Late in Gus Van Sant's new film "Elephant" the camera pans the room in which two high-school boys are preparing an assault on their school. As it sweeps across the wall we glimpse a drawing of an elephant. This is the only overt reference in the film to its title, though other critics have said it refers to the saying about our willful refusals to see an elephant in our living room; that is, to turn a blind eye to an enormity before us.
"Elephant" is obviously Van Sant's take on Columbine, a meditation on the coldness, lack of curiosity or empathy or even connectedness that haunts adolescence and the societal institutions that govern that fragile period. His camera simply follows (or leads) students through and around a conventional, single-story suburban high school near Portland, Ore. Though filmed in real time, sequence after sequence, the film covers a simultaneity; everything is happening at the same time. We see the two killers early on as they approach the school carrying their lethal baggage, but the film leaves them for an hour before picking them up again. In the meantime it follows, seemingly at random, single students, groups of friends, a teacher - always in long single takes down endless corridors with left or right turns that still lead nowhere. Three girls choose their lunches at the cafeteria, gossip and talk of shopping while they eat, put their trays away, head to the girls' bathroom, and vomit up everything. Another girl, homely and seemingly unloved by anyone at school, is too shy to undress in the locker room. Boys mingle, separate, head to and from class. Life is an endless round of repetitive activities. Classes are held but they seem tangential, less important than the corridors.
The film opens with a car weaving down a suburban street, clipping the sides of parked cars and finally discharging its student at school. But it is the boy's father, drunk at 8 in the morning, who has been driving. The boy takes the car keys, goes to the school office and phones his mother to come and pick up his father. Later the boy will be the only one to recognize the killers for what they plan to do. They even tell him to stay out of the building to save himself.
Some of this - though not the killings, of course - is reminiscent of Frederic Wiseman's documentary "High School," but Van Sant intends, I think, simply to let us in on the life of a school at the moment of its death. I understand his intention, but good intentions do not make good art. We end up where we began, as observers of both life and horror, without any place to go to learn, or understand, or even to acknowledge the antecedents of the acts. The two killers, played by Alex Frost and Eric Deulen, are unsolved mysteries and remain so from beginning to end. Van Sant gives not even a hint about them or their lives, though one act near the end reveals a particular pathology in one of them.
"Elephant" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, and has already inspired heated confrontations among its viewers, but it seems to me to show a flabbiness of thought, a refusal to bring more than a dispassionate observer's sensibility to the kinds of questions that art exists to illuminate. The story of such an assault is inherently powerful, even overwhelming, with echoes and overtones that could speak to our entire society; but Van Sant has run away from it, choosing instead to stay in the corridors, the endless corridors that lead noplace.