So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
I've been reading exisiting review's of Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" all morning, and I'm shocked to say that it seems almost everyone got it at least partially right. From Roger Ebert to Indiewire, I agree with at least part of all of the reviews. The truly amazing thing about the movie is highlighed by Ebert--Van Sant doesn't offer an answer. He doesn't offer an explanation. As the Indiewire review pointed out, the film depicts all of the every day battles and humiliations of high school in such a way that you aren't really left wondering why Columbine happened, you are left wondering why it doesn't happen more often.
Which is exactly what I've been saying about this school shootings for years. Why is everyone so fucking surprised? Don't you REMEMBER high school? Had the conflation of circumstances been a little bit different, I might have shot up my school as well, and I think, if you can be honest with yourself, you'll admit that you would have to.
Which is not to say that it has nothing to do with violent media, nothing to do with bad parenting, nothing to do with guns--those are all mechanisms, I think, that make these massacres possible. But whenever I think about it I come down to the problem really being high school. A prefabricated two-dimension wasteland in which it is so difficult to conceptualize anything or anyone as mattering enough to not deserve a good killing, especially in a culture where we don't understand what killing means.
My pontifications aside, "Elephant" is a stunning film. I can't compare it to other films, because it's nothing like other films. The only ones I'd compare it to would be "Kids" (it's way way better) or maybe "Welcome To The Dollhouse" and "Happiness" (it's way different, but accomplishes some of the same things, I think). The decision to use mostly untrained teen actors was a good one--they weren't ackward enough to be real teens, but they were a hell of a lot more ackward than the latest culled-from-Dawson's Creek bunch would have been. And they were more real than even the accepted teeny-bopper indie actors would have been. I felt like I knew some of them, like I'd gone to school with them myself, even if they did have slightly better grooming and wardrobe than the kids I remember. Strangely, I was especially pulled not towards the cool artistic kids, but towards the popular couple. Watching them, I was taken back to my own high school days almost immediately. And I didn't hate them enough to kill them, but I did hate them.
Another really striking thing about the film is the monotony, the flat, washed-out, bored way it's filmed. Every time someone pushes open the door to go outside the school (which seems to happen several times), I got the same feeling of what it's like to do that, how the entire color scheme of outside seems to be more vibrant than the one inside the school. And the sound editing was also amazing--the choice not to use contemporary music was a wise one, I think, and the way the whole film sounded sort of hollow was both haunting and subtle.
All in all, I was captured by it. It was the best thing to date I've seen about these killings. I'm sure Van Sant is drawing criticism for not taking a stand, not having a theory as to why this shit happens, but I think that's the true brilliance of the film. The whole situation is why it happens. Not just the kid having spitballs thrown at him in chemistry, but the hollow sound of the hall, the regimented look of the cafeteria food. This shit happens (in part) because high school steals your soul and without it you have no reason not to kill people. And that's a pretty dangerous statement.