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We have an Elephant in our schools
A classic car drifts down a tree-lined street on a cool autumn day in Portland, Oregon, accompanied by Beethoven's "Fur Elise." Suddenly, it veers into a parked car. Emerging from the car is John, a teenager frustrated with his alcoholic father, who has once again made him late for school. The first image of rapture in Gus Van Sant's 2003 film Elephant is unexpectedly disturbed by the interior realities of the situation it portrays, a theme which is reoccurring in the film until the unsettling final frame. This undaunted sincerity makes the film an original piece of film and societal commentary, and should be viewed and discussed by teenagers and their parents to provide an understanding in themselves of pressures, anxieties, and violence among students today.
Elephant is a documentation of one day at an "ordinary" American high school, and the story of eight or so students who attend and become related, however indirectly, to an ensuing massacre initiated by two of their own. The title of the film has been described as a reference to a 1989 BBC Television film by Alan Clarke which explored acts of violence in Northern Ireland. However, portraying the controversial issue of causes and explanations of violence in schools has been compared to an adage about the "elephant in the living room" which is noisy and smelly, yet the human inhabitants refuse to acknowledge it and learn to live around it, hoping that it will go away. Unlike Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine, which described issues surrounding violence and gun control in America while pointing fingers, Elephant is careful to steer clear of the "usual suspects" and merely illustrate the facts as they unfold without bias or explanation.
John is a teenager whom we all have known or perhaps even been; an outsider who does not mold himself into a crowd and is always misunderstood, which labels him as "dangerous" or a "troublemaker." John's frequent tardiness has earned him a confrontation with the Principal and a seat in detention. On the way there, he leaves his father's car keys in the school office so that he can't drive himself home and ducks out of a crowded hallway to cry in an empty classroom. The camera trails in front of him the entire time as we shift from grasping his public persona to witnessing a personal moment. As he regains his composure he goes back into the hall where we meet Elias, a sociable boy obsessed with taking everyone's photograph. After taking a comical photo of John he heads into the library where we meet Michelle, a lonely, introverted girl with low-self esteem. In the girl's locker room she is teased by the popular girls in a spiteful manner which is hard to endure, and we get a sense that her everyday experience in high school is anxious and uncomfortable. The popular girls roam the school speculating about which boy is cuter and discuss their afternoon plans to go shopping, while a shift in perception places us in a private moment of theirs as they retire to the bathroom after lunch to induce vomiting. Their insecurities rooted in this incident mirror Michelle's, though each character cannot relate to each other as their shared pressures are internalized. This adds to the sense of disconnectedness among students who spend a major part of every day with each other. The drifting camera and absence of cuts allows us to see the incoherent landscape of high school in which there is no sense of community or belonging among students.
From that point on, the film alludes to an impending sense of doom. John heads outside on a lunch break and walks past Eric and Alex, two male students dressed in militant gear carrying large black bags, and asks what they're doing. "Nevermind," they respond. "Just don't go back in there." We then re-visit the previous day, where Alex is picked on in class by football jocks and breaks down with paranoid claustrophobia in the cafeteria. He pulls out a notepad and explores halls and rooms, taking notes. A girl asks what he's writing. "It's for my plan," he responds. "You'll see."
That evening, Alex and Eric peruse the internet for sites to buy guns. Alex plays a melody of "Fur Elise" and "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano while Eric plays a violent video game. They flip on the television and end up watching a documentary on Nazi Germany, while eating cereal and chatting cordially with Alex's mom. These incidences hint at what is to come but do not tell the viewer that each incident is directly related or responsible for what will happen. Each vignette is a commentary on media speculation about the 1999 incident at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Alex and Eric enact reasons brought up by the media to explain the reasoning inside the minds of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold: they were Neo-Nazis, they liked violent movies and video games, they were picked on in school. There is even a commentary on latent homosexuality when Eric joins Alex in the shower, stating "I guess we die today. I've never even kissed anybody." This incident, however, seems less like a sexual act than a cleansing ritual prior to their subsequent violent activities. Van Sant shows us that no one episode can explain what only years of numerous episodes can inevitably result a violent conclusion based on the perceptions and reactionary responses of the students. Certain incidents reflect Alex and Eric's desensitivity to their decisions which prove their actions have been years in the making. Before getting out of the car, Alex tells Eric in a collected manner, "most of all...have fun."
The collage of individuals in the film serves a very important purpose. Instead of making the everyday lives of the students the background of school violence, Van Sant makes it the central point. Sometimes showing the same seemingly casual encounter from numerous points of view invites the audience not just to look but to look closer. It's the closer look that gets at the problems that no one at school is noticing: John being driven to school by a drunk dad, who must drive himself and take away his dad's keys, only to get detention from a clueless principal. The closer look inside Elephant is impacting because it recognizes teenagers who have unwillingly had their childhood innocence taken away. They have been forced to grow up too fast on account of the many different conflicting voices in their social environment at school and in their personal lives.
The ensuing shooting itself becomes less of a point of interest in the film by the time it actually happens. The previous mood of unobtrusive camera-work and the detached, dreamy scenes are destroyed in the explosive shooting scene, which is merely there to confirm what we knew would happen all along. By the time the violence occurs, it almost seems like a natural extension of everything we've just seen; their social relations seem to harbor a hostility already ingrained in them.
The film's realism comes in part by Van Sant's style of anti-Hollywood themed storytelling. Not one character is a victim or a hero: some students we've encountered intersect with the killers and die, some are merely wounded, some are looked over, and others escape for no specific reason. One incident in which Van Sant circumvents standards of Hollywood film-making is in the introduction of the character of Benny ten minutes into the massacre. Benny is a tall, muscular African-American teenager who emerges from a flame-engulfed classroom and helps some students out the window. Benny walks confidently toward Alex as if to take the gun away and save the day. In that instant, Alex shoots Benny in the chest, killing him immediately. Film critic Roger Ebert commented on the power of this scene in relation to the style of the film, stating that "[...] the kid embodies all those movie heroes who walk into hostage situations and talk the bad guy out of his gun. But it doesn't happen like that, and Van Sant sidesteps all the conventional modes of movie behavior and simply shows us sad, sudden death without purpose."
The ultimate power of Elephant lies in its realism in presenting its subjects. Every shot is bathed in natural light, using ambient sounds of hallway chatter to echo the placid soundtrack. All characters in the film are portrayed by real high school students using their real names, the script merely an outline improvised by the unprofessional actors. This gives the film a documentary feel and lends credibility to the subsequent events. It is a violent movie in that the subject matter is violent and many innocent people are shot dead, though the presentation of violence and death in the film is not exploitative. There is no glittering pomp and flash, nothing is stylized, and there is no clear climax or resolution. By avoiding cuts in the film, Van Sant has let his visual strategy tell the story to present death in an honest, unflinching manner.
Elephant is a testament to creating works of art which say something about real life, and escapes from the rules of Hollywood, big-budget film-making by allowing its message to be supplied by the viewer. Exploring the public as well as private personas of its characters, presenting a controversial issue in an honest manner, and a refusal to provide explanations or answers allows the audience to reflect on their own prejudices, actions, and reasoning after experiencing the film. Elephant has provided a new perspective on the school violence issue by giving insight into the lives of the people who perpetuate and experience such violence. ****
A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
Action, Romance, Divine Intervention, and Karaoke!
Ewan McGregor, the incredible actor that unleashed his talents in 'Trainspotting,' joins the same writing and directing team in 1997's 'A Life Less Ordinary,' co-starring Cameron Diaz.
The movie starts off with Robert (Ewan McGregor) being fired from his job, dumped by his girlfriend and evicted from his house. In desperation he tries to force his boss to give him his job back but ends up kidnapping his daughter, Celine (Cameron Diaz). The two set out to hold Celine ransom for millions of dollars and share the ransom money. Enter the angels, Jackson (Delroy Lindo) and O'Reily (Holly Hunter), who were sent from heaven to ensure the couple falls in love. They enlist themselves as bounty hunters after Robert, mumbling about jeopardy being a sure-fire way to strike romance. The best parts of this movie are the three-dimensional characters, such as Walt the gas station attendant, the crazy dentist (Stanley Tucci) and the depressed, blunt boss of Ed's diner (Tony Shalhoub).
The story, although a bit unusual for the ordinary viewer, sparks enjoyment through humorous, well-rounded lines and vivid visual displays through Danny Boyle's masterminded direction. Hey - pick up the soundtrack, too!
Lola rennt (1998)
A breathtaking, action-packed love story...
Run Lola Run is a riveting, heart (and pavement) pounding epic choose-your-own-adventure. Written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Run Lola Run is the story of a girl, Lola, who receives a panicked phone call from her longtime boyfriend, Manni. Manni owes a mobster 100,000 marks and doesn't know what to do. Lola, desperate to save his life, reassures him that she can get the money to him by noon, when he must meet the mobster (that means, she has twenty minutes), or else Manni would rob a grocery store. From that moment on, the movie takes us through three stories of Lola's trials trying to get Manni's money in 20 minutes - and with every person she comes into contact with, their lives take on completely different forms, as shown by 30-second photo flash montages. On an originality scale, this film ranks a ten. Franka Potente, the actress that portrays our flame-haired heroine, does an exceptional job. From the first frame the film plunges into action and adventure with breakneck speed, and we find ourselves cheering for Lola right to the end.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Dreamy, poignant, captivating...a must-see!
The Virgin Suicides. Just the name may scare away viewers from this film. But if you are a fan of the 1993 novel, you will appreciate the way this vivid portrayal captures the spirit of love, life, and death. The story begins with an introduction to the Lisbon family. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon gave birth to five daughters: Cecile, Lux, Mary, Bonnie, and Therese, all ranging in ages from thirteen to seventeen. Following a suicide attempt from Cecile, her parents and sisters struggle to give her what they think she lacked before; love, attention, admiration. But somewhere along the way, Cecilia grew lost and constantly withdrew from many situations. One tragic night at a Lisbon party, Cecilia succeeds at committing suicide. What follows is a bittersweet experience in the girl's lives. The story is narrated by the neighborhood boys, who lust after the girls, collecting everything they can of theirs and holding meetings just to talk about the wonders of their forbidden fruit. After strict Mrs. Lisbon shuts the house in maximum security isolation, the girl's only contact with the outside world is through these boys. This poignant, beautiful drama, written and directed by newcomer Sofia Coppola, captures the smooth lifestyles of mid 1970s suburbia, along with the beauty and angst of teenage life. It shows us how deeply through the heart emotions can run, and how to get in touch with them. Kirsten Dunst, the beautiful and talented young actress that portrays the most rebellious of the sisters, is stunning and provacative. Her best work yet.