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Elephant

dir: Gus Van Sant
[img_assist|nid=1008|title=This world was never meant for one as awful as you|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=360|height=240]
Some people walk around. The camera follows them as they slowly amble about. They meet people, or they walk past other people who are doing stuff or doing nothing. If they get to a destination, they do something inherently banal there, and the camera captures every scintillating second of it. Every now and then, there is a time lapse shot of a sky slowly darkening, or an approaching storm.

More shots of people walking around. Banal conversations. All of this action is centered around a school. We are given people's names as the camera follows them about. Each person seems to be given a 'story',
but nothing they say or do expands our knowledge of either what's going on or what's going to happen. They're not characters, or caricatures. They're just people. Doing not much of anything. After a while, you get to see the same situations repeated from other people's point of view.

In such a context, you could say that Gus Van Sant has made a meditative film, in the sense that we are given a lot of time to think about what's going on. Nothing is really rushed, and except for the crucial element of what the central 'event' is, you eventually give up waiting for something to happen, and just wonder how much more the film can ramble.

It's possible that from that point on the film becomes less of a meditation on the banality of life, or an expose on the lives of teenagers in contemporary America, and more a waste of time which allows you to start thinking about other stuff. Oh look, another tracking shot from behind a person walking slowly down a hallway towards something unimportant. Gee, this looks like it might take some time. That reminds me, need to do some washing when I get home, if I want to wear that black shirt tomorrow, and how long has it been since I've washed those jeans. That girl in the cafeteria was giving me the eye earlier today. But then again she is cross-eyed. Someone said it's going to rain tonight. Which is cool. Hope I get home before it starts. Don't want my hair to go all frizzy. Oh look, the actor finally got there. Wonder where this is going. Oh. It just ended. And now someone else is walking down the same hall from before, just in a different direction. Probably should cut my toenails soon. One of them is poking through my leather boots. That can't be good. Oh look etc etc.

When what 'happens' finally happens, as in the reason one assumes the film was made, it is undeniably horrific. I'm unsure whether it's because of the intensely frustrating structure of the film, which I assume is deliberate, as in it was calculated to have such an effect, or because of the 'event' itself. I am guessing that the ugly nature of what we see and our likely reaction has little to do with the film itself and more to do with the infamous idea of the whole school massacre escapade, primarily the one that made Columbine High School and Littleton, Colorado names known nation wide and around the world.

Amidst the banality are the beginnings of what we see is about to happen. Our first inkling is quite early, when the first person we had been following is told by two kids wearing cammo gear is warned not to go back in to the school. And thus as the film has a fractured chronology we see multiple standpoints leading up to the event itself, including from the two kids Eric and Alex that perpetrate the massacre.

There's no real 'after-school special' Degrassi High impetus or message. There's little explanation ultimately for why these two nutjobs do what they do, though we get the motifs of the fact that they're not popular, they're harassed by other jock students, and they like playing first person shooter games on computer where they get to kill a lot of badly animated polygons. They have easy access to guns and to books on how to construct bombs. Not one mention of Marilyn Manson, death metal, Satan, violence on television, Dungeons and Dragons, drugs, premarital sex or puppies, which is a shame.

It is possible that the music of Beethoven and sublimated gay desire between the two guys is the reason why they decide to explode all over the place, but it's unlikely. We aren't given clear reasons, but despite the film's emphasis on showing the event from a plethora of viewpoints, none of them ultimately are meant to give us any greater understanding. We are meant to think 'Why and how is this happening?', and hope that there is a reason given in the context of the film, because from the smartest to the dumbest of us mere mortals in the audience, we like to understand what's going on and even more so we like closure. Mmmm, closure. It's better than smack and smells sweeter than Mom's apple crack pie.

That isn't what the filmmaker wants to give us. He wants us, they want us to ponder the unponderable so that we come up with an answer I'm glad they were humble enough to acknowledge they didn't possess.
That's all well and good, but it doesn't make the film any less frustrating, for me at least.

I know that kids shooting other kids at school is bad. Doubtless most of you out there know it too. None of us went into it needing a lesson and a good spanking afterwards. Well, maybe just a little bit. We are meant to see the full horror of what occurs in order to perhaps try and find ways to stop it from ever happening again, but perhaps it's not even aiming for that lofty a moral high ground. Perhaps we're just supposed to be horrified and think how fragile life can be.

Ultimately, what is most disturbing is not who gets killed, or when or how. What bugs us the most surely is the flat, disinterested, almost bored manner in which they do it. These kids know full well the horror they are committing on these innocent people, but they draw no distinction between the people they kill, teacher or student, jock or geek, they're all the same, just targets to be felled at will. And the killings bring them no pleasure. Not that one wants them to feel pleasure, that would be even more offensive, but at least it would
give us an inkling as to their motivation in embarking upon the killing spree in the first place.

Malice we can understand; hatred, love, revenge, sorrow, these we can grasp too. But the motiveless, passionless actions on display here are representative of a very disturbing pathology. After a while into the
spree, the two kids cross paths again, one asking the other how well he did in terms of score, presumably. In the middle of his response, one kills the other. He kills him, we gather, simply because he was there at the time and there was no-one else around to kill. It is not represented as part of a suicide pact, or an angry falling-out between murderous friends. He kills him because he wants to kill as many people as he can. He kills him because he is unable to wait for another victim to come along. If this isn't the sickest shit I've had
to contemplate this year, then it's been a worse year than I've been able to remember. Actually, now that I think about it's at least as bad as if not even worse than those prison torture images coming out of Iraq recently, or that poor bastard getting beheaded on television. It's a sick fucking world we live in.

Is the film saying that the desensitisation of contemporary youth, their disaffection, alienation is leading them down such a path where such atrocities become conceivable or even desirable? It's possible, I don't know for certain. I can't speak for director Van Sant. I mean, I have no problem making up crazy shit and pretending that it's something Van Sant would likely say, or pretending I have a deep understanding of Van Sant's oeuvre and mindspace. Frankly I thought he was a fucking lunatic ever since he decided to remake Psycho, ignoring the virtually universal howls of protest and outrage that erupted when he first threatened to do so. And that gamble paid off, didn't it?

At least here he's made something simultaneously simple and deceptively layered that leaves us as viewers floundering for meaning and solace. If it is complex then it's only because we struggle to understand what's gone on, not because of the complexity of the structure or the themes entered into. So it only becomes difficult through us, not in the manner in which people walk endlessly about or the way in which the monsters come out to play. The story essentially says nothing.

Or, it posits the idea that away from the psychology of the two kill crazy psychopaths on display, all concepts of fate, destiny, mundanity, evil, morality and interrelatedness pretty much evaporate in the face of random acts of senseless violence. We wander about over the course of our days, performing tasks and enjoying or not enjoying a whole host of experiences, all doing our own thing unaware that our journey's end could be for a less logical reason than anything we've ever contemplated before.

There is something that stood out, and in part I believe it might be projection on my part, but it still seems to have an element of overarching intent in its inclusion. At film's beginning an old Mercedes is being driven down the street. Badly. The driver sideswipes a parked car, narrowly misses running over a kid on a bike. The driver is revealed to be a drunken father trying to get his kid to school, too drunk to drive properly or to know that he's too drunk to drive. His son wrests the keys from him, and continues the journey to school,
upset with his father but still concerned with his well-being. He tries to manage his flighty father, but needs to get to class. Everything that eventuates does so, and at film's end, the son goes looking for the father, unaware of his fate.

The father has played no part in the events as they unfold, either as protagonist, protector or victim, arrives at the end as clueless as anyone else as to what has happened. It's not necessarily the stinging indictment of parental neglect as a contributing factor in the madness that is contemporary adolescence, but it seems pretty pertinent to me. I also found it strange that the actor playing the drunken father bore an uncanny resemblance to a certain current President not known for his sharp wit or ability to speak with anything even approximating a reasonable level of ability. I'm willing to allow for the fact that it is a coincidence, but it struck me as fairly odd. I could just be crazy, they did after all just up my medication recently, so you never know.

I feel that it's important. And with so many scenes of fuckers wandering about all over the place I had plenty of time to think about it, I can tell you. And also with all that free time I still wasn't able to decide whether it was a good film or not. I certainly didn't enjoy it, but I don't doubt that the point was somewhat different from just being liked. It's not a popularity contest, I figured that out for free.

I can figure out how it won 2003's Palme D'Or in Cannes, however. The arthouse critics love this kind of crap. Someone walking around pointlessly for ten minutes? That's deep shit, man. It must be, I dunno, existential or something. A dozen people walking around for ten minutes each before being blown away? That's the kind of philosophy that's better than all the groupie pussy and cocaine in the world! Bring that shit on, and I'll fucking vote for it! Vote early and vote often!!

Perhaps I'm not bright enough to see all the other complexities inherent in the film, or smart enough not to be bored or frustrated by its structure. Boo fucking hoo. I can't dismiss it, it's too disturbing. But I can't recommend it either, not without reservations.

6 splattered bulimic cheerleaders out of 10

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"Eeney... Meeney... Meiny... Moe... Catch a... Tiger... By its... Toe" - Elephant

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