Elephant Boys

Gus Van Sant aestheticizes the outcast, again

Yet, whereas Gerry was all formal experimentation with precious little context, Elephant is unmistakably Columbine—not in all of its details, but in enough of them so that the real-life carnage is never far from our minds. We know where the film is going, where it must go. But what makes its final, violent images so hard to take isn't that they unsettle us in the way they should—as a startling expression of long-pent-up, adolescent rage. It's that coming as they do, after 70-odd minutes of such intense prettification, and depicted as they are in such explicit detail, the killings seem a precocious art student's crudely shocking pièce de résistance. It's as though the Mop-and-Glo sheen of the movie's first three-quarters had been manufactured by Van Sant solely for the purpose of being splattered with buckets of brains and blood in his grandiose finale.

Beyond which, and more intellectually troubling, is Van Sant's unquestioning indulgence of all manner of myth and rumor disseminated (again, largely via the mass media) in the days and weeks following the Columbine shootings. Thanks in large part to the series of articles written by the Denver-based journalist Dave Cullen for Salon.com—a body of work that may be the most authoritative, well-sourced and broad-minded account we have of Columbine—we now know that on April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embarked on "a suicide mission driven by indiscriminate hate." That they were equal-opportunity offenders who didn't target specific individuals or, as widely misreported, groups of individuals (such as jocks, Christians, African-Americans). That they themselves, in their portentous video diaries, anticipated (and discounted) the blame that would be foisted upon video games and absentee parents. That they were not neo-Nazis—nothing that simple. And that they were, in all likelihood, not gay. Yet Elephant's Alex and Eric vocally target athletes during their rampage, and share, in the penultimate moment before heading off to school on that special morning, not just a kiss before dying, but a lengthy embrace and a shower together as well—shortly after watching a television program about Hitler.

Of course, Van Sant is as entitled to his artistic license as the next filmmaker, and if you think I'm criticizing him for not making the movie I think he should have made, rather than for making the one he has, you may be right. There is very little about this present Elephant that I find useful, necessary or less than retrograde. Van Sant's Portland-transposed Columbine exists in a mighty small world—one that allows for few ambiguities and for none of the "non-traditional jocks" or unexpectedly mournful Goth kids who color Cullen's extraordinary reports. It is, ultimately, a movie that seeks to explain, even reassure, by employing the same methods as the evening news—namely, by doing everything it can to transform these wayward kids into some distant, aberrant other. But it may only be when we begin to consider the many ways in which these kids were like "normal" kids—how they might have been anyone's kids—that we will approach a deeper understanding of Columbine's ramifications. In the meantime, as lead Columbine investigator Kate Battan has herself put it, "Everybody wants a quick answer. They want an easy answer so that they can sleep at night and know this is not going to happen tomorrow." And now they have Gus Van Sant's Elephant.

Elephant was written and directed by Gus Van Sant; produced by Dany Wolf; and stars Alex Frost and Eric Deulen. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.

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