21 02 2018

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Elephant PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
11 11 2004

Directed by Gus Van Sant

ElephantElephant is Gus Van Sant's elegy on the shootings at Columbine High School. It is beautiful, profound, chilling, deeply sad, somehow life-affirming, and it totally blew me away.

For almost the entire film we see everything at human eye level, becoming fearful and knowing participants in the events. Technically it is amazing - long, long takes of individuals walking down the shining school corridors, with occasional slow motion moments of heightened intensity: a girl lifts her face to the sun, a boy plays with his dog in the last moments before the horror begins.

dumbo!Critics of the film, and there are many, accuse it of failure to properly confront the reasons for the killings. The usual range of potential causes are there: Nazi movies, violent computer games, the ease of buying guns, bullying. But nothing is straightforward. Alex, the nihilistic dominant one of the two assassins, is a devotee of Beethoven (a sly echo of his namesake in Clockwork Orange?). In an early, very lyrical scene outside the school, it is his playing of Fur Elise, although we don't know it then, which provides the wistful accompaniment. Later the piece is juxtaposed with visuals of a shoot 'em up computer game. 'Awesome!' says Eric, his companion, first at the Beethoven, then at the guns. Causes and motivations jumble up against each other, we can believe all or none or any of them. And this disregard of causes is underlined by a scene during the shootings when the head teacher, held at gunpoint, asks Eric why he is doing this. He begins to answer, but the camera drifts away, uninterested, down the corridor, only to return as he finishes his explanation, and we do not hear it. Perhaps more pertinent is the class discussion on how far one can know an inner self - in this case homosexuality - from outward appearance: 'to find the mind's construction in the face', to quote Macbeth, a play whose bleak, bloody nihilism hangs over this film.

No, the film presents an event for our contemplation, it moves us with pity and terror at the randomness and reasonlessness of its deadly action. An anthem for doomed youth. We follow through those banal, mesmeric corridors young men and women in the last few moments of their lives; moments of mundanity, creativity, preoccupation with trivia, each one a priceless life - but not one of them invulnerable, not even Benny, the tall black student in glowing yellow who moves like an all-powerful angel, helping save a girl, then calmly seeking out, as if he can stop it, the horror.

this buttonThis film stays with you. If you are lucky enough to come out of it into busy daytime streets, you will see the heads in front of you and the faces coming to meet you differently, notice the rhythm of walking, feel the vistas of the world opening up and passing by you, and sense your own mortality.



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