Readers who saw Gus Van Sant’s last movie Gerry at last year’s Sydney Film Festival will be better prepared for the style of Elephant, which is Van Sant’s take on kids and high school shootings. Unlike Michael Moore’s popular documentary about America’s gun culture Bowling For Columbine, Elephant is a meditative, dream-like view of life in an ordinary, unnamed high school on a single fall day. Van Sant put out a casting call to high school students in Portland, Oregon, and put together a cast largely consisting of non-actors who were asked to improvise dialogue based on their own life experiences.
Kids wander in and out, girls plan to go shopping, birds sing, the sun shines and some kids plan to kill. Van Sant has above all painted a picture of parents and teachers who are largely oblivious and absent and kids who are so isolated that only video games and high-powered guns seem real.
Within the gay community Van Sant is best known for writing and directing My Own Private Idaho (1991), but the openly gay 50-something Kentucky native has had an eclectic career to say the least and his films range from indie to homoerotic to very mainstream.
Many of Van Sant’s films are stories about men and boys and in Gerry (2002) he returned to his indie roots telling a tale of two guys lost in the Badlands. This was a very experimental film featuring improvised dialogue and no narrative. Van Sant continues that style of storytelling in this latest film, and Elephant won him Best Director and Best Film at Cannes in 2003.
Elephant has well and truly divided critics. The British press on the whole hated the film and the Americans were divided between those who saw it as Van Sant’s greatest work and those who saw it as meaningless gobbledegook. Some of the controversy centres on the kiss-in-the-shower scene between the two boys who have just watched Nazi propaganda and plan to kill their school mates for fun. This isn’t the only gay connection; one of the scenes in the film is a portrayal of a student Gay Straight Alliance meeting. Both moments seem oddly placed and like everything else in the film are unexplained. Are the boys gay -“ is this why they are isolated and picked on?
For Van Sant there are no obvious or easy answers. The elephant of the title refers to a fable about four blind people feeling parts of an elephant and each describing it differently because none of the individuals has an idea of the whole.
Elephant is an oddity but thought-provoking and will appeal to those who liked the style of Gerry. Elephant screens at the Chauvel Cinema, Paddington, and at Dendy cinemas from this week.