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Gus Van Santís films of late have divided into sentimental box-office hits with little formal inventiveness (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) and formal experiments with little feeling or commercial potential (Psycho, Gerry). Elephant, which addresses his most loaded subject yet, is his most contrived and affectless. If only as a triumph of æsthetic perversity, perhaps, it should be seen.

But not for any insight into the demons that spawned nightmares like the Columbine shootings. Rigorously superficial and dispassionate, it doesnít have the substance to be exploitative. Despite ó or because of ó winning Best Director and the Palme díOr at Cannes, Elephant has since stirred little audience interest or outrage. The title comes from Alan Clarkeís 1989 BBC short "Elephant," which is about school violence in Northern Ireland; Clarke is alluding to the saying that such a problem is as easy to ignore as an elephant in a living room. In the case of Van Santís film, the title has proved very ironic indeed.

I had high hopes during the first 10 minutes. The opening scene, with golden leaves skittering along the chartered streets and front yards of a nowhere Portland suburb, recalls the beginning of John Carpenterís Halloween. You can almost hear the opening bars of Blue Öyster Cultís "Donít Fear the Reaper." A car weaves almost out of control down the street ó metaphor alert! At the wheel is a drunken George Bush himself ó well, an actor whoís portrayed him on television (Thatís My Bush! and D.C. 9/11: Time of Crisis), Timothy Bottoms. Here heís Mr. McFarland, dad to John (John Robinson), whoís late for school tending to his besotted father and gets punished for his troubles by the mean principal (donít worry, heíll get his). But donít get too interested in Johnís story, heís just a device to focus a camera on. That camera follows his route through the school and his intersections with other students whose routes are followed and refollowed from different points of view in a pseudo-Tarantino-esque video game that culminates in the inevitable, pointless blood bath.

And what does the narrative labyrinth finally reveal? The same clichés. The targets include vapid bulimics, a hunky jock, a sensitive ugly duckling. This last student looks up in one scene as if hearing the strains of "Für Elise" on the soundtrack. In fact, the tune is being played by Alex ( Alex Frost), the Clockwork Orange namesake whose pie-faced blandness conceals a reptilian ruthlessness. Together with his pal Eric (Eric Duelen), Alex will bring a merciful end to many of his fellow ciphers.

As for the killerís reasons and whoís responsible, I donít think Van Sant particularly cares. There are glimpses of the usual suspects ó bullying classmates, repressed homosexuality, mail-order assault weapons, postmodern ennui. And, of course, video games: Alex plays one, and it wonít take you long to realize that the movie youíre watching is meant to look like the game he plays. Which might be Van Santís point: how could video games, or movies that look like them, inspire violence when this one arouses no emotions at all? (81 minutes) At the Kendall Square and the Coolidge Corner.

Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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