Speaking of Elephant, I went and saw it today. It’s definitely one of my favorite Gus van Sant films, up there with To Die For and Drugstore Cowboy. But it’s an entirely different animal, so to speak. I haven’t seen Gerry, and My Own Private Idaho was a bit too affected for me, but this new one’s absolutely compelling and will leave you thinking about a lot more than the Columbine killings.
The brilliantly-realized Elephant is not a film about emotions. It is not a documentary. It is a film about time and space, and the movement of objects through it. This time and space cares little about the mother who lovingly cooks pancakes for her child and his friend, and little about the relationship between an alcoholic father and the son who pulls him thoughtfully from behind the wheel. It shrugs at tender high school first loves and adolescent crushes. In Elephant all these relationships are served up as roadkill on the daunting, fatalistic journey that we as individuals must endure as we hurtle through life.
Like the violent video games which are as much a part of the fabric of the killers’ lives as Beethoven’s piano masterpiece “Fur Elise,” the complex human experience (in this case, “an ordinary day”) is simplified to a series of obstacles, individual experiences that must be approached on individual terms. As a result, Van Sant makes a statement about the sanitization of violence in entertainment and paints a portrait of the American high school experience that corners you with its emotionless honesty. This “high school” film is the anti-Breakfast Club.
Van Sant shoots the film “arcade-style,” following the characters from behind so that they don’t even own their own perspectives. They are simply avatars following the trajectory of God’s (or van Sant’s) joystick. And when van Sant revisits the same scene for the third time from a third point of view, we realize there’s little we can do to change what’s to come. The world is just a set on which our souls play. The star-crossed result is out of everyone’s hands.
Elephant does not preach at you to run home and hug your kids. It doesn’t lecture, “Hey gym teacher, you better think twice before forcing the ugly girl to wear shorts to Phys Ed!” It doesn’t say that being gay requires you to order guns and shoot up the world that won’t accept you. Yet detachment from the world has never seemed so threatening. And isolation has rarely felt so lonely.