This could be taken as violence in the homeland mimicking violence overseas. We don’t care when it happens in another country, but once that same level of violence happens in our own backyard we cry foul. Not a week goes by where US soldiers don’t open fire on a group of protestors or run over a family with a tank. Of course all we hear is when a US soldier died, or when they heroically fought back a group of attackers, even when those attackers were armed with nothing more that a picketing sign.
There are three catty girls who know nothing life aside from looking cute and shopping. The girls seem to have never enjoyed a pure silence. At least two of them are chirping away at the same time. When one girl has been spending less time than usual with her friends due to a new boyfriend, one girl squawks how friends are more important than any other connection. You should spend 95% of your free time with your friends, if not more. Friends are the only thing America’s youth have to rely on in today’s hostile world.
One of the same girls checks out the young jock stud, returning his smile as he walks down the hall. Her friends cajole her for falling into his trap, stating his girlfriend slapped the last girl who did so. The girl is confused. Why didn’t his girlfriend slap him for his wandering eye? This could even be attributed to America’s attitude toward its athletes. They can do no wrong. Even in the case of Kobe Bryant, people are more interested in dragging his accuser’s name through the mud than seeing if Kobe is really at fault.
There is even a scene of a group of kids trying to wrap their little minds around the acceptance of gays. The question of how you can tell if a person is gay is brought up, to which the kids reply “Pink hair. Rainbow bracelets.” “Maybe not pink hair, but definitely rainbow clothing” “Definitely.” In the whole group only three kids speak. They can’t get past the whole superficial aspect. The idea of identifying a person’s sexual orientation based on their outward appearance consumes them. The rest sit silent, agreeing with whatever is said as long as they don’t have to speak their own mind.
There is much much more you can take away from this film but I don’t want to divulge anything else until some of you have taken the time to see this film.
Turn on your brain, sit forward, and prepare to be blown away. Elephant addresses much of what is wrong with high school, our societal structure, and America in general. Because of that fact it is a must see film for today’s youth. From watching this film, maybe they can fix what we have, ourselves, corrupted.
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