2003, Movie, R, 81 mins


The winner of the top prize at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Gus Van Sant's controversial, remarkably sensitive treatment of the kind of teenage violence that reached a terrible apotheosis with the massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School is his finest work since MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO. The virtually plotless film literally follows several students (the camera trails close behind in long takes) during what seems like an ordinary day, until their lives are suddenly interrupted by gunfire. John (John Robinson) arrives at school with his alcoholic father (Timothy Bottoms), who's too drunk to drive, babbling in the passenger seat. Aspiring photographer Elias (Elias McConnell) cuts through a park and stops to take pictures of a couple of punks for his portfolio. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves football practice and meets his girlfriend, Carrie (Carrie Finklea). Acadia (Alicia Miles) attends a meeting of the school's gay-straight alliance. Michelle (Kristen Hicks) endures cruel snickers from other girls as she awkwardly undresses in the locker room after gym. Brittany (Brittany Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Taylor) and Nicole (Nicole George) pick at their food in the cafeteria, then throw up in the girls' room. And Alex (Alex Frost), who's minding his own business in the back of a classroom, is targeted by class jocks who pelt him with spitballs as soon as the teacher's back is turned. A chance meeting in a hallway between John and Elias, periodically shown throughout the film from a variety of perspectives, alerts us that much of what we're seeing is actually happening simultaneously, and what at first appears to be a random arrangement of long takes is actually the slowly mounting and excruciatingly suspenseful prelude to an apocalypse. Van Sant's recent experiments with duration, inspired by the Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, are put to better use here than in his previous film, the tedious GERRY. As the camera trails close behind the students in real time, their worlds coalesce around them and we see that, much like the elephant in the parable of the blind men, high school can be a very different beast to different people: a creative haven, a social hub, a nightmare. And like the violence in Alan Clarke's Elephant, the BBC documentary about Northern Ireland from which the film takes its name, Van Sant offers no straightforward reasons for what happens at this particular school. The explosion of violence is far from unmotivated, but its roots are presented as deeply personal and, even more troubling, ultimately inexplicable. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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