Elephant

| November 11, 2003

In the summer of ’95 Roger Ebert referred to Larry Clark’s kids to be “intended as a wake-up call.” Although the kids of Elephant are on the opposite end of the country from which kids took place in and several years removed, much of their behavior and the questions the films’ raise are not that distant. Neither film attempts to solve its subject matter or even suggests a way to do so. These films play as a documentation of a day in the life of American youth. Both accomplish representations that are honest and realistic. Each film can be represented as bookends to the most media influenced and exploited event of American youth violence: kids (pre-Columbine), Elephant (post-Columbine). Elephant is one of the first major reactions to Columbine (Bowling for Columbine as well). As we all were watching the events unfolding on the news networks back in ’99, who didn’t ponder when this tragedy would be made into a movie or even worse a made for T.V. movie starring a 30 year old former child star milking the clichés and drama to jumpstart his career.
Elephant starts off with several different paths. One teen is arriving late to school because his drunk father was hardly capable to drive him on time, another teen is photographing his peers around campus, a jock type leaves a pick up game of football to meet his girlfriend in school while three girls carry on in their own secluded bubble and one nerdy girl endures her morning routine of gym class and locker room humiliation. These are only a few of the teens that make up this high school and in this day a deadly massacre will follow in the hands of Alex and Eric. Elephant is woven into a composition of trivial events leading to a brutal and cold massacre.
Gus Van Sant consistently frames the characters with their backs to the camera as we follow down their paths in these long hallways. The high school hallways are made to feel like a maze that leads to exits and dead ends. Those caught in the path of Alex and Eric are killed. Those lucky enough to be in the halls that Alex and Eric do not cover have a chance to escape. One character encounters them outside and is forewarned of what is to come. That character warns those outside not to go into the school, while another character experiences the aftermath in some of the hallways and follows down the deadliest paths until he sees one of the shooters. Is he trying to be a hero? Is he aware of what is happening? Van Sant beautifully tracks throughout the school in long continuous shots capturing the silence, voices, urgency and boredom in this melancholic environment.
The film was cast with non-actors and mostly improvisational. The teens range from jocks to nerd archetypes, but several of them share a common gentle demeanor and grace that makes them appear all the more innocent. Alex has the most naïve and gentle face of any of the characters. At times there is desperation that appears when he is on a shooting rampage through the corridors, but that angelic appearance is scorned by a sudden smile of pleasure as he finds more victims.
Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and “Fur Elise” takes us into the world of Alex and Eric as they are in Alex’s basement watching a Nazi film, playing violent videogames and looking up websites that sell firearms. Did the videogames make them do it? Was it the Nazis? Could it have been when two students were throwing spit balls at Alex in their science class? Bullying can drive kids to respond in extreme ways (Bully). But not all kids who receive the same treatment that Alex and Eric received will shoot up their school. We get a cold and distant feeling when Alex is at home with his parents. Their heads are cropped out of the frame and their interaction feels more like a chore than any sincere care or interest in the lives of one another. The title of Elephant implies the elephant in the living room that everyone ignores. Are the parents ignoring the problems or are they simply oblivious to them? Some would say that the parents are in denial.
Larry Clark showed a world where the kids were incased in a world that was cruel, damaged and the lines between victim and predator were well defined. Although ultimately all the kids have or will become a victim. In Elephant, who is to say Alex and Eric are not victims themselves. Acting out in violence is no way to overcome the role of victim, but they too were hurt by a system that failed to respond to their needs or simply listen to them. This lack of understanding, responsibility and listening is why Alex and Eric will not be the last to express themselves in destructive ways.

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