Blaming for Columbine


It’s difficult to understand a person who thought a shot-for-shot re-make of Psycho was anything more than a self-indulgent exercise, but faced with writer/director Gus Van Sant’s puzzling Elephant, I’m forced to try.

Van Sant’s 2003 movie is a low-key technical marvel, a model of tonal restraint that makes many of its filmmaking accomplishments nearly invisible: long tracking shots, subtle but haunting sound design, and frequent focus shifts that, in the place of a more conventional editing scheme, help guide the viewer. He also presents ordinary, unremarkable encounters from a variety of perspectives, helping to orient the audience. The cinematography, by Harris Savides, is elegantly precise, capturing both the ordinariness and uniqueness of an unnamed school and its denizens ... many of whom get shot and killed by a pair of teenage boys.

The movie is a striking mood piece on teen life and violence, but to what end? Van Sant has made a work whose dominant characteristic is its inscrutability, and I found it cynical and unsatisfying. I started to write that the film is “pensive” and “a meditation,” but very little thinking seems to have gone into its actual content.

Elephant is a de facto cinematic re-creation of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Van Sant’s camera literally follows a bunch of high-school students through a typical day. Nothing remarkable happens. One kid takes the car keys away from his drunk dad. An awkward girl is reprimanded for not wearing shorts to gym class. A boy takes photographs for his portfolio.

And another boy surveys the lunchroom. When a classmate asks him what he’s doing, he tells her that he’s developing his plan. She walks away without inquiring what that plan might be.

Many critics found Elephant profound and daring. In the Boston Globe, Wesley Morris wrote:

“The movie is an 86-minute cosmic provocation to re-think how we talk about the unspeakable, the scapegoats we look for, the effigies we burn.”

I’m not going to dismiss anyone’s reaction to the film; all I can do is explain mine, and Elephant made me feel nothing and prompted in me no reflection.

If Elephant is going to work on an emotional level, it needs to be fully enveloping and authentic, and Van Sant doesn’t pull it off. Most jarring is a scene with three girls entering bathroom stalls together to force themselves to vomit after lunch, as if it’s a group social activity. Maybe it is, but at my advanced age of 33, with no experience with bulimia, I ain’t buying it. (And I swallowed pretty much all the horrific teen behavior of Thirteen.) More importantly, the bit comes off as a cheap gag in a high-school comedy — Oh, they’re throwing up together after eating three bites apiece! — and immediately trashes the movie’s solemnity.

In addition, the human moments are too infrequent for a real emotional connection, and the richest scenes are those involving the killers. Alex (played by Alex Frost) is playing the piano in his house when his friend walks in. Alex continues playing, and he seems immersed in the music. He abruptly stops, and gives the sheet music two middle fingers. Later, as Alex and his friend prepare to embark on their killing spree, they kiss in the shower, because neither of them has ever been properly kissed.

Both of these bits feel real, and suggest that although these two boys are deeply troubled and fueled by something very black, they’re also in some ways typical teenagers. The scenes don’t create sympathy, exactly, but they add needed depth and resonance.

Frost is the best of this mostly strong amateur cast, with an awkward John Cusack look. But when the killing starts, it becomes apparent that Van Sant is working with people who haven’t perfected the art of taking a fall. Elephant needs violent realism for visceral impact and human connections for emotional resonance, and it has neither.

The movie isn’t aiming for the heart, however. Van Sant told Roger Ebert:

“I want the audience to make its own observations and draw its own conclusions. Who knows why those boys acted as they did?”

But isn’t this a contradiction? Elephant briefly offers all the typical explanations for youth violence: inattentive parents, teachers, and classmates; violent video games; taunting by peers; easy access to weapons. Van Sant and his movie certainly don’t validate any of these excuses, but neither do they dismiss them. As a result, I’m guessing most people will emerge from Elephant without any new insight; it will simply affirm what they believed before they watched it. And that certainly gives credence to the first sentence of Van Sant’s quote.

But the second part — “Who knows why those boys acted as they did?” — suggests that people are wrong for even searching for reasons, or giving weight to any potential causes.

This is simply wrong. Just because the politically expedient explanations are facile doesn’t mean there aren’t any answers, and just because the causes of violence are complex doesn’t mean they aren’t discernible. We know a great deal about the Columbine killers, for instance.

I’m not faulting Van Sant personally for his perspective; I’m attacking the movie, because the assertion that the causes of seemingly random violence are largely unknowable is clear in the way the movie was made. The camera follows people patiently and casually rather than pointing anything out, the music and sound work with the audience’s expectations to invoke quiet dread and unease rather than emphasizing important information, and the structure is intentionally diffuse. All of this creates an experience that’s amazingly level and emotionally detached; the most it can be said to do is exist. The movie doesn’t even really move forward, as the chronology is fractured and keeps turning back on itself.

And in the way that Elephant’s form matches the filmmaker’s message, the movie is phenomenally good. It is also, for me, cowardly and as glib as arguments blaming video games for violent behavior. As much as I disliked Bowling for Columbine, at least Michael Moore took a stand and had the balls to say what he believed. Van Sant shrugs his shoulders and says, “Why bother?”

Give me a break. Elephant is measured and cool when it should be angry and passionate; it’s a wan expression of resignation and hopelessness, and for that I despise it. There is blame to be handed out, damn it. There are ways to reduce the amount of violence in the world. And, yes, they start with better parenting and include reducing the amount of gratuitous violence in the culture.

Not true, the movie and its writer/director claim. There’s nothing we can do, because we can’t understand what happened.


How great, that I finally found someone writing about elephant.. I was shocked by the movie.. it just wouldnt go out of my head.. it was stuck in there.. what a great piece of artwork

I believe Elephant to be a socially based film concerning the vewiers with the very realistic aspects of high school life. Every aspect of the film is real... most of the actors are actually genuine school students who were interviewed and did NOT audition. All negative associations with the killings are placed for self evaluation, the film doesn’t lack direction or conviction, every answer that we can formulate in relation to high school tragedies is been viewed by us as we watch the film. You must absorb the role of being ‘a fly on the wall’ as steady-cams are very much favoured over hand cameras. Absence of music in many scenes is evident as an option for the viewer to see this as a real event. Don’t be blind by your own social views and accept this film not as an answer but as a list of answers. Ultimately, your own interpretation is irrelvent, including mine.

Leave a comment