There are two ways that films traditionally present tragedies. Either they're the result of some single, apparently heinous entity (the sun, invading aliens, George W. Bush), or, the aftereffects are studied (28 Days Later, any AIDS film), while the cause is just a plot device. Either way, it's a western storytelling tradition that everything needs to be concluded, that a finger must be pointed, and, if possible, someone responsible should suffer.
Some artists, however, tell stories that explore issues without forcing conclusions. Among the most commercially successful filmmakers who do this is Gus Van Sant, who was named Best Director at last year's Cannes film festival for Elephant. (The film also won last year's Golden Palm, the festival's top award, won this year by Fahrenheit 9/11). It's amazing how different an approach Van Sant takes in tackling the Columbine shooting compared to Michael Moore in his less-ambiguous Bowling for Columbine.
Summarizing Elephant is nearly impossible, not only because the film doesn't work that way, but also because it would do it a great disservice. Van Sant has taken pains to create a high school on the morning that two students outfit themselves with weapons and go on a killing spree. We see snippets of small narratives. A young woman in gym class is called a loser by her classmates, then rushes off to the library where she is among the first murdered. A young photographer snaps a photo of the killers just before his life ends. Another boy escapes only because he leaves the school to check on his drunken father.
Van Sant overlaps these fragments with one another, suggesting that no single moment could have caused or prevented the tragedy. Even in the film's most-sequential episodes -- when we see the two young killers being teased in school, making their plans, ordering guns online -- we don't know why they did it. They play violent video games. One of them sits at a piano playing Beethoven. They kiss in the shower. Their parents, when onscreen, are never shown above the neck.
Nobody listens to any of the kids in Elephant, and viewers have to work hard to achieve an understanding of what's going on. The effect is serious without being emotionally manipulative. As we pay attention to the small, discreet details of their lives, we come to understand that sometimes there's an elephant in the room, and nobody notices it.
Publication date: 07/01/04