Okay, Elephant. This is the second in what’s turning into my HBOFilms series of reviews–first being American Splendor–of movies that may or may not have come out on TV between 2002 and 2005. See, I remember American Splendor and Elephant from browsing the shelves at Blockbuster with my mom and dad. American Splendor, we rented on my recommendation after it came out on DVD. It was an odd movie to see at the age of thirteen or fourteen–I didn’t know what a “vasectomy” was, for instance–but I knew I liked it. Elephant we always joked about. “I’ll never forget it!” “Unforgettable!” “It’s kinda hard to talk about, so mostly, I just ignore it.” I finally saw Elephant today. Did I like it? Did I dislike it? Well…
The Decemberists have a song called “Summersong” from their album The Crane Wife. The Crane Wife marked a turning point for most of their fans–you either loved it or hated it. I’m on the love it side. It represents the culmination of all of the musical and lyrical themes they’d been developing to that point. “Summersong” was picked on by ex-fans for having “lazy” or “underwritten” lyrics. I remember one fan found the chorus to be particularly contentious, where “all Colin Meloy” could think of to end it with was “summer blows away and quietly gets swallowed by a wave”. See, when I read that, all I could think was that fan missed the point of the lyrics to “Summersong”. The lyrics were there not to be beautiful or meaningful poetry in their own right, but to convey the melody and the sounds of the syllables. Sibilant s’s, bobbing and bouncing b’s–written to convey the scenery and sounds of the beach. And it works, brilliantly. Elephant is much the same way.
On a quiet morning one day, a boy is getting a ride to school from his father. His name is John, and he has now-painfully dated dyed blonde hair with three inch roots. I remember when I sported that cut. I made it look good. His father is drunk, so he takes the wheel. Another boy named Eli is walking through the park, and asks a pair of lovers if he can take their picture for his portfolio. A girl named Michelle is scolded for wearing long pants to gym; a boy named Nathan walks through the school as though he owns the place after a game of pick-up 3-on-3. And why shouldn’t these kids? Whatever they’re doing. Why shouldn’t they? A young boy named Alex is in class the day prior, having gigantic balls of spit-softened paper thrown all over his clothes, hair and face. And why is that happening? Why indeed.
Elephant follows its own, European pace through its logical conclusion and far, far past it. I’ve said in life that movies are different from novels in that movies have structure. They can’t be however long they want to be and they all take the same steps in getting from their individual As to Bs. In Europe, they never really got that memo, leading movies to be treated more like novels than anything. This movie is definitely a novel. It starts at all of those individual As and keeps introducing characters until mere minutes before the credits roll. There are individual plot lines–Nathan’s girlfriend Carrie might be having an abortion later on. John has to wait around for his brother to show up to drive his dad home. Eli is trying to fill out his portfolio. All of these people are hanging around school during the day. Alex stayed home from school with his friend Eric. He and Eric spent the day at his house, hanging out, waiting for the package they ordered.
See, at this point, I wish I knew a bit more about guns. Because all I know about the particular gun they ordered is that it is gigantic. They spent the day away from school because after they eat breakfast, and after their gun arrives, they change into camos, take guns and explosives to their school where everyone else is and shoot everyone. They make sure that all of the people they set their sights on are dead. Why do they do this? Why wouldn’t they? From what we’ve seen, they’ve been harassed by everyone in their school and feel utterly worthless. But is that why they’re doing this? Do they just need some entertainment in their backwoods town? I may be asking these questions, but Elephant never does. Instead, Elephant uses its dialogue and pace and storytelling and minimalist aesthetic to communicate something else.
The first movie in my HBOFilms series, American Splendor, was all about life unembellished. It was a slice-of-life biography of an average man. And if Elephant didn’t have two kids coming to shoot everyone to end it, it would be like that. Like that, you see, because Elephant aims shallow. It goes solely for surface interaction. It does this to follow its minimalist ambitions, including long takes that frequently have nothing in them after the characters have left. Minimalist, improvised dialogue with set-pieces co-directed by the actors, who were either non-actors or inexperienced actors.
But, in all of this, did it make a good movie? I’m still struggling with that question. I watched this movie that received the Palme D’Or from the Cannes Film Festival, and I saw a slow, not adequately talky, sorta disconnected-from-youth-today movie. It’s good, and I recognize its quality, but I also recognize that it’s hard to get into, invites deeper analysis and repeated viewings and doesn’t deliver any moral message at the end of it all. Kids go to school. Kids don’t go to school. Kids have a good time at school. Kids have a bad time at school. Kids talk about boyfriends and girlfriends at school. Kids get shot at school. Kids get shot at school. Kids get shot at school. Why does this happen? Gus Van Sant doesn’t want to tell us, leaving his film without any real point. Without any real morality. See, in real life, when kids get shot at school, even if there isn’t a lesson, we learn something. TWO STARS