Views to a Kill

Gus Van Sant investigates school violence with 'Elephant'

(l-r): Alex Frost, producer Danny Wolf, and director Gus Van Sant
(l-r): Alex Frost, producer Danny Wolf, and director Gus Van Sant

Throughout his career, Gus Van Sant has always shown a special affinity for the predicaments of young people. From his first film, Mala Noche, through My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrester, Van Sant reveals some of the cold realities of being a kid in America. Unsurprisingly, in his new film Elephant, Van Sant continues his pointed exploration.

The crisis of school violence, which shocked the nation in recent years and has become encapsulated by the gruesome incident at Columbine High School, also seized the director's attention. So inexplicable and disturbing were the events that Van Sant sought to investigate the source of this violence and its reasons. Unwilling to throw up his hands in frustration, Van Sant wanted to make a film that might shed light on the matter from various perspectives.

Van Sant says he approached the subject as a detective would. "Like any tragic event, you find out things about it," he says. "Like the president getting shot, for example: First you discover what state they were in, then what town, where in the town, what time it was, et cetera. And like a detective, you think about stuff like that. ... What were all the circumstances? I looked at things like who shot whom -- they didn't shoot any teachers, for instance. And then, as you narrow things down, as more and more facts become known, you form an opinion or profile of the incident."

The title of the movie, Elephant, is Van Sant's homage to an identically titled film by the late British filmmaker Alan Clarke. Made in 1989 for the BBC, Clarke's much-admired Elephant is also a study of the cycle of violence, as seen through the lives of kids in Northern Ireland experiencing the bloodshed of the sectarian Troubles. Clarke's title was a reference to the common saying about the 800-pound elephant in the living room that nobody seems to notice -- a metaphor for the endless escalation of violence. To Van Sant, however, the title is also resonant of the Buddhist parable about the blind men examining the elephant: each one touching different parts of the animal and consequently describing his knowledge of the elephant quite differently.

Elephant takes place over the course of one seemingly ordinary day in a suburban high school. The film follows several students throughout the day as they traverse the vast building from classroom to locker room, cafeteria to library. Several moments and intersections among students are revisited through the eyes of different characters -- in particular during the final 20 minutes of the fatal day. "It retraces the moment in time through different perspectives," Van Sant explains. "A lot of the movie has to do with showing who ended up being the victims, as much as showing who ended up being the perpetrators. Revealing not so much dramatic points of view as physical points of view brings the audience through the same 20 minutes. There are a lot of things about Columbine and some of the other school shootings that have large histories -- like how the kids grew up and all the different things that have happened in their lives. And what I've done in the film is let the character development go and just show that last day. There's a way to really see the mood of the school, the temperament."

Despite tackling the conundrum of school violence and providing "musings about different situations that lead to violence," as Van Sant puts it, Elephant doesn't purport to have the answer to the problem. In presenting some of the factors that fuel these violent outbursts, Elephant at least acknowledges the presence of the oversized beast in our living rooms. (Already, the film was recognized at this year's Cannes Film Festival, earning the event's top prize, the Palme d'Or, and a Best Director award for Van Sant.) What Van Sant hopes to accomplish with his new movie is to "encourage people to think about their own ideas about violence. It's not really stated in the movie what I think, what Gus Van Sant, literally, thinks about violence. It's more of a song or a poem about the event." And the movie's refrains and choruses are certain to reverberate long after the theatre lights dim. end story

This piece is reprinted from The Telluride Film Watch. Elephant opens in Austin on Friday, Nov. 21. For review and showtimes, see Film listings, p.86.

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