Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
The title alludes to the parable wherein some blind men were asked to describe an elephant. Unable to see the elephant as a whole, the blind men were only able to give descriptions of the elephant's parts that they were able to feel and touch. Of course, none of them were able to completely describe the animal but as to what they've felt and touched, their descriptions were accurate. Gus Van Sant's Elephant can be seen as a blind man's description of the American youth's angst and needs. Van Sant prepares the stories of what could the victims of a Columbine-like shooting have been doing or thinking hours before the fateful event. Each of the episodes could be accurate descriptions of youth culture, but even as a whole, the deeply rooted problem can never be wholly appreciated and one has just to gasp in horror and bewilderment as the innocent are being shot to death.
It's a tremendous film. Van Sant mostly follows his subjects from the back as they do their school routine, mostly. Their conversations do not provide for clues or anything deep, it's just anything and everything a high school kid would say or be enchanted to. Banal, mundane, and too familiar, Van Sant's mini-episodes are excellent examples of a base to a really hideous horror film. These subjects are just too vulnerable for death and violence, unaware that that day might be their last.
In an early scene in the film, a gay students' meeting's focus was on how to determine if someone walking by is gay. One of the students then ask if that is even possible. Van Sant's camera rotates showing the faces of the members of the group and it's a fascinating technique as you can't really tell if any of the meeting's members were straight, gay, or lesbian. The same way, it is almost impossible to tell who of the students will just explode and start shooting everyone. Some of the students have problems and angst that may provide a bit of reason as to why they would suddenly storm the school and kill everyone, but the capability for such massacre is impossible to determine. The students' faces, pure and innocent, declare an incapacity for harm and murder. It's chilling.
Van Sant's visuals (through cinematographer Harris Savides) and the sound design are important elements of the film. The subjects are mostly seen from the back and it's an almost prophetic notion especially when a scene where one of the shooters starts to play a computer game where he shoots men mostly from behind. The way Savides focuses on the subjects and blurring the background is quite an effective means of showing the subjects' world as revolving merely on the little space that they have, and that the surroundings are taken for granted. More effective is how the sounds are limited or expanded depending on the situation. It creates for a very eerie feeling that something is a astir and that the fact that Van Sant is unwrapping the events in a careful, almost meditative manner, keeps you ready for something to happen and keeps you curious as to who, what, and how the eventualities will happen.
Van Sant's Elephant is the surprise big winner in the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. It's what the French wants, a provocative film that can be seen as an attack, or an uncomfortable commentary on America, as seen through the eyes of the United States' supposed future, its youth. However, to look at it that way is to see the film as a political film, which I think it's not. While like one of the blind men who were tasked to describe an elephant, one can see it as a provocation or graphic manifestation as to the corruption of the youth.
It can also be described as the middle portion of Van Sant's Death Trilogy, wherein Van Sant examines the inevitability of death, and its being a commodity for those who found themselves alive in a cruel world, or as an unexpected punishment for those who don't care whatsoever. Death is a hindrance to the unbearable events of tomorrow, or opportunities and dreams. The killers are seen both as victims and oppressors. The same way, the victims are all seen as mindless targets, as complete lives and personalities, as in a harsh way, beneficiaries of an option (chosen for them) to end a life in complete innocence.