Cinema Signal:

School of Dreams:
Making the Grade at a Top American High School

. "Elephant"

Writer-director Gus Van Sant stretches the lexicon of filmmaking with a stylized technique of cinematic storytelling outside the known genre norms. His camera fluidly and sometimes lyrically follows students in a high school in very long takes, watching as they go about their activities and giving us a surface idea of who they are and how they experience the high school phenomenon. That their experience will become unique in some way is best left for you to discover in the final act.

John (John Robinson) needs to bring his dad (Timothy Bottoms) under control when dad's driving demonstrates that he's once more been nipping the bottle, a reality that grips John with sadness as he arranges for his brother to help. Once again he makes himself late for class and has to deal with a worsening attendance record and an unsympathetic administrator.

Eli (Elias McConnell) is pursuing still photography and takes photographs of a young punk-style couple in the park and of John during a brief meeting in the hall. After developing his film in the school darkroom, he pursues other subjects.

School hunk Nate (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field to meet up with gorgeous girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea), stirring waves of feminine interest as he passes an inseperable trio of girls hanging in the hallway, Brittany, Jordan and Nicole. We pick this group up later as they make their way to the cafeteria, gossiping and arguing about the depth of their friendship.

Alex (Alex Frost) goes home and practices piano. He and video game playing buddy Eric (Eric Deulen) hang out until a package arrives that will cause them to return to school later to carry out a plan.

Painfully inward Michelle (Kristen Hicks) gets chewed out about not wearing standard shorts for gym and rushes to her volunteer job in the library.

Time cutting these extended vignettes brings us to encounters we've seen before from different perspectives, all of it adding up to a sense of an almost typical school day for these characters we see in sliced up streams of behavior.

John is leaving to find dad when he passes Alex and Eric returning to school in strange apparel. Michelle rushes past Eli photographing John in order to get to the library. There's a checkerboard pattern to it, and an experience with a filmmaker trying something new and different. It somehow fits the subject matter. It doesn't get into psychology or character depth but it doesn't try to. In fact, it makes a point of avoiding it, as though behavioral motivation is a cliche.

The idea is for you to have a knowledge of these kids as they deal with individual experience. High school can be educational, stimulating, boring, lonely, friendly, romantic and traumatic. In this variety, Van Sant makes a case for something we already knew while his main message seems to be that what we know about a person will not necessarily anticipate extreme behavior. Stereotyping is not to be trusted. But, in over-promoting this notion, Van Sant distorts the validity of profiling, something that occasionally proves useful in a law enforcement context.

After seeing "Elephant", you may feel that an important dimension is missing, like unlying causality. Or, you may take its "this is how it is" approach as adequately illuminating and complete. Van Sant had his Director of Photography Harris Savides wisely use 35mm film and natural light, supporting the consistent tone of naturalism among his cast of mostly first time non-pro actors. The intricate steadicam work was tirelessly executed by Matias Mesa.

The title's derivation, according to press notes, is twofold. One interpretation is that it comes from the phrase, "it's like an elephant in your living room -- it can't be ignored", a concept that applies here. The other, equally applicable, is the story about the blind men who each feel a different part of an elephant and come up with their individual conclusions about what it is. Doesn't that describe the high school experience?

Van Sant is not a director with a long filmography. But a glance at his films will tell you that he's one to watch. My vote goes to his more scripted efforts, like the worthy "Finding Forrester" and the virtuous "Good Will Hunting."

The miscalculation that was the remake of "Psycho" may have jarred his career flight momentum, but the consistency in his output is a creative intelligence that exploits strong character development within firm story structure. "Elephant" is a fine experiment, one that will not be universally successful or critically applauded. It may have won him the Palme D'or and Best Director awards at the Cannes Film Festival, but its festival appealing style and subject matter is not likely to transfer well into mainstream preferences.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
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I disagree with the review
Site Rating: 5

In my opinion, "Elephant" is the worst movie I have ever paid to see. First of all this movie is not even remotely entertaining. I almost fell a sleep during the first 20 minutes. The scenes are way too drawn out and there is no real plot. Gus van Sant captures the realities of a typical high school without capturing the audience. Bottomline this movie stinks! Save your time and money.

                                                          ~~ Tim I.

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