Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Tuesday, February 24, 2004  

One of the more intriguing films of the year was Gus Van Sant's Elephant. The French loved it: not only did it win Cannes, but was nominated for a Cesar and won the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics award for foreign film. At home, it garnered a sum total of three critical nominations from the myriad awards-givers: two nominations for cinematography (won one), and a nomination for best director (Gus lost).

On Metacritic, a website that gives aggregate scores on films based on reviews from 30 news sources, Elephant rated a respectable 67. But that score conceals the vast range of opinion reviewers had. Ratings ranged by 90 points, from 10 to 100--the broadest span I've seen. Eleven critics ranked it in their top ten--the same number as critically acclaimed Spellbound. What's especially fascinating is that reviewers loved and hated the same elements.

Ebert: "It simply looks at the day as it unfolds, and that is a brave and radical act; it refuses to supply reasons and assign cures, so that we can close the case and move on."

Christian Science Monitor (David Sterrit): "Van Sant gives no pat or easy answers. Instead he makes us squirm, worry, and think. That's why Elephant is a must-see movie."

Baltimore Sun (Michael Sragow): "The parable sums up the futility of finding the truth in any one man's observations. But the film itself is an exercise in frustration. Van Sant is too determined to show the impossibility of gleaning anything useful from a day in the life of high-school kids before they kill or are slaughtered."

New York Daily News (Jami Bernard): "A movie that takes impartiality to new places artistically. The film is infuriating."

Some great films are universally loved and acclaimed--The Godfather, for example. Elephant is in a second category of art: the controversial. In many ways, making a controversial film is harder than making a great film--finding that ribbon of gray area and exploiting it effectively is a tall order. Subtle changes in emphasis can turn a controversial film bad pretty easily.

I personally found Elephant revelatory. It's a meditation on human behavior, starting at the place that murderers possess the same emotional range as non-murderers. (Plot thumbnail: Elephant explores the lives of high schoolers on a day shattered by Columbine-like shootings; the two kids who commit the murders are in the ensemble, but their roles are not emphasized.) It explicitly avoids issuing a moral position, because Van Sant recognized that the moment a moral judgment is made, exploration and understanding stop.

Watching the film unfold, seeing the naivete in everyone's experience, it's hard to regard the shootings as a simple, dismissible act of evil or madness. In particular, watching what happens to the kids as they progress along the shooting spree, as madness comes to them, it's not even possible to regard them solely as perpetrators.

It's not surprising that some people loved it and others hated it: as a viewer, that's an uncomfortable place to find yourself.

posted by Jeff | 8:22 AM |
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