Who the fuck knows what to make of Gus Van Sant? Fierce independence and idiosynchricity or whatever for many years. Openly gay independent filmatist working out of Oregon, adapting underground literature and hanging out with Burroughs and shit. Suddenly out of the blue he does this huge hit studio movie with no gay people, but Robin Williams and a math genius garbage man or whatever the fuck that movie was about (I never saw it). How bout them apples I guess is what a guy says in it, I don’t know. So suddenly Van Sant is a mainstream super star and he can do whatever he wants… so what he does, he announces that he’s gonna do a shot for shot remake of Mr. Hitchcock’s famous picture PSYCHO. With the same score and everything. And hire the same screenwriter just to change like ten or fifteen words in it.
Now I know I am against the wheat grain on this one but for me, that was the thing that SOLD me on this Van Sant, not the thing that lost me. Sure, DRUGSTORE COWBOY was a great one and there was some good business in his other pictures, but it was the day he cashed in his mainstream clout to do something THAT fucking ridiculous that made me think this was a guy I could really respect. Nobody else would get the chance to try something like that, nobody else would WANT to try something like that, and anybody, including him, is not likely to get out of that one unscathed. It was a god damn kamikaze mission, or “homicide bombing” as our friends at Fox “news” call it in their unending quest for a new, less accurate form of speaking.
I mean, it’s not like these remakes they have now where the implied message is yeah, that was a good movie at the time, but young audiences can’t relate to that, it’s really obsolete now so it’s about time somebody stepped in here and made more of a modern, shitty type version so that the young, retarded victims of our crass commercial culture of aggressive mediocrity can enjoy it between beyonce’s pepsi commercials. No, the implied message was that Hitchcock’s movie was so perfect that the only way you can remake it is to try to copy it exactly. And even then, it turns out, it’s not really gonna work. Oh well.
So I’m all sold on the dude but then after going out in a blaze of glory with that one the very next thing Van Sant does, he gets reborn from the ashes as the guy who still wants to keep doing inspirational math teacher movies. Because there was another movie I never saw starring that clueless old fuck Connery, called YOU’RE THE MAN NOW, DOG. And that one wasn’t even allegedly good.
No problem. Turns out Van Sant was just getting his clout back so he could come out with some ridiculous hiking movie and one about elephants called COLUMBINE. Or, I mean, vice versa.
And to me ELEPHANT is almost as much of a mystery as Van Sant himself. It’s a movie about that horrible high school massacre they had a few years back, but without really trying to make a statement about it. When it was over I knew that it was very effective, but I didn’t know what Van Sant was trying to say about Columbine, or even if he was trying to say something about Columbine. The more I think about it the more I think that the lack of a message is the message. That you can’t exactly quantify something like Columbine, or explain what led to it mathematically.
I mean who the fuck knows. There is a group of kids here (the same period of time leading up to the murders is shown many times from the perspectives of different kids, often intersecting with the other perspectives that we’ve already seen). All of them have their own teenage problems (my dad’s an alcoholic, I’m not comfortable with my body, people make fun of me, me and my friends like to vomit up our lunch, my parents won’t let me go to the concert) but they all deal with them in different ways.
If there’s a main kid it’s probaly this blond kid that almost could be out of a calvin klein commercial. He has to take care of his drunk dad, his principal has it in for him, he can’t seem to get a break. And we know he has guns in the house because his dad invites him hunting. You could argue that he deserves to flip out and kill everybody more than the kids that actually do it, but he doesn’t.
After the real massacre, asswipes like Joseph Lieberman used it as an excuse to blame the evil clown rock that kids listen to and the violent video games they play. Van Sant deals with both of these issues in a clever way. There’s no rock music in this picture. But shortly before the killings, there is a long scene of one of the killers playing Fuer Elise on a piano as his buddy plays video games on a laptop. I mean everybody’s heard that song so many times it completely loses its power, but when you hear it in this movie you just kind of go whoah, what a beautiful fucking piece of music. So many changes in emotion too. Exactly the kind of thing that could make this kid snap, right? Don’t let your kids listen to this death obsessed classical music. You hear the song again as they go on their spree and it’s pretty creepy.
As for video games, you see the other kid playing a shooting video game like Doom (which the real killers played I think – or was it Pac-Man? I don’t know video games that well). Later there’s a short piece of his killing spree that you see in the same perspective with the gun right under the camera. And I think somebody already pointed this out but there are other scenes of other characters that look like video games. The opening shot of the blond kid’s dad driving drunk is shot exactly like Grand Theft Auto. And there are a whole bunch of scenes with characters walking around with the camera following them from the back, just like a game.
I’m pointing that out but I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. So don’t look at me man.
(I might’ve pointed this out before, but those columbine killers really missed out… they never got to play Grand Theft Auto. They would’ve LOVED that shit and it wasn’t even invented yet.)
I know exactly how to describe the style of this movie. It’s a more polite Larry Clark directing one long Brian DePalma suspense sequence. Think of the part in CARRIE where you know the bucket of blood is gonna drop on the poor gal’s head, and that she’s probaly gonna go ape shit with her carrie-powers when that happens. You know that, but DePalma makes you sit there and wait for it in excruciating slow motion. And that’s why it’s so great.
This is the same thing – you know there’s gonna be a high school shooting. You even see the kids walking in with all their guns and telling the blond kid to leave. And then it skips back again. So you know the general time of the day that it’s gonna happen and you keep dreading it. There’s a scene where some vapid girls sit in the cafeteria planning a shopping trip and in the background you can see kids walking by outside, and every time one walks by your stomach tightens a little ’cause you think it’s gonna be those little fucks with the guns.
At the same time I say the style is Larry Clark because it’s got that same deal with the naturalistic non-actor cast, lots of handheld cameras and long takes showing unneccessary details like somebody walking away after a conversation. To give it that matter of fact realistic type feel. I don’t think there’s any crotch shots though, and only one out of the blue shock value moment that was very Clarkian but much briefer and less graphic.
Anyway what makes this a powerful movie is that it doesn’t try to give you a fuckin essay. It’s more like a sketch. It kind of puts you standing in that school to watch from the perspective of these kids instead of from the perspective of a bunch of clips on the news. I don’t know what it means but I know it kicked me in the balls. And most movies can’t get away with that.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.