It seems like an ordinary day at an ordinary Oregon high school, a lot like the one at which the Columbine Massacre took place in 1999. Kids are dealing with family problems, falling in love, throwing up their lunch to stay slim, exploring prejudices, bullying and being bullied. And learning the odd thing too. But of course, it's not really an ordinary day... something terrible is about to happen. And we know that because we know Gus Van Sant based the film on the events at Columbine. What we don't know is how, who, or most importantly, why.
"It is large and squatting, so it is hard to get around it. Yet we squeeze by with "How are you?" and "I'm fine," and a thousand other forms of trivial chatter. We talk about the weather. We talk about work. We talk about everything else, except the elephant in the room." - Author Unknown
Everyone's had those dreams in which a normal person (a colleague, a schoolmate, even a lover) turns, without warning, into a monster that cannot be reasoned with. Often this demon takes the form of the last person you'd suspect of being a killer in real life.
Sometimes these nightmares come true and, as with dreams, the actions are hard to explain. So making a fictional feature film about a phenomenon like the Columbine Massacre is problematic. How do you avoid making a judgement?
Elephant (2003, SA gets a late release) borrows from reality TV, though if anything, it's more neutral in its approach to the horrific events that took place at Columbine's high school than most "reality" shows are in their portrayals. The lighting inside the tunnel-like corridors of the school building and the 70s decor homes of the teenagers is all natural, which on film looks unnaturally dark. It also borrows from horror films' styling, keeping the camera behind the actors so they are being watched, and refusing to identify a villain, so that you begin to suspect everybody you see. Like horror, Elephant is heavy on symbolism. The light from windows at the end of the corridors creates the symbols of "heaven" and a life beyond the walls of this world that characterises so many near-death stories.
The shocking, unflinchingly violent final scene drives home what may be the only clear point being made here: we don't know why people do terrible things. We can't blame it only on genetics, or only on society. We don't know why it happens. All we know is that people are capable of terrible evil.
Some people unfairly found Gus Van Sant's refusal to draw conclusions "wishy washy" and described the lighting an other production values as pretentiously "arty". What they are ignoring, is that this isn't an ordinary film to us. Our hunger for information about this kind of killing is unabated. Elephant allows - even forces - the viewer to look at the thing we generally can't, or won't see, and refuses to glamorise these things (as a straight horror realisation would), or arrogantly contain its meaning (as Bowling for Columbine did.)
By being "wishy washy" and allowing us to play the fly on the wall, Elephant at least attempts, as no major film has before, to give us an experience we can use to begin to understand.
- Jean Barker
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