Thursday, June 17, 2004


Elephant (2003)

Not many people saw this movie in theatres, which is probably a shame; I think the mood of the film would be enhanced by being trapped in your seat the entire time. Gus Van Sant takes advantage of the fact that you already know what his movie is about: a high school shooting. He uses your knowledge to his advantage by playing on the tension you inevitably feel as you wonder, "Will it happen now? Now? Now?" Framing his shots to limit your view, he lets you wonder, all through the movie, what is going on just outside the frame--and eventually forces you to think about how, if many of the kids you're watching would do the same and think about things outside of their own small worlds, the tragic end of the movie might never arrive. But the movie doesn't offer solutions nearly as neat and tidy as that; it simply allows a day to unfold before your eyes, lets you see the world as it's experienced by both the killers and their victims, and shows both how hard it is to see the signs that someone is capable of such a massacre and how easy it might be if people would only pay attention.

And then there's the kiss, which has caused Van Sant no small amount of frustration. Without ruining the tension for those of you who choose to give 80 minutes to this movie, I can tell you that at one point the two killers, about to head for school to act out their plan, get in the shower together--or does one ambush the other? I'm really not sure if the first occupant of the shower knows the second will join him; I don't think we're meant to think that this has happened before. But he walks in, joins his only friend, and says, "Today's the day we're going to die...I never even kissed anyone, did you?" Then the two friends, alienated by the rest of the world, are kissing; the shot lingers long enough to make it clear this is more than a quick kiss goodbye--more like an extended, naked make-out session in the shower.

And then it's over, and the rest of the movie unfolds, including one event, which I'd love to discuss with anyone who sees it, that made me reinterpret the whole friendship between the two killers and their individual reactions to what happens in the shower.

I've made this movie sound like it's filled with action, which isn't fair to those who might consider watching it; much of the 80-minute length of the film is ordinary stuff, like walking down long hallways and playing football and developing film and playing the piano, and much of this plays out without dialogue. I was proud of myself at the end for not speeding up the movie to get down those hallways or get that film developed and clipped; the slight boredom I felt gave my dread an opportunity to build. In the end, this is not an easy film; it won't tell you what you should think about it, and you may not be able to decide on your own what to think, either. I know I haven't. But I'm thinking about it, and that's got to count for something.

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