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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
from Film Forum, 11/20/03

In naming his new film Elephant, director Gus Van Sant is referring to the problems that face high schoolers today, big dangerous problems that nobody wants to talk about.

While the brutal murders committed by disturbed high school boys at Columbine High School are not the subject of this film, the events portrayed are remarkably similar. Van Sant, the hit-and-miss director of My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, and the recent Psycho remake, films his drama as though it were a documentary. He follows several characters down the halls as if merely documenting a day in the life of a high school. But he also follows two boys whose response to insecurity and frustration becomes one of deadly violence.

"The film certainly has a feeling of reality to it," says Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus). "Gus Van Sant … gives us a look at the events without being judgmental. It doesn't try to justify anything. It doesn't try to explain anything. We just see what happens. We are left to ask all the 'why?' questions for ourselves."

Stef Loy, in a guest review at my own review site Looking Closer, writes, "Van Sant so boldly revisits the horror of Columbine, one has to wonder whether or not Americans are ready to experience this film. It is true that we need to address the violence that is plaguing our educational system. But the lines between education and entertainment tend to blur in the medium of film, and there will most likely be many that disapprove of the film purely on the basis of its subject matter."

Movieguide's critic say it "comes across as a pointless, aimless exercise," and catalogues potentially offensive elements that many high schoolers experience in school almost every day.

Enough viewers found Elephant a significant enough "exercise" to award it the most esteemed prize in the international film community: the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. Mainstream critics offer an array of differing views on the film, but most praise Van Sant's achievement as an important and provocative work.

from Film Forum, 12/04/03

This week, Craig Scott, one of the high school students who survived the Columbine shootings, wrote to us in objection to the Film Forum coverage of Gus Van Sant's award-winning film Elephant. Scott writes:

I was very 'in the middle' of what happened that day of the Columbine shooting. I was in the school library where most of the killings took place. I had two friends killed next to me, and later that day found out my sister, Rachel Joy Scott, was the first one killed.
I am writing to you about your article … about this new movie Elephant. I believe this movie is going to do a lot of harm, and I would like to share my unique perspective on the Columbine shooting and the effect this kind of movie can have.Elephant … is a terrible movie for a number of reasons. First, it makes the two killers in the movie look 'cool' and rather glorifies them. Second, letting kids that are picked feel related to the two killers in the movie and the actual shooters helps them to justify in their mind that if they are 'picked on,' they can then go kill their fellow students and blow up their school. Third, this movie has the most violent bloody shooting scene of any movie I have ever seen. It is terrible. Fourth, like the filmmaker wanted, the movie has no point, no message. But that's not the true case with Columbine. It did happen for a reason. There were reasons Eric and Dylan, the two boys, try to kill as many people as they could.One day we (America) just might have a school that is literally blown up and instead of 15 dieing, hundreds or even thousands could die. This movie is a potential factor for some unstable teen to do just that.I didn't like the article that was posted on the website. I don't know who wrote it. But it was very ignorant of them to write that in such a way that made it seem as if the filmmaker has done a good thing and has "opened our eyes" to the violence occurring in our nation's schools. Everyone is aware of the violence problem. Believe me, this movie will do nothing positive for teens who watch it. I know. I still am one.

First, my thanks to Mr. Scott for writing in with his thoughts and feelings. We greatly appreciate input from readers about their own experiences at the cinema.

Secondly, I must say to Mr. Scott that I cannot comprehend what he has been through, and my condolences go out to him, his family, and his community.

I must also clarify that it is the goal of Film Forum to draw attention to the different things being said about films by religious press critics and by the mainstream media. This encourages a more informed and intelligent dialogue about art, entertainment, and ethics. When I composed Film Forum's coverage of Van Sant's Elephant two weeks ago, rather than posting my own opinion on the film—which I cannot do until I see it—I only linked to other interesting views of the film from established religious press critics. These opinions were not intended to represent the opinion of Christianity Today. In this case, we linked to the review by Stef Loy, Darrell Manson, and a critic at Movieguide.

It is also worth noting that these critics included grave reservations about the film, which stands in stark contrast to the views of some mainstream critics, who celebrate it as a grand work of art.

Further, it is worth noting that Gus Van Sant's film does not claim to be a recreation of the events at Columbine, but rather is an artistic exploration of the problem of violence in schools. There are many parallels, but it is not meant to be an exact representation. It is R-rated for good reason, and should be considered inappropriate viewing for younger viewers. (Teenagers old enough to attend without a parent should exercise extreme caution.)

In the responses of the critical community to Elephant (it won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year) there have definitely been complaints about the alleged-indifference of Van Sant's perspective. But few have come away arguing that the director "glorifies" the violence. They instead tend to argue that the film wants to force us to face a reality that many would rather ignore. As Flannery O'Connor said, "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures." Each viewer must approach this, as any work of art, with personal discernment, listening to their conscience, judging whether or not this is a profitable way to spend their time and attention. I imagine that anyone who has suffered from this sort of violence would not be the ideal audience for such a film as Elephant. Someone who ignores the problem of this sort of violence, or someone just beginning to think about it, might find art about the subject to be provocative and revealing.