****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell
written and directed by Gus Van Sant
by Walter Chaw I live about five minutes from Columbine High School. In the year following the shootings, Littleton, a strange place already, got even stranger: a man killed himself in a crowded Burger King parking lot, a child was found in a dumpster behind a local strip mall, two kids were killed in a Subway, and so on. It was mass psychic fallout, and something that none of the inquiries into Columbine seem to address; in time, I'm sure, people will forget that there were aftershocks and tremors.
Equating the shootings to a seismic event is an interesting thing to do, considering that so many occurred in the last couple years of the last millennium. Connecting the spots on a map might expose a fault line stretching coast to coast in a fractured United States, something that ironically lends our nation a surprising, almost biological, unity. Our films are reflecting some of that fallout now with a string of evil child movies (The Ring, Identity, 28 Days Later...) that, unlike the evil child movies of the '60s and early-'70s (Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, Don't Look Now), refuse to offer an escape clause for the foulness of their kinder noir. That's fine, and interesting, and expected--what's less fine are films like Home Room and Zero Day that dramatize the events at Columbine and her sanctified sisters in tones of sanctimony or piety.
Gus Van Sant's Elephant is the only way that a film should be made about Columbine--at least, it feels that way after watching it. It offers no catharsis, and that's frustrating for people looking for some, but what it offers in its place is an elegy that hums with the rhythms of a crystalline tone poem. The picture's beautiful, its unknown high school performers, essentially playing themselves, are beautiful, and the idea of a picture that is at its essence a celebration of youth at its terminus, at the moment of its destruction, is almost unbearably beautiful, too. The idea of Romanticism being at some level grief for a possibly mythical Natural past finds evocation in Van Sant's use of bird song in the soundtrack; the idea of siècles of culture finds elucidation in the substituting of the German industrial music blamed for Eric Harris and Dylan Kleibold's taste for (Germanic, I guess) bloodshed for the music of that other wanton Kraut corruptor of youth, Beethoven
It's misleading to say that Elephant is without structure: the picture lilts to the rhythms of an untraditional muse. It opens with a beautiful boy (there are no other kinds in Van Sant, nor should there be), driving his drunken father to school, getting in trouble with the whimsically tyrannical administrator, and wandering through the halls with a blithe, adolescent grace. Van Sant films him in a long, uninterrupted, tracking shot that reminds of Russian Ark. This continues with a photographer, a football player, and a group of three girls, whom we follow for a while until they lock themselves into sequential bathroom stalls to engage in the ritual of bulimia/beauty. It's twisted, it summons the shade of Winona Ryder filing her fingernail preparatory to sticking it down a Heather's throat, and it is Van Sant presenting a cliché of the portrayal of teens in film before undermining it with shocking, heartbreaking humanity. Even the administrator, balding and ridiculous in his department store tie, is made human in the end by Van Sant's sadistic compassion, laying waste our preconceptions in a way that doesn't feel scolding so much as melancholy.
And so Elephant is an attempt to exorcise the demons of a post-Columbine Columbine administration that asked all students who wore black and read Shakespeare--who were, presumably, not part of the jock/nerd dichotomy--to finish out their schooling at home with tutors. The idea that things as mysterious as liebestraum, of love/death, can ever be properly embarrassed by platitudes and equivocations--the rationalizations of punitive actions and segregation that are a function of the same ignorance that finds fault with Van Sant's suggestion that ennui is a virus, terrible and inexorable. Watch our glad-handing of 9/11, and how in two years it's become a holiday before it's even a memorial: it's never too soon to dull an ache. The thought is that languor inspires a fatal unwillingness to prevent malevolent action, that rather than aggression, it is dedicated detachment that inculcates itself in the will of good men--that encourages serpents of spirit. There are murderous middle-class milk-fed blues because we allow torpor to nurse at our breast, and Elephant is a document of our etherized condition: not terminal yet, maybe, but close. Originally published: October 3, 2003.
by Bill Chambers Easily the most inexplicably-configured DVD I've ever encountered, HBO's Elephant platter crams two versions of the film onto one side of a flipper and contains a mere 16 minutes of material on the other. The rare modern feature film shot for full-gate projection, Elephant is offered in both its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and a 1.85:1 matted presentation enhanced for anamorphic displays, presumably to better accommodate belligerent 16x9 owners who would've cropped the film at their own peril--this way, they don't lose any scan lines in the process. Still, director of photography Harris Savides's vertically-minded compositions weren't achieved with letterboxing in mind, so it's recommended that you treat Elephant as you would pre-'scope releases by avoiding any sort of widescreen fabrication altogether. The transfer itself is utterly faithful to the theatrical experience, right down to minor flecking during the infamous shower scene, possibly the by-product of an optical blow-up to omit full-frontal nudity. Colours are vibrant but reined-in and edge-enhancement is imperceptible.
Presented in either DTS or Dolby Digital, the film's 5.1 mix reflects a lack of post-production finessing in its dialogue track, as voices can sometimes have a harshnes to them. (In the moving exchange between John and Acadia, the actors sound as though they were too close to the mike.) The music is unsettlingly clear, however, especially in DTS. Side 2's appropriately unconventional and evocative "On the Set of the Film Elephant: Rolling Through Time" (12 mins.), credited to the film's sound mixer, Felix Andrew, compiles stolen glimpses of the production that impressed upon this viewer the exacting nature of Van Sant's working methods, with the director rehearsing camera moves on video first and providing his actors with line-readings and/or the body-language equivalent. Elephant's goosebumps-inducing trailer and a reel promoting HBO Films round out the disc, which is a must-have for the movie alone. Originally published: May 3, 2004.