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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
by Donald Levit

Director Gus Van Sant's Elephant is interesting as filmmaking per se but fails to hold up in its professedly objective treatment of a homegrown facet of violence. Parallels will be drawn to Bowling for Columbine, although not because the latter is sloppy, clueless, insulting, and monstrously self-indulgent, that is, a celluloid version of Michael Moore.

In contrast, Van Sant's press conference statements would indicate that his newest effort reflects the ugly phenomenon of school shooting sprees -- eight in this country over two years -- "captures the atmosphere of kids going to school," but aspires to neither explanation nor solution. While using almost exclusively non-professional high school students (whose Christian names are given to the characters they play), this "directorial avatar of the postwar generation" had his amateurs improvise, basically discarding J.T. LeRoy's original script about a girl taunted by others. Discounting such Carrie  motivation, the film nevertheless includes the spitballs thrown at Alex (Alex Frost); it does realistically group students into winners and losers, popular and outcast; its world is devoid of parents except a half-seen unfeeling mother who slops out cereal and insults for breakfast and a drunk father as embarrassingly ineffective as aproned Jim Backus' dad to James Dean's Jim Stark; most unforgivably, it gives prominent place to a longish Hitler documentary shown on a full-screen TV console, smugly implicates a violent manhunting laptop game and, although there is a Gay-Straight Alliance class discussion, includes a obtrusive shower scene that painfully belies Van Sant's "just a way to explain [the two boys'] intimacy, . . . their going a way where they never went before."

Elephant does offer up any number of possible roots for this largely but no longer exclusively American poison, even to the title's hinting at the huge, impersonal and dehumanizing nature of institutions. That these possibilities are suggested but never decided on, is of a piece with other dangling threads, such as Mr. McFarland's (Timothy Bottoms) final hapless gesture with son John (John Robinson) and Alex' last act and subsequent fate, or skewered filmmaking as when Eric's (Eric Deulen) destiny comes from the right, behind him, though it originates with the buddy seated facing him and to our left.

If the film casually raises more specters than it cares to follow through on, the almost choreographed bloodbath is chilling, the ad-libbing amateur cast truer in their teenspeak than most professionals would be, and the physical setting used to effect. A de-commissioned Portland, Oregon, high school is revitalized as Watt High, and Director of Photography Harris Savides' camera moves through long fluorescent-underlit corridors and darkrooms, contrasted with brilliant window-and-overhead-illuminated lobbies and classes. Strong back lighting shadows and depersonalizes students, moving away from the camera, to sounds of feet, rustling clothing and indistinct conversations. Ingeniously, as in a Faulkner novel, scenes are fleshed out when they are repeated later, from a different vantage point and another's understanding.

The director afterwards voiced his desire to avoid the usual sharp cuts -- "just cutting to the chase" -- of characters' moving from one location to another, preferring instead to use this normally disregarded travel time for chance meetings here, partly overheard snatches of talk there, thought processes, building suspense during what is, after all, a total of only fifteen story-minutes. Such a unique method of tying together physically and chronologically scattered vignettes also allows for the convincingly realized expansion-repetition of key moments. Tension rises not only because, from unfortunate national experience, we know, but because such variations on a theme (even to the score) are so well suited for the purpose here.

During the post-screening New York Film Festival Q&A press conference, none of the participants -- Van Sant, Savides, producer Dany Wolf, co-executive producer (with Diane Keaton) Bill Robinson -- was able to clarify the several issues raised. Rather, the film is a "'thought machine,' inspiring more thoughts, as many answers as there are viewers." Even the suggestive score, adopted after first considering jazz, "was [for] no intellectual reason, not because they're by Beethoven."

Subjective relativity is fine, to a point, and granting that an author/auteur is not necessarily the most desirable judge of his own work -- literary criticism's "intentional fallacy"-- it is absurd for a director and his team to abandon their work to anyone and everyone's interpretation.

While no hard-and-fast opinion was advanced as to theme, implied or otherwise, Robinson did reveal that the original concept came hard on the heels of Littleton, which none of them visited, and had been to develop a story line from the point of view of the teenage killers. Hollywood understandably was insisting on playing down violence at that time, "but Diane, Gus and I took it to HBO."

One thing led or contributed to another, in this case shooting in 1:33 ratio rather than the wider, far more common 1:85 ratio, "which we hardly ever get to do." Industry standard for the first half-century, said Savides, this older format projects a little more square on the screen and tends towards the photographic aesthetic of a William Eggleston and, especially, the institution-focus of public television's lawyer turned documentary producer Frederick Wiseman. "Square, so you can put characters right in the center."

Entered this year at Cannes, Elephant won Best Film (Palme d'Or) and Best Director Awards and so is rescheduled for major release beyond the original HBO. Noting that, as editor as well as director, he is careful to avoid "stylized tricks" in favor of being natural -- hence a lot of smoother floating Steadicam -- Van Sant surmised that his style may appeal more in Europe and that international audiences "like to see Americans shoot each other." 

(Released by HBO Films and Fine Line Features; rated "R" for disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and drug use -- all involving teens.)

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