So, I briefly mentioned this on the podcast when I had just seen Four Lions. While this is not the same as Four Lions, Elephant is similar in its controversy: humanizing people who are seen by many as inhuman. Even merely animals. While Four Lions focuses on four/five would-be terrorists plotting to bomb London, Elephant focuses on the Columbine School Massacre. Not only did this film come to my mind due to the similarities between the two, the main reason was the choice of Elephant being the ‘best film of the decade’ by Matty ‘Ballgame’ Robinson on the Filmspotting podcast. Whislt Sam and Adam chose There will be Blood and Mulholland Drive – this film seemed to come way out of left field. So, we come to my film-dilemma – how can I call myself a film fan if a presenter on a hugely-successful podcast names a film as best-of-the-decade – and yet I haven’t seen it! Thats madness. So, to my favourite store Fopp I went and, parting with merely £5, I purchased Elephant…
Tracking the Characters
The film uses a specific style throughout – tracking a range of characters who, potentially, are in no way linked. Obviously they all go to the same school, but the ‘jock and girlfriend’ are not necessarily friends with ‘John’, whilst the photographer is not friends with the girl-geek. But, of course, thats the point. These are just everyday pupils going about their business – the jock is he who he is walking from the sports field to the reception, the photographer does what he does – taking pictures of his friends. Interestingly, John – the first guy tracked with startling blonde hair – looks like he could be one of the murderers.
It opens on a car driving, badly, down the road – this first makes you consider that the killer must be driving this car. Someone who is a rebel and drives a car dangerously down the road. But alas, the car stops and an older man, is asked to hand over the keys to his son. John is this son and it is clear that his father is an alcoholic. So, maybe – you think – this child, John, is from a broken family. A father who is drunk and drives down the road, hitting other cars. Maybe it is John who is the killer – it would make sense. But again, this is clearly not the case as we track John doing, what could be, a daily routine of ‘dealing’ with his drunk father. He is spoken to by a truancy officer (maybe? or the principal?) – someone who has seen this situation many times. Inevitably, halfway into the film, we see the two killers walking into the building telling John to get out in passing. John has some link with these boys – but is clearly not as screwed up.
The second-half of the film focuses on the killers themselves – Eric and Alex – showing a range of possible reasons for their crime. The ease of getting hold of guns? The apathy of the parents – parents we do not see. The homosexuality? (Not that the boys were necessarily homosexual – merely an understanding that they would kill themselves and that they wanted to have kissed someone before they died… but why naked? in a shower? That seems quite gay to me) The frustration of the noise and sounds that surround them? – the annoying banter of high-school kids? We are not told, and there are many more possible reasons highlighted, what the reason is – it is simply a case of deeply-felt hatred towards people from both Alex and Eric.
The Computer Game Influence
I think there is a huge focus on computer games. The first thing Sarah mentioned to me when we began watching this film was that the shot of the car at the start, driving down the street, is shot from the same angle of a computer game – namely Grand Theft Auto. This was initially, merely a negligible point – but the plot thickens. We see, near enough, all the characters from behind – akin to a shoot-em’-up game – throughout the film. Think about when Benny walks the hallway, searching them out – from behind, akin to a game.
Additionally, when we see Eric and Alex at home, they play computer games – shoot ’em ups and what not. And, to add a further link to the Columbine Massacre, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, were huge game-players themselves, playing Quake and Doom until late into the night. This became such a big issue, that the victims families of the Columbine Massacre even attempted to sue the game makers!
Strangely, in an example of art imitating life, and the life imitating art again – a game (this is truly messed up) was created called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! But, back onto the film…
To some extent, Eric, additionally, appears to dress like Eminem … this is not specified (Alex plays Beethoven…) so, a pop-culture reference and another ‘potential’ reason for their killing spree. Imitation.
Film as Entertainment
Fact is, is this entertainment? Personally, I reckon that you are supposed to watch the film knowing the ending. You won’t know who and how things happen – but you know that it is about a massacre by two boys in a high school. If you do not know this, then you are waiting for a long time – I’d be surprised if you’d even wait that long because nothing happens for most of the film. The cutting between characters is to tease you – moving away from one character to expose another one shortly before the massacre. You know whats coming, so it purposefully stalls it by highlighting a different pupil. An ordinary child just going about their day. The only word Nicole manages to say is seconds before being shot. The photographer, having created some beautiful works of art, inconsequentially shot – he means, or more importantly, his entire life (dreams and ambitions) – means nothing to these killers. We know they are full of hate – but the group of girls with their own bulimic issues, mean nothing. This is the tragedy. This moving, back and forth, between stories – created a disjointed progression is part of the experience, and surely makes the film watchable on multiple viewings.
To top it off, the only ‘credible’ actor is Timothy Bottoms: an actor who was the lead in an important teen movie of its time – The Last Picture Show. Maybe Elephant will become a historical teen film of this period because it really is an incredible film.