Posted on 1/05/13 05:27 PM
"Elephant" is nothing but an inane exercise in style which has begrudgingly made me appreciate "Transformers" and "Avatar." I mean, at least "Avatar" tried to tell a story, albeit cliched, introduce layered characters and even end with a message under all its empty dazzle. And, at least "Transformers" knows how stupid and schlocky it is that it really makes no attempt at greater redemption.
"Elephant," however, is incorrigible school shooting exploitation. If anything it proves that we're increasingly losing ourselves culturally in terms of appreciating context and depth, two elements this movie fatally lacked. Van Sant proves that today you can make a sensational film, and one which can win a freakin' Palme d'Or, with exclusively atmosphere (Beethoven is rolling in his grave for being shamelessly shoehorned into this movie's soundtrack) and if you have a steadicam.
It's like if Van Sant spent a weekend watching "The Shining" and "Goodfellas," only to absorb Kubrick's and Scorsese's work with the steadicam, and just, like, decided to make a film based on that. Alone. So he has a steadicam for prolonged tracking shots and he can organize multiple camera placements to create the intertwining element of this film. So what?
The characters are shallow and unrealistic, the dialogue is either melodramatic or unrealistically nonchalant, the acting is all awkward and caricatured, the attempts at greater moralizing ends with snippets of homosexuality and neo-Nazism with no greater explanation other than a pointed finger, etc, etc. Even if the style is admittedly impressive, full of nostalgia, color, and respect for complex camerawork, all that glitters is not gold, and I personally wouldn't even place this film besides pyrite gold.
The style just can't stand alone. Everything needs to, or at least should, have meaning, every shot and element of a mise-en-scene should serve a function or purpose or else you wander into dangerous Zack Snyder "Sucker Punch"/"I chose this shot because it looked cool" territory. Yea, yea, yea, so Van Sant shows a day in the life of oh-so-complex-and-misunderstood teenagers, but everything is at its most superficial. We see characters talk and behave but we don't get any greater insight into their true personalities or really their daily conduct. So the nerdy girl overhears gossip, the shooters play violent video games, that peculiar blonde kid treats his father like a baby, the superficial trollops turn out to just be superficial trollops with bulimia (so extreme; so pitiful,) the principle's actions were partly responsible for angry backlash in the shooters, etc. etc. etc. Just one platitudinous archetype after another.
In that regard, why should I care about any of these people! If anything the intricate steadicam shots are suppose to mask the genuine fact that Van Sant has nothing interesting or novel to say. In a scene where kids talk about homosexuality it's shot with a gliding camera style probably ripped out of "Eyes Wide Shut," as if Van Sant is trying to dazzle us with "look! the camera's here! Oh look! Now it's suddenly here!" to distract us from the insipid dialogue. Another scene involves one of the shooters playing piano and his accomplice playing a violent video game; the camera slows and focuses its attention on both of them. The scene feels like it should be a contemplative, cathartic moment. As if here the provocation is supposed to reel in and we're supposed to see ourselves differently, and, most of all, that we're supposed to be calling Van Sant some genius. Well, that hasn't been achieved.
We weren't exactly given that many scenes with any intellectual dialogue or suggestions for us to cogitate while the film feeds us more visual fodder. Other than rote dialogue and behavior, nothing new will be taken from the film which cannot already be learned by going through high school or reading an article on literally any high school shooting. I'd rather watch a documentary.
We end up with a filmmaker feeding us countless familiar components within the context of a national tragedy to give the illusion of avant garde and provocation. The music may be great (Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" never fails) but no amount of classical music can ever make your film work if it doesn't have any other layers working other than "dolly shot pretty. music pretty. anarchy cool." The film, as it is, has the potential to be amazing if Van Sant could, perhaps, revisit it, shoot more scenes, and at least try to give us characters with depth, realistic insights, any personal point of view or, hell, any objective point of view, or at least just something to care about or to hold us rather than the banal anticipation of violence. "Carrie" pulled it off, and the Columbine-based character-driven "Zero Day" also did it; both films are significantly smarter than "Elephant," which indulges in pretending to be eyes of God.