BY XAVIER MORALES
Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is a lyrical odyssey into the lives of ordinary, all-American high-schoolers that poses more questions than it answers. And rightly so. Tackling the ever-touchy issue of school violence, this subtle drama places the focus of attention on the students themselves – not the media, or the parents, or the NRA. Unlike the sensationalistic documentary Bowling for Columbine – Michael Moore’s premier exercise in self-righteous finger-pointing – Elephant is careful to avoid the normative dogmatism that has flooded discussions about school violence. Instead, Gus Van Sant simply gives us the facts – nothing more and nothing less. And they are mesmerizing.
We meet John, a quiet boy who’s no stranger to detention hall. Just getting to class is a challenge in and of itself, mostly because he has to deal with a drunken father and an unsympathetic principal. As John walks down the school corridor, he meets up with Elias, a friendly character who asks everyone he encounters if he could photograph them to add to his portfolio. After he takes a comical picture of John, we follow Elias as he walks into the library. There, we see Michelle, a lonely, introverted girl with low self-esteem, utterly awkward in her own skin, whose everyday experience in high school can only be characterized as anxious and uncomfortable. The popular girls tease her in a spiteful manner that is hard to endure. And yet, the popular girls are just as self-conscious of their own appearances as is Michelle, if not more so. Gossipy and jealous of each other, they calmly and dryly walk into the girls’ bathroom after their small lunch and proceed to induce vomiting.
This collage of individuals serves a crucial purpose in the movie. Instead of making the everyday lives of the students the background of school violence, Van Sant makes it the very centerpoint. Yes, Elephant is a movie about school violence, but its concern is not so much the violence per se as it is the social environment in which that violence happens. Everybody has their own problems, their own virtues, their own secrets. With the introduction of each new character, we see a new set of concerns and a new set of values. High school life is shown to mirror the adult real world, and yet we are constantly reminded that the people we meet in this movie are still teenagers who have yet to discover themselves.
Elephant has an immediate impact on us because it recognizes that these teenagers have already lost their sense of childhood innocence, perhaps unwillingly. They have been forced to grow up too fast on account of the many different, conflicting voices in their social environment at school, and in their personal lives. As we move from one character to another, we are immediately struck by how disparate and disconnected their experiences are, despite the fact that they spend eight hours of the day together. There is no sense of coherency, community or belonging. Everyone is an autonomous, independent agent who wavers between trying to respond to others’ differences, and trying to assert his or her own precarious sense of self. The relationships we observe can accurately be characterized as antagonistic, impersonal and exclusive. Such is the life of today’s teenager. And of course, such is the backdrop to the violence that results.
It’s almost as if Van Sant wants to suggest that the ensuing school violence is a radical, but nonetheless natural, extension of the students’ ordinary everyday lives. For example, the students’ social relations seem to have a quality of hostility already ingrained in them: in their striving for identity in the melting pot that is high school, the threat of being marginalized – or worse, silenced – is perpetual. Perhaps the latent sense of antagonism that results is the price we have to pay for our most cherished notions of individuality and autonomy. If that’s the case, then it may be a very steep price to pay indeed.
The school shooting itself is probably the least interesting part of the movie. In fact, it detracts from the overall mood, theme and style of the film. This is unfortunate. Throughout most of the movie, Van Sant’s camera stands back, unintrusive and even detached from the scenes. This allows the characters the breathing room necessary to be themselves, with the effect of making the acting seem less like acting, and more like real life, almost as if this were a documentary. Coupling this languid sense of removal with long shots of the sky, of the trees, and of the fields, Van Sant establishes an atmosphere of hypnotic contemplativeness. All this is destroyed in the explosive school-shooting scene, which serves no other purpose than to make crudely explicit what has up until then been implicit.
Elephant certainly provides us with a fresh, new perspective on the school violence discussion; but more importantly, it gives us a sometimes-disturbing insight into the lives of the people who perpetuate and experience such violence. At times a subtle indictment of our most cherished social values, and at other times a helpless vision of inevitable chaos, Van Sant’s film maintains its spell over the audience through its sheer unflinching honesty.