Every five years I seem to find myself leaving a theater after seeing a new Gus Van Sant film and saying to myself “OK, nice to look at but, beyond that, so what?” “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” (’93). “What was he thinking?” In ’98 there was that shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho.” “And the point?” With last year’s “Elephant,” the writer-director offered a cinema verite depiction of a Columbine-style shooting spree. “Why?”
According to Van Sant, his aim was neither to solve the riddle of school violence nor even to shed new light on the phenomenon. “We didn’t want to explain anything,” the filmmaker has explained to interviewers. “As soon as you explain one thing, there are five other possibilities that are somehow negated because you explained it one way. There was also the issue of finding an explanation for something that doesn’t necessarily have an explanation.”
Well, that explains that. So now we’ve got two things for which we aren’t able to account: school violence and Van Sant’s decision to devote a movie to the graphic portrayal of it.
The title of his latest refers to the sort of problem everyone is aware of but nobody wants to acknowledge and, from a strictly technical standpoint, “Elephant” comprises an experiment that’s interesting if not groundbreaking. The director’s purpose was to simulate a typical day in a generic American high school, his assumption apparently being that the intensity of a viewer’s response to the movie’s shocking final act will increase in proportion to the degree he or she submits to the illusion these are real kids making their way through a day at a real school.
So Van Sant used real kids and a real school. With the exception of three adults, all the performers are non actors. Of course, the realism of other movies has been enhanced by means of the same approach-most recently, for example, “City of God.” While other films have been made without professional actors, however, not a whole lot have been produced entirely without a script.
To create the film’s Wisemanesque documentary feel, Van Sant handpicked forty or so teenagers from a group of 3000 who answered a Portland, Oregon casting call. He and his team interviewed those selected and made note of each young person’s background and interests. Players were then assigned roles which the filmmakers felt matched their real life personalities, given directions as to where they should stand or walk and instructed, in a nutshell, to talk to one another about the sorts of things they would normally talk about. Van Sant then filmed them in various combinations from various vantage points and edited the result so that their storylines wove in and out of each other’s in a fashion similar to that pioneered by Richard Linklater in Slacker.
Given their lack of training, nearly all the young performers do a commendable job. It’s the director who slips up by, among other things, dividing his cast into such predictable phyla: the good-looking jock and his homecoming queen squeeze; the artsy guy; the clique of vacuous but popular chicks; the dorky girl who dreads gym class and, of course, our pair of “Clockwork Orange” outcasts.
While Van Sant may maintain that he hasn’t tried to account for what makes these walking time bombs tick, he’s appropriated familiar signifiers in compiling their profile and that comes close to the same thing it seems to me. One of them, for example, is taunted by classmates. Away from school, the two play violent video games and watch archival Nazi footage on TV. Throw in a couple of devil worship heavy metal CDs and you’ve got the recipe for your standard disaffected adolescent male. Judges at Cannes gave Van Sant the Palme D’Or for his insight. Palme Duh would have been more like it if you ask me.
Which brings us back around to the question why? Why has the filmmaker made a film about kids being massacred at school by other kids? To show us it’s a horrible thing? We already know it’s a horrible thing. To show us what it looks like? We already know what it looks like all too well. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure there isn’t something unsavory about a picture made for no other purpose than to build suspense and anticipation toward something so monstrous. How much difference is there, after all, between the killers gazing at video images of human beings getting mowed down and a moviegoer buying a ticket, killing 70 minutes and then doing the same thing?
That’s the elephant in the room. That’s the problem it might make sense to mention.