Some works of art are done with rich colors on a canvas. While true masterpieces are made in this manner there are also great works of art done with just charcoal and paper. While some formats are more popular than others we cannot dismiss the simpler methods as any less than their flashier counterparts. This came to mind as I finished watching Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’. The fundamental theme of this piece is a devastating high school, Columbine like shooting spree. While many films have tried to dissect this tragedy and make sense of it this film just presents a day in the life of the students, a dreadfully deadly day. The film is brilliant in its simplicity, like a sketch by a great master it doesn’t need a lot to touch the emotions of the audience.
The film begins with a look at Mr. McFarland (Timothy Bottoms) driving his son, John (John Robinson). He father is so drunk, even at this early hour, that John forces him to relinquish the wheel and let him drive. When John calls his older brother to pick dad up he simply states, ‘he’s drunk again’, obviously this is a common occurrence in the McFarland household. As Beethoven's Fur Elise fills the sound track the camera turns its attention to Nathan (Nathan Tyson) as he walks through the hallways to meet up with his girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea). They make a fine looking couple between his rugged jock good looks and her slender beauty. The camera seems to meander through the school. John, upset about having to deal with his alcoholic father finds an empty classroom to cry. His friend Acadia (Alicia Miles) stops by a brief moment to comfort him; she is on her way to a meeting of the school’s Gay –Straight Alliance. On the sports field some boys are engaging in a football game while the girls run track around it. One girl, Michelle (Kristen Hicks) stops a moment to appreciate the beautiful day. Later, in the locker room she is obviously uncomfortable with her body. She changes and goes off to her job in the school’s library. We also meet three girls standing in the hallway, Brittany (Brittany Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Taylor), and Nicole (Nicole George). We first saw them as Nathan passes now we revisit the same scene but this time the camera follows the girls into the bathroom. The joke around, bicker, ague about boyfriends and eat a few bites of salad. They then retire to the bathroom to purge what little food has passed their glossy lips. The first time we see Eric (Eric Deulen) and Alex (Alex Frost) they are passing John as he is leaving the building. They are dressed in camouflaged outfits and carrying large canvas bags. They warn John not to go back into the school. We get a deeper look at the pair at Alex’s home. As he plays the Fur Elise Eric enters and begins to play a video game. As the scene closes the pair is online looking at a gun sales site. The camera then shows the sky, clouds gathering as the distant thunder draws closer.
There is such an amazing construction here; the story is told with incredible economy that not a single frame is wasted or superfluous. It does more in its 82 minutes than other films of similar themes have tried in two hours. With a complex issue such as school violence it is only natural, only human, to need to have answers. Sometimes the most honest answer is ‘I don’t know’. This is the approach taken by Van Sant. This film offers no theories, no explanations or excuses. It doesn’t even try to ask questions. The strength of this film is it serves as a foundation for the audience to form their own questions. With its minimalist approach this work presents a day in the lives of the students, some victims, some survivors and others monsters. For Van Sant this type of violence is like the giant elephant in the room that no one will acknowledge or perhaps like the parable of the elephant and the blind men, each can sense only a small portion of the whole; none can get the full picture. The simplistic technique is used in every aspect of the production. The shoots are typically long dolly shots with little if any editing. The dialogue is sparse, only a few words used to help define the characters. There is a voyeuristic feel to the film, the true observer untouched by the events being shown. By showing such mundane views of the students there is an honesty that comes across like a sledgehammer to the head. This film does not require or even expect the audience to think, that will come later. What is expected is evoke pure human emotion in the viewers. Knowing the theme as I started to watch the film my mind immediately started to try to place the students in categories. That soon passed as I was drawn into the mood of the piece. There is also the subtle shift in the time line that helps to remove intellect and reinforce the emotions. We see the same scenes being played out, each time from a slightly different vantage point. This makes the tenuous relationships a bit more real to the audience. Many of the students are barely aware of each other but we know that soon they will share a life changing, or ending, event. Overall you get the feeling of just walking in the halls with these young people. You may know what is going to happen but they do not.
The cast is almost entirely made up of unknowns cast specifically for the film. Some of the adults are played by faces you will recognize but that adds to the emotional impact of the movie. You know the adults but the teens are more unfamiliar. Each of the young people used here are typical teens. There is nothing too special about them. There are no overly beautiful students like so many television series or flicks. The are average and that just adds to the impact.
HBO has provided an almost bare bones release of this film. There is a short featurette with a couple of interviews and some behind the scenes look at Van Sant directing but that is it. The video is presented in both full screen and non-anamorphic widescreen. The colors are often pushed by design but they come across well here. There are several sound tracks including Dolby 5.1, DTS, Dolby Stereo and Dolby mono. The DTS offers a bit more back fill but in any case this is not an audio intensive film. This work won the coveted Golden Palm as well as the Best Director and Cinema Prize of the French National Education System at the 2003 Cannes Film festival. While this is an experimental work it is an experiment that has worked out well. You will never forget this film.