Review of Elephant

Elephant (2003)
Disappointing, flaccid and lacking in courage
9 October 2003
I went to see "Elephant" with mixed expectations: after all, it won the Palme d'Or in Cannes (+ best direction prize) this year over the new film by Haneke, Von Trier's "Dogville", Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River", Denys Arcand's "Les Invasions Barbares" etc. I used to think Van Sant's films ranged from OK to ho-hum, but "Good Will Hunting" seemed awfully mellow, and I was later traumatized by his atrocious remake of "Psycho", which is certainly one of the most inept and incomprehensible Hollywood ventures ever. Well, "Elephant" turns out to be a major disappointment!

At first glance, "Elephant" is just another of Van Sant's mixed bag: some qualities (the imaginative camera-work, the throbbing subject, his refusal to play the accelerated beat that is a disease in Hollywood films) and the quota of letdowns (the stereotyped characters, the poor acting, the "mod" editing, the tentative script). But at the end of the day, it's the kind of film that for people like me - a Third World South American citizen - is above all a chance to find out what a U.S. independent filmmaker shows and thinks about the state of his country when faced with tragic, traumatic happenings, such as the mass killing perpetrated by a white middle-class educated teenager living in an well-organized rich city (it looks rich to me) in the most powerful nation on earth.

In a very "soft" way - so soft it might go unnoticed - Van Sant portrays the American educational system as a failure, a monumental bore that produces superficial, empty minds, a sort of walking zombies -- and do they walk in this movie!! We can also witness the gigantic gap in communication between parents and kids, the superficiality of relationships (among family, friends, lovers, teachers and pupils), and the very real threat of neo-fascism in America (as well as in Europe -- q.v. the countless documentaries on war, ballistics, guns, 3rd Reich, Hitler, etc etc which are produced every year by America, British and German TV and which are "exported" throughout the world through cable, inevitably leading to influence and even lure part of the young audience).

Above all, we can witness America's fascination with guns and violence -- I wonder if U.S. filmmakers realize how oppressive, repulsive and disturbing it is for non-U.S. audiences to see guns, bombs and explosions in virtually EVERY American movie, even in comedies and cartoons! But Van Sant decides not to handle directly the risky issues (as Michael Moore did in his "Bowling for Columbine"). Instead he decides to show his loving compassion for these kids and portray them as sad, naive victims of loser parents and a flawed system.

Well, some alarming thoughts occur for Third-World audiences (such as myself and my friends, for instance): hey, he's not talking about poor orphaned abandoned American kids with no access to education, food, welfare, health, work, future - he's showing privileged, white, healthy, pink-faced, cereal-eating kids, with every mean at their disposal to make political decisions and establish new directions for their generation in U.S. culture, and instead they choose to spend their time in cheer-leading, gossiping, playing video-games, bulimic puking, watching TV, the internet and, in extreme but not so rare cases, playing with guns and killing each others. Why won't Van Sant SHOW us WHAT HAPPENED to this generation, how they got to be this numb and desensitized?

I was particularly disgusted that Van Sant decided that the killer should be a sexually inexperienced, Beethoven-loving teenager with a closeted gay tendency. Phewww! What a fabulous contribution to the gay movement!! And to classical music!!

"Elephant" is a visually attractive (in a hypnotic sense) but shallow, soft-hearted, ideologically flaccid film, not to be taken in the same league of courageous movies about teen violence like Hector Babenco's "Pixote", Sebastián Cordero's "Ratas Rateros Ratones", Fernando Meirelles's "City of God", Michael Moore "Bowling for Columbine", or even Larry Clark's controversial "Kids" and "The Bully". Maybe Van Sant's romantic, detached and "neutral" position on such important and eminently political matters is the most striking and disappointing feature in this film. How can one be NEUTRAL about such matters??

After the flops of "Psycho" and "Finding Forrester", it seems Van Sant is healthily going back to his beginnings in low-budget independent films, and that's great news. But maybe his "walking movies" (as opposed to "road movies") with their lethargic pace, political neutrality and reflexive mood aren't the best (and most respectful) way to treat tragic, traumatic, urgent issues like the repeated episodes of mass-killing in American schools. I hope he'll find other themes better suited to his lightweight style.
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