Film review by: Witney Seibold
Many have said that the title refers to the old saying about the elephant in the living room, but I think the title refers to the old koan of the seven blind men who discover an elephant for the first time. One, holding the tail, thinks the animal is a rope. One holds the leg: it’s a tree. One holds the trunk: it’s a snake. Each is correct is his observation, but none of them knows what the whole animal is.
Gus Van Sant’s film, “Elephant,” is a soft, meditative pseudo-documentary of neo-realism, about a group of students (playing essentially themselves) going through their various adventures on a typical day of high school. One takes pictures. One stresses out about his drunken father. One is paranoid about stripping in front of the other girls in gym. A trio of them talk fluff at lunch. And a pair of them, midday, carry bombs and guns to school and murder a good deal of people.
The subject matter is inspired by the murders at Columbine High in 1999, and while the event itself was dramatic for those involved and poignant for those observing, making a film about is tricky business. A film would seem to marginalize the suffering and death of those involved by (as a TV-movie would) offering a pop-culture, over-emotional, simplistic, packaged version of the matter. It would reduce the actual experiences of the students into drama beats, thereby distancing the audience from the reality. What Van Sant does is far more tasteful: he offers no solutions and very little insight. He merely lets the camera follow the students as they walk from place to place, only sometimes interacting with other people. A lot of the film is just… walking. We don’t get a character study of any of the individuals, which would be vulgar. We get a contemplative look at the nature of high school. Frankly, I think he got it right. Thinking back, it’s amazing how much of high school was just walking quietly down the square corridors (the film was shot in a square aspect ratio, instead of the usual rectangle) to your next obligation; a migratory purgatory where your mind can go wherever it needs to in order to escape.
I liked the performances; the non-actors couldn’t help but acting natural and discussing the random pseudo-deep things that are so important to you as a teenager. Van Sant has been accused of dressing his “natural” teens a little too well, and that may be the case here; it does indeed occasionally resemble an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue.
While this slowness and quietness allowed Van Sant to maintain dignity and taste to a potentially inflammatory and exploitative affair, I don’t think it will be seen, as it should, as entirely successful. The subject matter is, I think, either too vivid in the people’s minds, or too oversaturated by The News to allow the audience to think of anything other than their own personal reaction to the real event. It’s a very good film. Ambitious, daring and extremely well done. Give it a chance. Know that you may not be able to see the entire elephant.