Elephant

Seen at the Telluride Film Festival.

Real-world events, significant and trivial, wonderful and tragic, always serve as inspiration for filmmakers and screenwriters. We couldn’t have it any other way. Movies address what is important to us, dig into our obsessions, give life to our fantasies. Not everything is “ripped from the headlines,” but to take away the headlines would be to castrate our movie industry, stripping artists of their most useful tool: the ability to tap into our greatest desires and our worst fears.

There are other considerations involved, for better or worse, such as the lives of actual human beings. Yes, inconvenient, I know. So tragedies that rock the nation and the world are rarely instant fodder for entertainment, and the movies that attempt to tackle them risk being accused of insensitivity, exploitation, or worse.

But some do choose to brave uncharted waters, and there are two basic approaches. You can choose to explore the tragedy and its aftermath, in which case you are most likely to be branded insensitive, or you can simply show it and deal with charges of exploitation. Gus Van Sant’s difficult Elephant, which is about the Columbine High School shootings in everything but name, clearly thinks it is doing the former when in reality it is merely engaging in the latter. It is that discrepancy, not anything inherent in the approach, that makes Elephant an exploitative movie. Not only does the film (wisely, you could argue) refuse to provide any answers, it fails even to ask any questions.

That doesn’t make it an uninteresting film, and in fact I would recommend it even if I can’t quite say I liked it. For one thing, it’s almost unbearably suspenseful, and I realize that such a statement raises another conundrum re: exploitation. Still, it’s tricky to fault a movie for achieving its precise intent, and Elephant, with its jumbled but lucid chronology and unsettlingly realistic improvised dialogue, makes you as jittery and nervous as it wants to. Whether or not that is something you want to experience with regard to the Columbine tragedy is something you have to answer for yourself.

It becomes pretty clear when the credits begin to roll that Van Sant didn’t fail at making a statement with this project, he simply had no intention of doing so from the beginning. His “exploration” takes the “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies” approach, refusing to commit to anything that would provide a genuine insight into the minds of these kids. And yet the filmmaking on display here, plotless, hypnotic, aggressively unconventional, hints at more than a fictionalization for our entertainment.

Van Sant makes some horridly unwise decisions along the way as well. Making the two killers ostensibly gay lovers was unfortunate — Gus, you’re incorrigible! — as, I concede, were some moments of easy suspense in the second half. I don’t think it is unfair to hold a film like Elephant to a higher standard of dignity than your ordinary thriller or drama; Van Sant chose his subject matter, and chose the manner in which he would deal with it. His choices were a burden to which few filmmakers would be equal.

I’m ambivalent about this movie. Can you tell? I appreciate the courage of its concept and the compelling originality of its style, but its essential emptiness gives me pause. I would have been happy to just sit back and watch a master filmmaker recreate these events — maybe five years from now, or ten. Such an exercise now is just too close to home.

-- Eugene Novikov

Leave a Comment

Screening Log

Snitch

Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

View All Entries »