Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Elephant. Gus van Sant's film was famously inspired by the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and the most interesting thing about it is that van Sant doesn't understand what happened anymore than you or I do. It's an arty but effective tone poem on tragedy, closer in spirit to The Bridge of San Luis Rey than Michael Moore.

Set at an unnamed high school clearly modeled on Columbine, it follows the events leading up to the massacre from several elliptic points of view: there's one young stoner who has to look after his alcoholic dad, there's a geeky Carrie White-like girl who works in the library, there's a hot young couple, there's a budding photographer, and there are a couple of outcasts with a gun fixation. Van Sant doesn't focus on any of these strands of the story at length; he keeps a chilly distance, possibly for fear of getting sentimental ? always a likely possibility in this kind of story. Instead, he draws us into these ordinary lives, and toys with our expectations of a story, a shape, a narrative. A tracking shot follows one young man as he walks through the school, with haunting music telling us that something will happen, that this character carries some kind of particular meaning -- but he doesn't, and nothing happens; which so far as I can guess is van Sant's own way of saying that life doesn't have the shape of a film. When the worst happens, it happens suddenly and without any obvious warning, as it did in Littleton and as it does in the film -- with a shattering impact.

Elephant is one of those rare films that is as deeply sincere as it is faky and pretentious; the kind of art film where art is short for artifice, and artifice is very much the point. By constantly disrupting our expectations, replaying scenes from different perspectives, slowing the film down to a crawl -- as if to meditate on the value of even the slightest moments -- and then resuming a casual pace, Van Sant disorients the viewer and makes this overly-familiar story suddenly fresh, raw, sudden, painful.

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