Gus Van Sant titled his new movie about a Portland high school that becomes host to a Columbine-like atrocity Elephant, in homage to the late British director Alan Clarke's movie about Northern Ireland, also called Elephant. Clarke got the name from the idea of people talking around the elephant in the room - the great big thing you can't discuss.
But Van Sant was also thinking of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, in which six sightless wise men are asked to describe an elephant, and, putting their hands on different portions of the beast, say it's like a wall, a rope, a snake, and so on.
The parable sums up the futility of finding the truth in any one man's observations. But the film itself is an exercise in frustration. Van Sant is too determined to show the impossibility of gleaning anything useful from a day in the life of high-school kids before they kill or are slaughtered. Using nonprofessional young actors, he tracks six inchoate stories en route to the massacre.
Far from giving us a new and revelatory view of adolescence, he comes up with choreographed cliches. Envious whispers follow the heartthrob football player and his girlfriend. An obsessed artist-photographer finds subjects everywhere. A misunderstood good kid must deal with a drunken father. The misfit girl in gym class gets called a loser in the locker room. A mammoth spitball hits one loner, who then shares ominous secrets with another. Three budding bimbos go bulimic in the girls' room.
Of course, Van Sant, at heart a perennial art-school moviemaker (he was even able to turn a remake of Psycho into an art thing), organizes the nonviolent behavior into lulling patterns of sight and sound that span and double back on the early hours of the school day. He fits the action into gliding mobile shots through fluorescent corridors and autumnal playing fields and landscapes, then replays it from different vantage points and time slots - until the shooting starts, right on schedule. (The Beethoven pieces that one killer plays on the piano provide time clues and offset the musique concrete that dominates the soundtrack.)
Van Sant's high-end doodling is infuriating. Before Van Sant reveals the architects of mass homicide, the movie functions as a tease: Most of the characters have equal reasons to snap, so you can't help wondering who will turn out to be the culprits. After Van Sant introduces us to the little monsters (and they're the most obvious choices), he continues to toy with expectations in a smug aesthetic way, suggesting explanations, then goofing on them. The kids watch a documentary about Nazis, but one of them isn't quite sure who Hitler is. They share a homosexual kiss that comes out of nowhere and (who knows?) may be less a buss than a battle rite.
An artist needs insight, passion or incisiveness to stage public tragedy persuasively, avoiding the taint of exploitation. The Van Sant of Drugstore Cowboy had all those virtues; the Van San of Elephant has none of them. And his nonpro actors can't make up for his failings: He appears to have cast them for their opacity. (Perhaps he cast Timothy Bottoms as the oblivious drunken dad - the most prominent adult character - because of his physical resemblance to, and his frequent playing of, George W. Bush.)
Van Sant's film, in a way, offers a grotesque finish to the parable: It's what a seventh blind man might step into on the floor beneath the elephant.
Starring Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, Timothy Bottoms
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Released by Fine Line Films
Time 81 minutes
Sun Score *