Beast of Burden

'Elephant' takes on the full weight of tragedy

For me, the most transfixing moment in Michael Moore's scattershot Bowling for Columbine is the screening of video from the Colorado high school's security cameras. That the images are indistinct makes them more terrible. My imagination kicks in to compensate. I want to see clearly, so I can process and understand. I'm used to seeing terrible things on screens. What frightens me is what isn't shown--either because it's hidden, or because it can't be seen with a camera.

Gus Van Sant's Elephant, which won the Palme d'Or and Best Director prizes at Cannes, imagines a Columbine scenario in cool Steadicam. The film has critics and viewers barking at each other like Texan legislators, primarily around the question of what a camera can or should "shoot." Can/should a camera see motivation? Can it see evil? (Sure, it may show the consequences of evil, and evil acts themselves, but can it capture spirit?) Can a film be a "blank canvas" that shows the audience itself through the audience's reactions to it? What is the camera's bias--and this camera's bias in particular?

Primarily constructed of long, sinuous shots, Elephant follows 10 students, more or less, on a school day that's seemingly like any other. On the way to school, Elias (Elias McConnell) takes pictures of a goth couple: "Keep walking, keep walking," he says, and motion could be Van Sant's primary instruction. When the students are not moving across playing fields and down halls, camera in tow, the camera moves around them. One telling exception is a darkroom scene in which Elias and a classmate slowly slide their prints through developing fluid: the image itself in motion. And yet time stutters and circles: Slow-mo interrupts the flow; the camera cuts to sky; the viewer sees an event from three different perspectives (without gaining any new understanding). The movement is illusory--until, for some, it stops cold.

Van Sant's actors, with a few adult exceptions, are young non-pros gathered from Portland, Oregon, casting calls. One has said: "My character really proves that you can't know a kid...just from what you see." You could say that Elephant burnishes the surfaces of things--floors, faces, glass--to reveal their impermeability. You could also say that Van Sant elevates the surface: that the film offers nothing but superficial explanations for character. Besides Elias-the-artful-photographer, the film offers John-tardy-to-class, Nathan/Carrie-the-football-player-and-girlfriend, Nicole/Brittany/Acadia-the-popular-bulimics, Benny-the-black-guy, and Michelle-the-nerd. Oh, and the killers--but we'll get to them in a minute.

Van Sant being Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, To Die For, My Own Private Idaho), the actors are pretty. Or the camera makes their surfaces pretty, zeroing in on cherry red lips, a sharp angle of jaw. Michelle (Kristen Hicks) is notably not beautiful: round-shouldered, bespectacled, and frizzy-haired in the usual loser way. Michelle's phys-ed teacher criticizes her for wearing sweatpants, not shorts. Michelle ducks out of line (and expected showers) to take the long way through an empty, shiny gym: a hunched, self-hating figure.

And yet, the first time we see her on the athletic fields, Michelle looks up suddenly with an expression of wondrous bliss. Who is this ecstatic? Where does she fit within these high school stereotypes? Michelle, in both her faces, troubles those codified images: She is emblematic of all the other students' formless hidden selves and their loneliness.

Much of the film observes each student's solitude. Elias, the most well-connected of the tracked students, goes long stretches through bustling hallways without being hailed. A soundtrack of "concrete" or pre-ambient music--echoey thuds, blurred bleats, shearing sounds--creates the feeling of an inner space, shielded by heavy walls from the insensitive present. As one of the killers, Alex (Alex Frost), writes strategic attack notes in the cafeteria, the buzz of student talk and clanging pans spikes suddenly into a roar; he grabs his head and cowers.

Still, I doubt the viewer is meant to empathize with any of these students. The movie has been criticized for presenting the gun boys in the same false way the media did after Columbine: as game-playing, Nazi-loving, homosexual outcasts. Elephant shows Alex pelted with spitballs, and Eric (Eric Deulen) shooting game figures in the back. (The game's graphics startlingly recall the desert violence of Van Sant's hit-and-miss experiment Gerry--and the moving target effect of Elephant's own tracking camera.) Hitler, UPS gun delivery, a tentative kiss in the shower--it's all way too easy, schematic, and static, a very apparent letdown after the eclectic glide in gold of the film's first hour.

But have we been set up? Alex resembles the Sure Thing-era John Cusack, that perennial everyman; Eric is Alex Winter in Bill and Ted. Given Elias-the-photographer's prominent position here, I have to wonder: Might this film be concerned less with high schoolers than with the media's images of them? Might Van Sant be moving through those mythologized motivations--Hitler, check; video games, check--as a killing joke? For all the "realism" of these nonprofessional actors improvising and playing characters of the same name, Elephant does, as J. Hoberman has noted, make for a work of damn stylish (and self-conscious) horror: the harrowing hallways, the clanking echoes, the tangle of fated pathways. There's a doomed black guy. There's even a Final Girl--who's a boy, natch. Who doesn't fight. He just lives.

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