Hayden Childs

William Ham

Dana Knowles

Gary Mairs

Leonard Pierce

Michael Tomczyszyn

Scott Von Doviak

George Wu


The Algonquin Kids' Table

This Issue: 2003 Top Ten Lists

Gary Mairs - 08:35pm Mar 1, 2004 PST

For me, everything bad in Elephant stemmed from its scattered attempts to explain what is, to my mind, essentially incomprehensible. I can't imagine any coherent explanation for the killings beyond "those kids were crazy" – Van Sant's hints that the boys were closeted and might just have found peace if only they had gone to that meeting of the Gay Lesbian Friendship Committee, or whatever that was supposed to be, were every bit as ludicrous as Michael Moore's attempts to make Columbine stand in for every sin of the right.

That said, I thought the movie was anything but a Rorshach blot (Van Sant must have been thinking of Gerry, a huge canvas with so few strokes you could fill it in yourself for two hours – no movie I've ever seen is so conducive to daydreaming while it unfolds). Elephant didn't specify any causality, but it certainly recreated the malevolent sense of unease I remember from high school – the way voices seemed to circle around the first victim as she walked the halls, none of them ever specifically addressing her, but all of them seeming to be aimed at her anyway, or the social hierarchies he nailed with casual looks and gestures throughout.

I guess what I'm saying here is that Van Sant wasn't making a bigger point (or if he was – and I suspect that club scene and the kiss were gestures in that direction – he botched it badly) about the meaning of the killings: he was aestheticizing, if by that we mean he took a horrific event and created an aesthetic object out of it. This may be dodging the important work of placing blame and preventing future massacres, but if one believes, as I do, that with Columbine we're really talking about psychopathology, not larger social issues, then I see this as an infinitely smarter approach.

That said, I'm with you on your general argument, if not this specific film. I liked very little that I saw this year (that's why two of my top three were unreleased films, one a documentary playing the festival circuit and one a thesis film – Van Sant (and maybe Errol Morris) aside, no other filmmakers came close to their ambition), partly because it all seemed so attenuated and distanced from the world at large. My list is, I'm afraid, pitched between the purely personal (a dinner party, a show in a tiny club, a film one of my students made) and what's starting to look like nostalgia – a Miles Davis reissue, a concert by Toots and the Maytals. Crawling up my own ass while bemoaning the lack of passionate connection to the culture in recent art, asking for something I might not care much about if it was even offered: that was my year in the record store and at the movies.

Hayden Childs - 09:38am Mar 2, 2004 PST

I haven't seen Elephant and am sitting out this portion of the discussion, but I quite appreciate the personal aspects of your list, Gary. It seems to me that the year-end top ten list is all about choices, and serves simultaneously as a means of providing advice to a potentially theoretical target audience and a way of establishing a personal hierarchy of experiences in certain categories for the year. Some of us emphasized the former and left the latter a subtle undercurrent, but your list brought the personal aspect to the front, which is fascinating. I'm only pleased that our night of hanging out at the Continental Club and listening to Redd Volkaert and Earl Poole Ball made the cut.

Dana Knowles - 05:43pm Mar 2, 2004 PST

Re: Elephant

[Spoilers Ahoy]

I admire his willingness to take on a big, disturbing subject, and his refusal to stick little labels everywhere like Chester Gould and try to "explain" Columbine. (God knows he makes less of an ass of himself than Michael "The evil aura emanating from the nearby munition factory drove the boys insane" Moore did in Bowling for Columbine.) But I wonder if he doesn't go too far in the opposite direction, so far that his movie barely tells you a thing. In his determination not to reduce the subject to platitudes and easy solutions, while carefully measuring out just enough visual variety to keep the viewer intrigued, I think he threatens to aestheticize his subject rather than grapple with it.

That's not an unreasonable way to have seen Van Sant's approach, but I think there's a madness to his method that truly borders on genius. Though ostensibly about Columbine, the point of the film seems to be centered on the more universal urge to respond to such events with a belief that we could have seen it coming, and our frustration with those closer to it having failed to do so. Thus, the inevitable swarm of journalists and investigators pore over each and every detail of the killers' lives, attempting to shape the available evidence (their habits, tastes, cultural appetites, social status, prior bad acts, relationships to one another, parents, friends, enemies) together into a sensible whole that might provide relief, if only in retrospect. The whole point of straining to define the factors that may have led directly to such a horrendous result is in hopes of developing a reliable equation that might lead us to a cure. It's a pipe dream, of course, but we can't stop dreaming it, so we pore over the details until we convince ourselves that the tragedy at hand was entirely predictable... if only people had made an effort to look. Senselessness is just too far outside of our comfort zone.

One of the most remarkable things about Elephant is that Van Sant puts us in the disconcerting position of knowing what's coming, then invites us to look for ourselves to divine the "obvious". Watching the mundane activities of the victims and killers through the various shifts of focus, we're scrutinizing each detail with a palpable awareness of what's to come, effectively placing us in the hyper-lucid position we claim to wish the victims (not to mention the parents, teachers, and authorities) had been diligent enough to put themselves in. Surely if they'd scrutinized the facts, they'd have averted this disaster. But would they have? Would you have? Everywhere you look in Elephant, the "warning signs" are present, but they're so widespread, innocuous and ambiguous that divining any concrete future from them would be impossible. The nerdy girl is no less an isolated social outcast than the killers, and the photographer is no less quietly obsessive than the killers. The kid with the drunken father suffers from criminal neglect, but he's not the one stockpiling weapons to massacre his classmates. Instead, he's trying his best to patch-up his own mess and keep moving forward.

If this perspective feels incomplete or timid or defeatist in a way that makes the film seem unsatisfying, I think that discomfort is entirely intentional. You yourself claim not to want "easy answers", but part of you still wants answers. We all do, because it's in our nature to want to pin down reality and wrestle it into some sort of manageable order. But as predictable as people in general can be in so many ways, these tragedies are, in fact, anomalies, because there's a very big difference between having reasons to kill (which, sadly, describes most of us) and having the will to kill (which, thankfully, describes few of us).

This may be dodging the important work of placing blame and preventing future massacres, but if one believes, as I do, that with Columbine we're really talking about psychopathology, not larger social issues, then I see this as an infinitely smarter approach.

Exactly. And this is, I think, Van Sant's implied conclusion... particularly in view of the final moments of the film. First, there's the brilliantly staged moment in the cafeteria, where Killer, Jr. is waxing rhapsodic about his exploits, and the cold-eyed pianist (Killer, Sr.) shoots him dead without comment or warning (we only see Jr. collapse... not the shooter or the shot). Also, when Killer, Sr. moves through the school looking for other potential victims, we're reintroduced to the girl and boy who've earlier been effectively established as the school's "power couple", though mostly - as Gary notes - through the facial expressions and gestures of those who interact with them. When the killer does finally corner them, it's entirely random. He hasn't gone looking for them, though he's clearly very happy that they're the ones in his grasp. Even so, Van Sant underlines the depth - and essential randomness - of the killer's depravity and cruelty by staging the shot from outside the doorway of their hiding place, with only the killer in view as he chooses which to shoot first via recitation of that old childhood fave, eenie, meenie, minie, moe. (The End) This power couple may, from the historical record, eventually be defined as victims selected specifically for a quantifiable social reason, but they are, in fact, victims of opportunity, just like everybody else who's been blown away by these killers. Just as killing the nerdy girl in the library severely undermines the justifiable social vengeance rationale, the purely accidental targeting of the power couple effectively does the same, placing the blame entirely on the killer, and deservedly so.

it certainly recreated the malevolent sense of unease I remember from high school – the way voices seemed to circle around the first victim as she walked the halls, none of them ever specifically addressing her, but all of them seeming to be aimed at her anyway, or the social hierarchies he nailed with casual looks and gestures throughout.

Yeah... and I really, really loved the sound design in Elephant, because it adds so much to the overall mood of disorientation and hovering dread. Also, the way Van Sant's camera wanders impassively as a casual witness to whatever's in the path of the character we're following and then restages the same scenes equally impassively from a different character's perspective is a marvelous means of reconfiguring the notion of Columbine (or any community) so that we think of it less in terms of an easily observed/defined integrated whole, and more as a universe filled with groups and individuals who may intersect on occasion, but are largely worlds unto themselves from their own points of view. The nerdy girl's focus is utterly different from the photographer's focus, and both are different from the power couple's focus, the blond kid's focus, and the cute chicks' focus. What's important enough to get our attention in any given scene is dependent on whose world we're moving through, despite the fact that we're repeatedly in the same places and viewing the same people moving in the same ways. Diligent viewers though we're trying so hard to be, we still filter out the "extras" almost reflexively, and it's only after we've spent a good deal of time moving around the school that we feel at all qualifed to make judgments about whom and what we're viewing, let alone how certain individuals exist in relation to others. Even then, those judgments are not reliable predictors of anything much, at least not beyond the pegging of the two killers via the extended sequence spent in that basement bedroom. If we have zero foreknowledge of the specifics regarding how the film plays out while watching the first 15 minutes, we might just as easily guess that those who later become victims will turn out to be the killers. (And, indeed, I had no foreknowledge of how closely Van Sant followed the profiles at Columbine, so I was scrutinizing everybody at the outset for signs of trouble to come.) Anyway, I thought this approach was brilliant, particularly because its effect transcends Columbine and serves to remind us of how different our view becomes when any given community is not held at a distance. Once you're inside, the available information narrows to whatever you can actually see, and even when trying hard to see all that's available to see because you're sitting there in order to do so, you're still a prisoner of your natural inclination to filter out the periphery.

If nothing else, Van Sant's design stands as an eloquent evocation of our limitations. Regrettable and frustrating though they may be, we have no more control over them than we have over the unpredictable actions of those people who possess a genuine will to kill. To some degree, this may seem to render irrelevant the "important work of placing blame and preventing future massacres", but I didn't see it that way at all. By refusing to provide the secret formula by which we'll spot the monsters, and by focusing on the vast array of "warning signs" in kids who do not kill, the film also shifts emphasis away from the pinched context of preventing massacres and toward suggesting concerned intervention for those whose suffering stands to destroy only themselves. Long before the bullets start to fly, there's plenty to mourn. Whether this resonates only as an uncomfortable flashback to our own school days or extends beyond to the predictable damage that's woefully ever-present in human communities of all stripes is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but I know that I felt that way walking out of the theater, and I doubt I was the only one. Elephant really, really got to me while I sat through it, and then stuck with me long, long after I'd left the theater. Heck, I saw two more movies that night, and still ended up thinking only about Elephant while I drifted off to sleep. Whatever its flaws or failings, its grip on me was both immediate and tenacious, so I can't escape feeling as if Van Sant did something right. Well, for me, anyway.

Leonard Pierce - 05:55pm Mar 2, 2004 PST

I can't really follow that except to say that I absolutely agree. To me, for all the directionlessness and vagary of the film, "Elephant" wasn't trying to beat us over the head with the idea that we couldn't explain it; it was putting us in contact with our deep-seated urge to explain it, and reflecting our frustration and helplessness at being unable to do so. This is the reason I say in my top ten entry that it shows us everything and tells us nothing, but leaves us with the feeling that we really did see all there was to see and gave us all the answers if only we'd looked hard enough. Not that we would have, or that there were answers awaiting an ultra-close reading: but that it is inevitable that we look for one, and just as inevitable that we find ourselves ultimately unable to find it. Van Sant confronts us with infinite patterns and clues and tip-offs; the farther away from them we get the more we're sure that they're meaningful, and the closer we get the more we're sure they're empty and random. He grants us neither luxury. He puts us right in the middle, in the very human position of seeing everything unfold at just enough distance that even when we know what's going on, we don't know what the hell for.

One of van Sant's primary themes as a director, I think -- one that he shares with Nicholas Ray -- is that of people being driven insane by not being able to get what they want. And in "Elephant", it's not the kids; it's us.

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