Título Original: Elephant
Who could forget?
Gus Van Sant's Elephant starts on a quiet street in an anonymous American suburb. Although it's morning, John's father is so drunk he crashes into parked car after parked car. John finally takes over the wheel and steers the car safely to his high school.
Here we enter the world of a large suburban American high school. Van Sant based the movie on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre that shook the U.S. It's one thing for black and brown youth in America's inner cities to kill each other. Poverty and racism pack a mighty punch. In the great American drama, these are only extras anyway.
But when middle class white kids start killing each other, especially in made-for-TV fashion, it's time to sit down and take a look-see. Eminem said it best in "The Way I Am": "And look where it's at/ Middle America, now it's a tragedy/ Now it's so sad to see, an upper class city." The finger pointing comes soon after.
Winner of Cannes' Palm D'Or for best picture in 2003, Elephant responds to a social phenomenon that reached its boiling point between 1997 and 1999 when 8 such massacres took place. As many have said, a perplexing event like this elicits a demand for information and quick and easy conclusions. Yet this movie is the product of four years of Van Sant's ruminations on the subject and doesn't propose any cut and dried answers.
Elephant is above all pretty. The camera's long takes follow Elias, a photographer, Nathan, a joc, Michelle, a nerd, and a series of other high school archetypes. The characters might look like stereotypes, but it doesn't take long for them to be fleshed out. The film's intimacy leads one to identify with characters that bring us back to ourselves. Scant dialogue places the focus, then, on what one sees.
From the opening's drunken father, we distrust the media image of a typical middle class high school and town where comfort and stability reign. Something seedy lies beneath and it's not that well-hidden either.
The characters' problems resemble those of high school students everywhere. Nathan and Carrie, his girlfriend, fear she might be pregnant. The quiet and awkward Michelle avoids wearing shorts to gym class out of embarrassment for her body. A group of three girlfriends proceed to purge themselves immediately after lunch much as one might naturally brush his teeth after a meal. None of this is new.
But mass killings in U.S. high schools is new. The question is why. Van Sant doesn't offer any answers, but he points to a few suspects.
We often joke about high school's hierarchies and their attendant rejection, exclusion and humiliation. Many kids face taunting and pestering, but don't murder their aggressors. Yet that doesn't mean they don't fantasize about it.
When we first see Eric, one of the movie's serial killers, he is stoically bearing the barrage of spitballs hailed at him by classmates. He casually cleans himself off after class as if performing an everyday ritual. Van Sant presents this daily humiliation as suspect #1 for high school massacres.
The next comes in video games. Besides the Doom-like takes through the high school's impersonal corridors, the camera blurs the background figures to make them look like impersonal pixelized video game targets.
Those subtle hints get wasted by Van Sant when he has Alex, Eric's partner in murder, playing violent video games shortly before the killing. There might be something to Van Sant's hypothesis, but this kind of shorthand cheapens the movie and says nothing.
It's not true that Van Sant doesn't opine in the movie as seen in the heavy-handed video game references. He does mostly limit himself to presenting the evidence, however, allowing us to make up our own minds. Still, Van Sant's mandhandling of the murders makes Alex and Eric especially the movie's weakest link and the violent climax, though disturbing, the movie's least satisfying part.
Elephant falls short of being a great movie, but makes a pretty good effort. Besides giving us strong characters and beautiful photography, Elephant offers much to reflect on.