Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” takes place during a school shooting meant to evoke Columbine, the high school in Littleton, Colo., where in 1999 two gun-toting teenagers slaughtered 13 and wounded 23 others, before killing themselves. An unblinking look at our mania for murder, the film is a stunning response to an American tragedy that in its senselessness and human cost embodies the larger tragedy of this country’s blood lust. Poised as a question without easy answer, it offers radical proof that movies exist not just to entertain, but to provoke riots in our hearts and minds.
Primarily set in a suburban high school, one of those sprawling slabs of concrete that are all but indistinguishable from prisons, “Elephant” opens with a Van Sant signature shot of scudding clouds followed by the image of a car careening along an otherwise quiet street. Behind the wheel of the car, plastered and babbling, sits Mr. McFarland (Timothy Bottoms), father to John (John Robinson), a teenager with two spots of embarrassed red in his cheeks. Stopping the car and grabbing the car keys, John drives to school, parks and walks across the surrounding greens to enter the school, the camera attentively trailing him like an unseen guardian angel.
John turns out to be just one of the students under the camera’s watch. The others are Elias (Elias McConnell), a photographer; Nathan and Carrie (Nathan Tyson, Carrie Finklea), a jock and his possessive girlfriend; an outcast, Michelle (Kristen Hicks); and a trio of snippy friends, Jordan, Nicole and Brittany (Jordan Taylor, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain). Also under the camera’s gaze are Alex and Eric (Alex Frost, Eric Deulen), the two boys who will murder these kids along with other kids attending a gay students’ meeting, kids unlucky enough to be studying in the library and finishing up lunch in the cafeteria. Kids, who happened to be walking the halls, who happened to be alive and struggling with happiness and despair, just like Alex and Eric.
Van Sant has always been a cinematic maverick and he hasn’t always faired well under the studio yoke. Modestly budgeted and acted by a cast largely composed of nonprofessionals, “Elephant” signals a dramatic departure from mainstream ventures like “Finding Forrester” and a vigorous return to his independent roots. Liberated from studio group-think, Van Sant has drawn on art-house influences such as the late British director Alan Clarke and Hungary’s Bela Tarr for “Elephant,” as well as his own background in conceptual art. Working with cinematographer Harris Savides and serving as the film’s editor, he has fashioned a visual style and a narrative shape that has the quality of a waking dream, then a nightmare. Rarely do form and content add up with such harmonious grace and power.
As he did in his last film, the experimental narrative “Gerry,” but with far greater impact, Van Sant uses the trope of people walking -- often with the camera positioned directly in back of them -- as a metaphor for life. All the kids in “Elephant” are on the move. They’re sprinting across the lawn, drifting through the halls, running to shelve books in the library. Van Sant’s camera is never far behind, alternately hovering discreetly and pausing to tenderly catch a detail, like the pleasure in Elias’ face as he develops a photograph. Every so often, Van Sant repeats a scene from another perspective, as if he were winding back time, and decelerates the bustling to put the film into slow motion so we can pay witness to this heartbreaking animation, to the aliveness of these children.
I think this is why Van Sant made “Elephant” -- he wants to honor the lives of the Columbine dead, to remember all the kids in their radiant, burning life. For most of the world the victims at Columbine quickly became ciphers, little more than names and ages listed in newspapers and soon forgotten. If nothing else, “Elephant” is an attempt to see them not as abstractions but as individuals, including the two gunmen. Van Sant doesn’t pretend to have an answer for why something like this happens, although clearly without guns there would be no Columbine. He shows the fictional killers mouthing off to parents, buying a mail-order shotgun and watching a documentary on Hitler, but he also shows Alex playing the piano and, in the film’s most hotly contested scene, sharing a moment of impulsive intimacy with Eric.
Van Sant is too sophisticated to believe that one kiss equals a sexual identity. What he recognizes is that somehow the murderers became desperately isolated, cut off, and lost that fundamental connection to others that makes us human. The filmmaker understands existential aloneness. We see John crying in a room after he leaves his father outside, and we watch Nathan’s shoulders sag after he hears that Carrie might be pregnant. But even Michelle, a pariah despised by other girls and knotted up with humiliation, still visibly aches to be part of the world. Van Sant has always had a keen eye for lovely young men, and although some of the girls in the film are treated too carelessly it’s a testament to his decency that Michelle’s death has such shocking, devastating force.
At once an aesthetic revelation and an intensely personal response to a social calamity, “Elephant” is also, unequivocally, a political film. Unlike Michael Moore in his self-serving documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” Van Sant doesn’t come armed with an agenda and he doesn’t try to smooth over this country’s contradictions with polemics. It’s unusual when an American filmmaker takes on big questions; it’s even more unusual when he has the guts to let those questions go unanswered. But Van Sant is an artist and at ease with uncertainty, ambiguity and the unhappy ending that comes with every life. The weekend after the massacre, President Clinton bemoaned a “media culture that so glorifies violence.” What Van Sant wants us to wonder is how a country that creates such beautiful children can also create such horror.
‘To Be and to Have’
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Completely gentle
Produced by Maia Films, Arte France Cinema, Les Films d’Ici, Centre National de Documentation Pedagogique, with the participation of Canal+, the Centre National de la Cinematographie, Gimages 4, and the backing of the Ministere de l’Education Nationale, the Conseil Regional d’Auvergne, the Procirep, released by New Yorker Films. Director Nicolas Philibert. Photography Katell Dijian, Laurent Didier. Sound Julien Cloquet. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark’s Westside Pavilion Cinemas, Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. (310) 475-0202.