May 6, 2014
Queer auteur Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) has directed a lot of sickeningly sentimental, liberal feel-good slave-morality-addled movies and has received a great deal of commercial and critical success from doing it, thus proving his wholesome upper-middleclass upbringing did not fail him after all, even if he became a subversive sodomite filmmaker who fetishizes poor young male hustlers as demonstrated by his early works Mala Noche (1985) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), yet he has also used his success as a means to continue making experimental arthouse works that would only appeal to more cultivated (and pretentious) audiences, with his post-Finding Forrester (2000) ‘Death Trilogy’ (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days)—three artsy fartsy works loosely based on true stories revolving around death—being arguably the most artistically fruitful point in the director’s career. Undoubtedly, the best film in the trilogy is the second work, Elephant (2003), which takes a largely fictional, if not realistic and almost cinéma vérité-like, approach to the events of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre when two degenerate high school comrades, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 12 students and one teacher and then proceeded to blow their defective brains out in the school library. Van Sant decided to take on the project after being approached by actress Diane Keaton and HBO to make a film about the Columbine massacre (incidentally, trash filmmakers William Hellfire and Joey Smack had already made a film about the event, Duck! The Carbine High Massacre (1999), which ineptly satirized the media frenzy surrounding the massacre) and he ultimately gave birth to a beauteous little celluloid beast that, although offending certain tight ass viewers due to the film’s lack of pseudo-moral sermonizing and rationalizing of the killer’s crimes, would ultimately win the top prize (the coveted ‘Palme d'Or’) at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. A poetic piece of cultivated Teensploitation that would rise well above the level of the 1989 Alan Clarke film of the same name that heavily inspired its aesthetic and minimalistic observational style, Elephant, at least in my opinion, makes all American teenagers—be they bitchy and bulimic cheerleader sluts or bi-curious mass shooters—seem like emotionally and intellectually stunted mini-monsters who cannot see past their own patently petty existences, thus making the work a sort of art-addled antidote to the sorry sentimental teen angst of John Hughes' Brat Pack flicks. Indeed, while the ‘bullied’ kids of Van Sant’s film certainly get their revenge against the big bad bullies in the end, rather ironically, their first victim is the most conspicuously nerdy, intolerably introverted, and most consistently bullied girl in the entire school, thus demonstrating the futility and irrationality of their actions. Featuring a homoerotic pre-massacre ‘love’ scene between the two killers before they go thrill killing, Elephant ultimately follows in the marvelously sexually masochistic tradition of Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) in terms of its unflattering depiction of fagdom and considering Van Sant’s lifelong hero worship of junky queer literary outlaw William S. Burroughs and his imaginary ‘wild boys’, one can almost see the director sympathizing with the killers to an extent, albeit in a romantic fantasy-driven sort of fashion. Indeed, Elephant is the sort of Columbine film that only a half-autistic homo could get away with and thus represents a rare piece of American mainstream cinema that makes no artistic compromises, at least for the most part (the film does feature a token negro 'hero', although said hero fails when attempting to take down the homicidal honkies). Comprised of a series of long and voyeuristic scenes shot mostly on a Steadicam and starring mostly non-actors that used their real first names for the characters they played, Elephant is a film that ultimately puts the viewer right in the shoes of the unsuspecting teen victims (as well as the killers), only to blow their brains out once you have become accustomed to them in what amounts to a nasty neo-Brechtian Afterschool Special from high school hell that flings dung on Dogme 95 in terms of its delightful dilettantism.
Androgynous albino skater boy John McFarland (John Robinson) is being driven to school by his goofy father (played by Timothy Bottoms, who is probably best known for his role as Sonny Crawford in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 hit The Last Picture Show), but since his daddy is a dipsomaniac and already drunk, he has to act as a sort of parent for his pathetic progenitor and forces him to allow him to drive the car. At the high school, a charming young photographer named Elias (Elias McConnell) takes some snapshots of a young punk couple for his portfolio and promises to give them a print, though he will never actually get the opportunity to make good on his promise. Meanwhile, on the high school football field, a nerdy Jewish-looking girl named Michelle (Kristen Hicks) stares up into the sky as if gazing into the bowels of heaven, which she will soon ostensibly enter. Also on the field is popular jock lifeguard/football player Nathan (Nathan Tyson) who, after playing ball with his bros, meets up with his beloved girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea). When John is caught crying by his female friend Acadia (Alicia Miles) in an empty room at the school, he is given a rather sympathetic kiss in what is easily the most tender scene of Elephant, but the girl soon leaves to attend a gay-straight alliance meeting where its members discuss whether or not you can tell if someone is a homo by their appearance. While exiting the school, John runs into his two friends Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), who are dressed like ‘goth’ mercenaries and give their friend the following warning, “Get the fuck out and don't come back! Some heavy shit's going down!,” in a rather aggressive fashion. Although John will try to warn other students not to enter the school, his actions are ultimately in vain. As demonstrated in the next scene, Alex is a sensitive nerd who has suffered routine bullying from philistine jocks with a propensity for throwing spitballs during science class. Like Harvey Keitel’s eponymous character from James Toback’s Fingers (1978), Eric is a sensitive artistic type with a seemingly split personality who finds solace in playing compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven on piano, but has a lot of pent up hatred that he has no true outlet for, not to mention the fact that he is a virgin. Alex and his comrade Eric, who has a much lower IQ and is a physically frail wigger who dresses like Eminem, somehow magically buy a assault rifle (Bushmaster Carbon 15 Type 21 semi-automatic varmint rifle) online, which they practice using by shooting at firewood in a garage so they can prepare for their dream massacre. When footage appears of the Third Reich, including a scene with Leni Riefenstahl (Van Sant’s archenemy?), on television, the two friends have the most mundane conversation ever, with the one asking, “Can you still buy Nazi flags?” and the other responding, “Sure, if you’re a nut,” thus proving that these young men were not inspired to kill by the ghost of Uncle Adolf and his undead army. In fact, Eric is so uneducated that when Hitler appears on screen, he asks, “Who’s that Guy?” (indeed, if kids learn anything in public schools nowadays, it is about how eternally evil Hitler and the Nazis were).
Before going on their killing spree, Eric gets in the shower with Alex and says, “Well this is it. We're gonna die today. I've never even kissed anyone before, have you?,” and the two proceed to kiss (for the record, Van Sant has stated in interviews that these two fucked friends are somehow not homos). For about the last 15 minutes of Elephant, the terrible teenage twink twosome carries out their reckless reign of impotent terror, with Alex stating to his comrade before they carry out their crimes, “Most importantly, have fun, man.” The first place the crazed comrades go to is the library, with bullied nerd Michelle quite ironically being the first victim, with her brain splattering all over a bookshelf sitting behind her. In a scene of seemingly unintentional comic relief, Elias takes a photo of Eric and Alex a second before they start shooting. In a female bathroom, Alex assumedly guns down a trio of annoying bulimic girls, Brittany, Jordan and Nicole, with one of them ironically stating how cool it would be if bombs were going off in the school as it would result in no homework (indeed, Alex tried to explode propane bombs but they did not work). Meanwhile, a negro athlete named Benny (Bennie Dixon) passively (using one hand, which barely touches her body!) helps Acadia escape out of a window after a member of the gay-straight alliance is killed and proceeds to attempt to be a hero by sneaking up on Eric from behind, but he is ultimately gunned down a second or two before he goes to attack the school shooter. From there, Eric begins to torment the school principal, Mr. Luce (Matt Malloy), stating, “You know there’s others like us out there, too. And they will kill you if you fuck with them like you did me and Jared.” While Eric pretends to spare Mr. Luce, he ends up sadistically shooting the principal while he is running away, thus demonstrating his innate ruthlessness. When Alex and Eric meet in the school cafeteria after killing the majority of their victims, the former shoots and kills the latter while he is discussing his dirty deeds. In the end, Alex finds popular couple Nathan and Carrie hiding in a walk-in freezer and plays the children’s counting rhyme "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" with them before shooting one of them, though it is never revealed who was actually shot.
With the mastermind of the massacre, Alex, resembling Van Sant’s much beloved actor Keanu Reeves (who appeared in both My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) and the other killer, Eric, resembling the sort of pedomorphic and seemingly anorexic sort of young twinks that dominate gay pornography, Elephant ultimately resembles a sick fantasy film on the director’s part, albeit a somewhat inconspicuous one. It should be noted that the film also features a spoken word track (“Meeting of International Conference of Techological Psychiatry”) by the director’s hero William S. Burroughs, who wrote a series of novels about homicidal homo teen boys (especially his The Red Night Trilogy (1981-87)) and who appeared in two of Van Sants’ films, Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and the anti-American short Thanksgiving Prayer (1991). As Van Sant explained in the French featurette About Elephant, all of the characters featured in the film are more or less archetypes for high school students and indeed, the film has a certain authenticity in its intentionally mundane depiction of teenagers that is quite a relief from the moronic scat-obsessed 30+year-old frat boy philistines that typically appear in corny coming-of-age films and teen sex comedies. Indeed, compared to the other films based on the Columbine massacre, including Duck! The Carbine High Massacre, Uwe Boll’s Heart of America (2002), Ben Coccio’s Zero Day (2003), The Only Way (2004), and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Elephant is the only film that does not seem like a total piece of putrid exploitative garbage, superficial moralizing, and/or vapid sentimentalism. In an interview with Gerald Peary, Van Sant stated the following regarding why he decided to take a more detached and observational approach to directing the film, “It's not that I don't want you involved in the characters, but I want you involved by watching them, an observation, the way documentarian Frederick Wiseman sits back and lets things occur. We could have invented a more traditional psychological narrative. I have my ideas why Columbine happened, but that's not this film. I wanted a poetic impression rather than dictating an answer. I wanted to include the audience's thoughts.” Indeed, Van Sant may have been arrogant enough to direct a remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho starring a rather repugnant Hollywood comedian like Vince Vaughn, but he does not have his head so far up his ass to go as far as dictating to the audience the answer as to why two teenage upper-middleclass degenerates shot up their school. While not exactly an exciting and action-packed worked, Elephant apparently did inspire at least one school shooter, Jeff Weise—an Ojibwe Indian that the media painted as a neo-Nazi (just like they did with the Columbine killers, despite the fact that Klebold was part Jewish and even practiced Jewish rituals) who killed 9 of his fellow native Americans at his high school (located on Red Lake Indian Reservation) before blowing his brains out—to carry out a shooting spree on March 21, 2005. Of course, anyone who is inspired to kill a bunch of people after watching any film, let alone a slow-moving arthouse film like Elephant, was already insane to begin with.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 11:16 PM
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