Sunday, January 23, 2005


Directed by Gus Van Sant
2003, rated R
4 stars

Summer is often a time for Hollywood to suck in the big bucks by pumping out the typical formulaic movies geared toward a teenage audience with nothing better to do. Explosion filled action flicks devoid of plot, fluffy, romantic chick flicks, and of course, the typical high school drama, so stereotypical and standard, you already know the whole movie, even before seeing the previews. So, if you’re sick of this mindless catering to the high school age group, tired of giving your money away to Hollywood junk out of pure boredom, but you don’t want to have to resort to watching some overly sophisticated Jane Austin adaptation, maybe it’s time for something a little different. Elephant, written and directed by Gus Van Sant, is about as far away from the basic Hollywood as one could hope to get. Elephant, a small, independent film, won both the Palme D’or and the award for best director at the 2003 Cannes film festival. While definitely geared toward teens, this film completely does away with conventional plots. Although some may find this film a little slow and a bit confusing, it’s perfect if you need an escape from the typical mindless entertainment of summer flicks.

Elephant’s title refers to the analogy of there being a problem so large it is like an elephant, but everyone continues to ignore its existence. In this case, the problem results in a Columbine-like school shooting. Many may be turned off upon hearing this plotline; I was. I figured that a movie that readdressed the Columbine issue was unnecessary, and would be presumptuous and uninteresting. How wrong I was. Elephant treats the issue of school shootings as if it has never happened before, and puts it into context in an everyday setting. The way this film is done, the audience really feels like they are at this high school, observing the everyday occurrences of high school life. The movie makes more of a statement about the workings of teenage society than about school shootings, as each character lives in their own little island world, occasionally brushing against one another.

The film has very little dialogue, and as a result, effectively mirrors real-life interactions. Conversation between characters is often simply brief exchanges, and the use of teenage jargon is so complete, the interactions don’t seem scripted at all. The movie’s characters cover a wide range of personalities, from your typical jock to your quiet nerdy girl, the relaxed photo guy to the group of Barbie-like girls. Although they may sound stereotypical, the film presents these characters in such a way that they are easy to identify with; we all know people like this. These characters are not the usual one-dimensional stereotypes, and each are concerned only with their immediate problems. So concerned, in fact, that they don’t see the larger problem growing around them.

These individual worlds are cleanly demonstrated through the excellent cinematography. Most of the time, the camera is following one character or another through the halls of the school, just a step or two behind them, observing their interactions and habits. The scenes jump from one character’s point of view to another, and several scenes are repeated from these different view points. These repeated scenes give an excellent exhibition of the character’s focus, as the viewer notices different things each time from the various views. As this constant switching tends to break with a clear time line, the film first follows one distinct character, John Robinson, through his day, and then uses him as a reference point for all the other characters. While the camera changes from close and intimate to distant and aloof according to the timbre of the scene, the viewer always feels as if they are on the outside, simple observers and bystanders, which allows for an objective feeling to the movie. Unlike most movies, the audience is allowed to make up their own minds about each character, and even the killers are given several dimensions. Each character is a distinct person, not a simple cardboard cutout like so many movie personas. And while some scenes do drag a bit, with long, quiet scenes with not much action, this is another technique the film uses to give the feeling of real life, because in real life, there are quiet, secluded scenes. Even background music is rare, and when it does occur it is quiet and mellow, so as not to detract from the actual film, although some may become annoyed at the repetition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and “Fur Elise.”

Yet, if you happen to be a plot driven, action addict, this is not your film. Elephant does take patience at times, and some may have a hard time following the different character and time changes. Don’t expect a solid resolution either—there is none. The film offers no solutions, and ends even before the shootings are over. It’s completely up to the audience to decide. But for some, this may be a welcome reprieve from the typical summer flick, which usually discourages thought of any kind. So if you happen to be in a quiet, thoughtful mood, Elephant would be a great movie to consider. Then you can go back to the mindless entertainment of Gigli...


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