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Monday, November 10, 2003
An open letter to Gus Van Sant, the director of "Elephant"
Let me start by saying I'm a fan of yours. Not a big one, just a fan. I consider "Drugstore Cowboy" to be the finest movie filmed in Portland (waaaaaaaaaaaaaay better than "The Hunted") and, unlike 95% of those who saw it, I enjoyed "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." You were trounced for last year's "Gerry" but I still stood by you. I argued that the movie was a interesting experiment that couldn't be criticized for its long takes and unusual direction. Despite its unorthodox storytelling, the story itself was fascinating and I loved the final shot. "Psycho," on the hand, is better left forgotten.
On Friday night, I went to the Fox Tower to see your new film, "Elephant," which was shot right here in Portland. The audience at the 7:30 showing was filled with kids that looked like extras from the movie. When your name came on the screen, they cheered.
In the first few minutes of the screening, a man with a middle-aged woman took the last two seats in the theater...right next to me. This man looked a lot like you (same bushy eyebrows and facial features) and spent the entire movie sitting on the edge of his seat. He intently watched the audience instead of the film with his hands held like someone praying.
It's my understanding that you recently moved from NYC into a loft in the Pearl District. I have no idea if this man was actually Gus Van Sant. If it was you, I refuse to apologize for what a colleague of mine said as the credits rolled. Yes, I too, cannot believe how unbelievably bad "Elephant" is.
When I say that your film is one of the worst ten films I've ever seen, it isn't an understatement. This is coming from a person that has sat through three of the "Isla" movies and has even seen both "Cool World" AND "100 Motels." None of these movies are as misguided, deplorable and ridiculous as "Elephant."
You began with an interesting concept. Reenact a fictional version of the Columbine killings in a real high school. You used real kids, real adults and improvised most of the dialogue. The utmost goal with your film was realism. Then why does "Elephant" seem so fake?
The film is populated with the most obvious of high school cliches- the dumb jock, the nerdy girl, the creative photographer, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. You even devote a good portion of screen time to a trio of cackling preppies straight out of "Clueless." Not content with this aforementioned stereotype, you even follow them into the bathroom where they purge their lunch.
Most of the film's running time is devoted to endless tracking shots of kids walking in and out of classrooms. It provides a dream-like effect but is hardly an honest depiction of a real-life high school. If these kids were wandering around like this, they'd be caught by hall monitors and sent back to class. Furthermore, why did you decide to waste so much screen time conveying nothing, avoiding the premise and the subject matter, when you've got such a fascinating topic sitting in your lap? You provide no character development so we have no reason to care about these kids when the bullets start flying.
Worst of all, you said this movie wouldn't provide easy answers- that it would be a cold, impartial look at teen violence. If that's the case, why do you show the killers watching Nazi propaganda films? Why do you show gratuitous shots of them playing violent video games? And, for God's sake, why, do you show them kissing in a shower.?!! If this film is impartial, then why have you depicted your main characters as goose-stepping, gay psychopaths? In those scenes in Alex's house you reconfirm every half-baked, moralistic theory surrounding Columbine. You pinpoint video games, the internet and even homosexuality. These ARE easy answers and they're all wrong.
In probably the most reprehensible shot that has ever appeared in an American film, one of the killer's brutally terrorizes a teacher in a hallway. The kid holds a gun to the man's head and then tells him he's off the hook. The teacher flees, and with an evil smile, he shoots him three times in the back. The scene is meant to be evocative and shocking- to induce nausea and tears. If a troubled kid watches this scene, do you think that's how they'll respond? If so, you're completely out of touch.
The scene glorifies murder. What troubled kid wouldn't respond to this by giggling and thinking "Coooool!" The final scene, where one killer plays "Eenie Meenie Mini Mo" with a pair of kids in a meat locker (!!!) will probably wind up on t-shirts in the near future.
Unlike "Gerry," this film has floored the critics and won the Palm d'Or. I can't understand why and can only conclude that no critic has the balls to condemn an "artsy" film dealing with such a sensitive topic. Roger Ebert inexplicably gave it four stars. He, like most of the critics that reviewed the film, has also not seen the inside of a high school in 30 years. Those at Cannes, far removed from American politics, can't relate or understand. I hate to be the one to tell you this but that Golden Palm of yours is the film equivalent of a tin badge.
Gus, your shots of the killers walking in slow motion with flames coming out of lockers looks like something out of a commercial for the Marines. You've made yourself a propaganda film for would-be Klebolds. This nihilistic film has nothing to say and will only further encourage teen violence. Congratulations, "Elephant" fails on nearly every level. It's probably for the best if it does the same at the box office.
Even if that guy wasn't you, you've likely seen this movie with an audience. I hope you got a good look at their response to "Elephant." It was probably rife with laughter and shaked heads. If, in the future, you decide to tackle a topic out of the newspaper, contact me at email@example.com. I will happily show up at your loft downtown and slap you upside the head.
PS: If someone fired a high-powered machine gun in an enclosed garage, it would tear their eardrums apart. Secondly, every cop in Portland would be there in five seconds.
PPS: The killer's Eminem mannerisms were incredibly lame and fake.
PPPS: I want my money back.