In the heady days of my youth, I was a big true crime aficionado. But although I remained fascinated by perpetrator mentality, as my early twenties passed, I began to feel just a little too much empathy with the victims, and just a little too much of the uncomfortable voyeurism of the position of the true crime fan (in keeping with the pulpiness and sub-pop psychology of most of the writing, though not all), to keep pursuing this vein (having said which, interest in these things, I would argue, is an inherent part of human nature which a modern culture of sanitized medicinal miracles has – ironically – unhealthily shunted to one side).
So what was I to make of Elephant? This is the central film in Van Sant’s ‘Death Trilogy,’ (beginning with Gerry and closing with Last Days), each based on actual events and dealing with the eponymous event – though death is, of course, a major feature of virtually all of Van Sant’s films. In this case, the event in question is the infamous Columbine massacre, still perhaps the cultural paradigm for all the other mass shootings (including many in schools) to which the USA seems so tragically prone. While I’m not sure how I’d feel about such a work – released four years after the events – if I was personally connected to the tragedy, this work comes across as a thoughtful reflection rather than an exploitation, though there is always a certain question about purposefully creating a work of aesthetic beauty – which Elephant undoubtedly is – from such a subject.
In regard to Columbine, as was widely noted at the time of the film’s release, Van Sant offers no explanations (indeed, the killers as depicted here do not seem to fit any recognisable profile, for what such profiles are worth), and this is a strength of the film in that we are offered no pat explanations (nor resolutions), nor too-easy indictments of particular aspects of a society which produces such events. In any case, if we are to take Dave Cullen’s non-fiction work Columbine (2009) – which also uses fiction-style conventions (it’s been called a modern-day In Cold Blood) and has become the definitive work on the massacre – as a guide, most of what we think we know about these events is in fact mythical. So rather than watch analysis (and for that, after all, we have Bowling For Columbine), we drift in a leisurely way through the lives of various students in the period preceding the massacre, tension slowly building as we realize what is afoot. The film plays with time and perspective in Rashomon-esque fashion – scenes are presented numerous times as we follow different characters, and new aspects of each moment become apparent – although there are no secrets, no slowly unfolding narrative of truth or of revelation for the viewer – only a gradually mounting sense of unease which combines with an easy langurousness – slow, but never tedious – as we watch in extended tracking shots over the shoulders of the characters as their lives and social circumstances unfold.
The title itself comes from the (oft-misunderstood) Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant – Van Sant named the film thus in tribute to Alan Clarke’s BBC film of the same name (dealing with violence in Northern Ireland), as a reference to the way in which Clarke's and his own work explored one event as seen from different viewpoints – although he would later realize that Clarke’s title was in fact a reference to the phrase ‘the elephant in the room’ (and we may think here of the unexpected synchronicity of this denial with the incomprehensible US refusal to recognise the deadly consequences of the easy availability of guns).
Like many of Van Sant’s films – with the possible exception of Mala Noche – Elephant is somewhat imperfect – almost as if, as an artwork, it is realizing itself just a touch clumsily as it unfurls. This adds to the charms of Van Sant’s oeuvre, but keeps any one film from being a central masterpiece. Here, as well as occasionally unrealistic behavior in service of moments of drama, the addition of a homoerotic episode between the killers, despite making a stunning set-piece, seems a little too much like a rather queasy wish-fulfillment (the erotic object as embodiment of masculine violence), and sits uncomfortably with the real-life events on which the film is based, in which (as far as I’m aware) there was no suggestion of such a relationship between Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold, the actual killers – indeed, they seem rather to have been homophobic. In a similar vein, the scene in which they watch a television show on Nazism is unconvincing and indeed cliched and psychologically problematic - if watching material about 'evil' killers makes one a killer, then criticisms of Elephant itself would be grounded - though the connection with their actions is not laboured. The depiction of high school life is, if anything, somewhat idyllic (despite occasional moments of bullying), a too-vivid memory of a past full of promise in a way that is reflected in the gorgeous colours and languid cinematography – despite the troubled families and social ostracism, the pain of (some) teenagehood is elided in presenting a processual collage of the ‘ordinary’ which is contrasted to the murderous violence by which it will be shattered.
What this flaw reveals, though, is the way in which Van Sant’s work carves out a deliriously original territory which on the one hand is immersed in realism – the fragmentation, muttered dialogue, improvisation, lack of traditional narrative arcs, untutored actors, the naming of characters after the actors who portray them – and, on the other, a kind of hyper-real idealism expressed in the visual techniques he employs, the dramatic events he turns to and the stunning features of his male actors (in contrast to the everyday looks of female characters) – we might also think of his overt rejections of realism, as in the Shakespearian dialogue in My Own Private Idaho. In the character of John McFarland, indeed, we can see the germ of the way in which Paranoid Park – also dealing with death and teenagers – became virtually a paean to the features of Gabe Nevins. In refusing to reconcile these disparate tendencies – in its slipperiness, refusal to bow to emotional kitsch, low-key intensity and deeply memorable set-pieces – Van Sant’s work, of which Elephant is a stunning example, has a haunting quality of insinuating itself into the viewer’s consciousness.