Monday, January 19, 2004

What This Blind Man Saw When He Touched the Elephant

I suppose that Gus Van Sant named his latest film Elephant because of the parable about the blind men and the elephant. All three blind men felt the same animal, but had vastly different impressions of what it was, based only on their proximity and perceptions.
Elephant is built around the perceptions of a very different group of students on the day two of their classmates go on a Columbine-esque killing spree in the halls. It's nonlinear, so you get a grasp of each student's perception of the event. But, unlike the three blind men, none of these observers is ever asked to comment on the tragic events they witness or fall prey to.
Using a cast of unknowns, Van Sant has created a movie so real, it feels like an actual document of a tragedy. There is only one false note in the entire movie, and it's easily overlooked: Van Sant intimates that the two killers might be gay. Why? Because the kids are picked on and called fags, so they simply must be.
The film is shot simply and elegantly, with the camera following the kids around the school as they walk blindly into fate. The music is mainly a lone piano. The tight framing and simple soundtrack create and intimacy and immediacy that pays off when the shooting starts. You feel you know these kids, even the cyphers pulling the trigger. You may not understand their motives. You may not sympathise with the victims. But, they feel like real people that you know.
It's been a long damn time since I was in high school. Thankfully, though I was a geek and a dork and a hundred other adjectives, I was accepted by the cool kids. I had friends. I was loved. I really cannot relate to the rage and emotional vacancy that could cause someone to go on a killing spree. I don't know what I would do in the situation that someone pointed a gun in my face now, even though it's happened in the past. I've come to a period in my life where violence is not only anethema to me, it can actually shock me.
The violence in Elephant is shocking. Not so much by the gore, or splatters of blood, but by the utter desolation of the individuals committing the violence. They just do not care about their fellow man. At all.
The thought that we might have raised a generation that empty scares me.
Yes, I realize it's just a fucking movie. And yes, I realize it's just a step away from being one of those "ripped from the headlines" NBC movies. But, the difference is, the NBC movie would take sides. It would portray one of the killers as a raving lunatic and the other as his reluctant cohort. It would show how one guy's parents abused him or something. If it couldn't show them as utterly fucking evil, it would make excuses.
You get no such luxury with Elephant. It just...happens. And you have to deal with it. Much like life.
It's a powerful damn movie, and if it screens in your town, I implore you to check it out.

No comments: