Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Gus Van Sant quotes the title of a British film of the late 80s by Alan Clarke, Elephant, as the inspiration for his title: the challenge to notice social problems which are as large as an elephant in the living room. He also alludes to a Buddhist saying about identifying the parts and limbs of an elephant and assuming that one has, therefore, understood the whole.
This is a useful comment to offer to many critics who have complained that the film gives little or no insight into the characters and motivations of students who carry out campus shootings. If Michael Moore had too many answers in Bowling for Columbine, Van Sant seems to have too few.
What he seems to be doing (and the film was made for an American television audience who watch Home Box Office), is to lure us into an ordinary day at a Portland, Oregon, high school, make us literally follow a number of students around (lots of tracking shots which are very long), see them in action, even if only in passing, just as we might do if we had occasion to visit the school for the first time. We notice some students, not others.
We see the principal, a science class, a group discussion about sexual orientation, the playing fields, the cafeteria. We can identify a couple of students and know a little about them.
And then comes the Columbine-like massacre. Of course, we want answers. Of course, we want to understand motivations. We find it hard to believe that the killers can be so calculating and cold, proud of their body count. Yes, they watch Hitler footage, have neo-Nazi sympathies and have a sexual encounter in the shower before they go to school. One plays Beethoven on the piano. No, this does not explain what they do. The indications seem quite banal. But, Van Sant seems to want us to note the banalities and leave us with the questions that we need to pursue after the film. It is no good giving answers in a film if that means we satisfy a need for dramatic completion. The elephantine issues of American youth and alienation, gun-culture and violence are to be understood and solved after the movie.
Fr Peter Malone is the International President of SIGNIS: the World Association for Catholic Communicators and an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.