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Elephant

HBO // R // May 4, 2004
List Price: $27.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted April 23, 2004 | E-mail the Author

The
Movie


Elephant, the latest film from eclectic
director Gus Van Sant, is probably closer in spirit to his ill-advised remake of
Psycho
than any
other film in his body of work, and that is not necessarily a criticism.


The grand winner of the esteemed Golden Palm at the 2003
Cannes Film Festival, Elephant stirred up a hornet's nest worth of
debate and controversy even before its premiere. The film is a striking
tone-poem that examines a horrific event that scorched American public
consciousness and generated an extensive dance-card worth of debate: the 1999
Columbine High School massacre. Elephant




is neither a documentary nor an insipid, message-filled "Movie of the
Week"; the school portrayed in the film is situated in Portland, Oregon, and the
characters have names and personalities that differ from the real-life victims.
In Van Sant's film, reality is refracted through artificiality, a technique
which makes the film haunting, chillingly effective, and, while undeniably a
potent, riveting work, ultimately pointless (more on that in a bit.)


Elephant is also notable as a continuation of
Van Sant's return to his independent roots that began with the release of last
year's ponderous but rewarding Gerry. After making a name for himself
as one of the most gifted auteurs in American Independent Cinema with such films
as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant
achieved mainstream Hollywood success with Finding Forrester, To
Die For
, and the multi-Oscar-winning (and $100+ million
grossing) Good Will Hunting. Elephant





, with its long takes, deliberate pacing, recursive and multi-layered
chronological structure, and full-frame aspect ratio, radiates with the essence
of independent cinema from Frame One. Van Sant is not interested in polemics: he
provides no explanations for the massacre, nor does he delineate motivations or
repercussions. There are no pontifications over such insipid talk-radio topics
as gun control, violence in the media, permissive parenting, school prayer, or
personal responsibility. The film begins and ends abruptly, without resolution,
climax, or closure.


There are hints, symbols and allegories scattered
throughout the film, of course. The opening scene features a parent driving his
child to the school on the day of the massacre, intoxicated behind the wheel,
swerving and side-swiping cars along the way. In one haunting scene, one of the
teen killers is shown playing a beautiful rendition of Beethoven's Fur
Elise
on the piano while another is furiously pounding away at a laptop computer, gunning
people down in a Doom




-styled
video game (upon completion of the piece, the teen then gives the piano the
finger after slamming his hands down on the keyboard.) Cinematic nods are given
towards topics like alienation, bullying, bulimia, proliferation of firearms,
obsession, homosexuality, and rage, topics that comprise a mosaic of reasons
that might have caused something like Columbine to occur.


So why is Elephant so similar in spirit to the
Psycho remake? In essence, the
film is little more than a recreation of a horrific event burned into the public
psyche, much as a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock is both completely familiar
yet viewed through a new set of eyes. We know what's going to happen, yet we
examine it through a different lens.


In structure, the entire film is a middle-act, lacking
introduction, climax, or epilogue. In many ways, Elephant exists
without reason in and of itself; without public knowledge of the events of April
20, 1999, the film lacks context. Characters are introduced, with varying levels
of depth into their personalities, but they are ultimately set up as dominoes to
be knocked down later. To a modern audience, Elephant




is both intimately familiar and horribly
distant. As Van Sant maneuvers characters like chess pieces into such areas as
the cafeteria or the library, we as the audience know that these settings will
be the prime locations of the massacre. When one of the characters walks outside
as the two killers walk into the frame garbed in fatigues and clutching duffel
bags, we know exactly what is about to transpire. Four years later, these events
are still fresh in our minds and fiercely debated. But without this level of
context and awareness, the film lacks self-sufficiency.


And while this seems like a minor nit-pick, the film loses points for
engaging in the overused cinematic cliché of having one of the killers move the
barrel of his rifle between two potential victims while reciting the "Eenie
Meenie Meinie Moe" chant. It was groan-inducing before, and it hasn't changed
over time.


That having been said, there is so much to admire in
Elephant that one might
almost forget such criticisms. Van Sant's direction is tight, focused and
chilling. The fractured timeline shows events from different angles and
contexts, allowing scenes that seem throwaway in nature at first to be given far
more resonance as the film progresses. Performances across the board are
phenomenal; the "teen actors" throughout the movie appear far more like "teens"
rather than "actors". Each uses their real first name as the name of their
character, giving the movie an air of validity in a film that seems lost in
abstraction. There has been much talk about the explicit homosexuality shared
between the teen killers, or of the "off screen" violence that occurs. Rumors
and debate have circulated over the relationship between the two real-life
killers vis-à-vis whether or not they were lovers, but in the film it is shown
to be true. As far as the "off screen" violence: forget it. While some of the
violence is implied, most of the shootings are explicitly depicted in bloody
detail. The film eschews cheap and gratuitous gore and exploitation in favor of
presenting the horror in a chilling, methodical and realistic manner.


style="COLOR: mediumblue"> >The DVD


> >style="COLOR: mediumblue"> >Video:


Elephant is presented in two aspect ratios:
it's original full-frame theatrical aspect ratio, and a cropped 16x9
anamorphic transfer for your widescreen-viewing pleasure. Now it's time for your
humble reviewer to name-drop; I first saw Elephant last July at the
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and Gus van Sant came out to introduce
the film. This was one of the first screenings of the film after Cannes, and it
took place in the largest theater with a packed audience. Even then, it was
projected and exhibited full-frame. The film was originally produced for HBO,
and only later was it submitted for competition at Cannes. There might be a few
voices decrying the full-frame transfer as "pan-and-scan" or "not what the
director intended." Bullcrap. I'm a fierce supporter
for OAR in all its potential forms, and the 1.33:1 transfer is indeed the
Original Aspect Ratio. Really.




















Now before you think I'm completely full of myself (it
might be a little late for that), let's get back to the video. The transfer
is, for the most part, pretty strong. Color levels are vibrant and sufficiently
rich, with excellent chromatic spread, deep blacks, and sharp brights. Other
scenes display a more pallid, muted tone, and these scenes are well
rendered. Contrasts are spot-on throughout, especially as the film switches
between warmer, more natural levels and harsher, more highly-contrasted scenes.
If anything, some of the contrasts might be a tad excessive; there is some
noticeable edge-enhancement and haloing throughout the film. This is nothing too
excessive, but it is present. Sharpness levels vary from extremely impressive
(with some impressive image detail) to the slightly soft, but the overall
quality is extremely positive. Grain structure is apparent in many of the darker
scenes, retaining the original film-like appearance. Overall, a winning and
enjoyable transfer marred by some edge-enhancement and a little bit of
softness.




















> >style="COLOR: mediumblue"> >Audio:


The audio is presented both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. A
2.0 channel is also included, as well as mono presentations of the film in both
French and Spanish. The DTS and DD mixes are fairly similar, with some volume
enhancements noticeable in the DTS track. The DTS also has a slightly more
expansive soundfield, thus giving it a slight edge over the DD mix. However,
both are pretty engaging throughout. Elephant is a quite film, given to
bouts of explosive punctuation, and these diverse elements are solidly
delivered. Dialog levels are bright and display fine clarity. Surrounds are used
aggressively and immersively, sinking the viewer directly into the din of your
average high school corridor. You are literally surrounded by echoes,
conversations, laughter, and distant audio cues that often tie into scenes that
occur later (or earlier) in the film. The soundtrack displays fine fidelity and
dynamic range, with punching use of LFE and directional effects. This is an
impressive audio delivery.





















> >style="COLOR: mediumblue"> >Extras:







The only
extra of note is a featurette entitled On the set of the
film "elephant": rolling through time
. This thirteen-minute documentary
features some behind-the-scenes footage filmed on the set, interviewing many of
the young actors who lent their talents in the creation of Elephant.
Director van Sant is also heavily featured. While he doesn't provide much in
terms of interview or commentary, we do see a lot of him setting up shots and
providing instruction to his cast and crew. As an aside, I noticed that, for
such a somber and serious-minded film, there was a lot of horseplay
going on and around the set. Kids will be kids, I suppose. Honestly, what
was I expecting? Hundreds of kids sitting around listening to Rufus Wainwright
and reading the poetry of Adrienne Rich? Sheesh. Anyway, there's not a lot of
meat to this documentary, but it makes for a decent if not entirely memorable




addition.












Also
included is the film's theatrical trailer and a promotional
video for HBO Films




.







Final
Thoughts:







So why is
the film called Elephant? It might have to do with the joke
about how every body part seems like that of an elephant to a blind man. Or it
could be related to the proverb of the elephant in the living room that everyone
tries to ignore. The blind and the ignorant -- is that America before Columbine?
Afterwards? Gus Van Sant doesn't answer the question, nor does he try to.
Elephant is a song, a poem, a lyrical representation of history that
encapsulates without annotation. Van Sant's gripping if frustrating film is a
chilling and haunting examination that suffers because of its umbilical
dependency and link to the collective nightmares of contemporary American
popular culture. While flawed, Elephant








is a
compelling film that acts as
a powerful, rousing chorus to a song that demands the audience to provide opening
and closing verses, a lyrical bridge without origin or destination.


While the
disc is somewhat light on extras, the presentation of the film is top-notch. So
if you're looking for impressive video and audio, you'll definitely find it
here. The film is undeniably powerful, if still inherently flawed. Yet
throughout the entire proceedings I could not take my eyes off of
Elephant











, and the DVD definitely merits a strong recommendation.

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