Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 18, 2005


Gus Van Sant got the title and the idea for his idiotic film about the 1999 Columbine High School massacre from Alan Clarke's "Elephant," a 1989 half-hour TV movie that follows Catholic and Protestant gunmen around Belfast. There is no explanation for the shootings that take place in the film. The word "elephant" comes from Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty who described the 'Troubles' as "having an elephant in your living room, getting in the way of everything - but after a while you learn to live with it." In other words, the Irish struggle was basically mindless killing without a political explanation.


My first encounter with one of Van Sant's films was the 1989 "Drugstore Cowboy," that told a fairly interesting story about a young junky. It was notable mostly for a cameo appearance by William S. Burroughs who played a priest! Three years later he made the horribly mannered "My Own Private Idaho" that I walked out on after perhaps fifteen minutes. But he is best known for the saccharine "Good Will Hunting" that was co-written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who also co-starred.


Out of curiosity, I watched "Elephant" on HBO last night, which also produced the 2003 film. It can best be described as a Frederick Wiseman documentary with a mass murder tacked on at the climax. There is no attempt to get inside the heads of the two teen-aged killers. In the moments leading up to the shooting, we watch them assembling their weaponry as they stare at a History Channel type documentary on the rise of Hitler. Just before they leave for school, they kiss each other while showering. Is Van Sant, who is gay himself, trying to explain the shootings as a reaction to homophobia? Or does he view the two killers as latter-day versions of Leopold and Loeb, the two gay youths who kidnapped and murdered Bobby Franks just out of a Nietzschean ambition to transcend good and evil? Oh, I forgot. The whole purpose of the film was to avoid explanations. That would be too uncool.


"Elephant" won the top prize at Cannes two years ago, only a year after Moore won a prize for "Bowling for Columbine," a typical documentary from the liberal director that blamed the military-industrial culture around Columbine for the tragedy. (I discuss it at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left/MichaelMoore.htm.)


Van Sant told the Independent on January 18, 2004 that he refused to explain the events because that would be "boring": "This is something the boys have decided to do before the film has started, so what you're watching are the machinations of the event itself. The idea is to get the audience to think about what they believe are the causes, not for the film-maker to tell you. If I did that I'd just be making a holiday movie. It would be boring."


But in a November 8, 2003 Washington Post article, he suggests that the youths might be understood in terms of Pol Pot: "Something went terribly wrong here. And the audience will find itself not identifying the kids as evil, but the event. It's an emergence of something that might be as shocking as a larger evil . . . like the Khmer Rouge killing the Cambodian population."


Actually, the massacre was easily understood as an extreme reaction to bullying that was facilitated by easy access to automatic weapons. Back in June of 1998, Stephen Jay Gould spoke on "Science and Human Destructiveness" at the Brecht Forum in New York City. I reported:


"Gould said that the problem we face today is that science has produced potentially death-producing technologies which are far more 'productive' than those of the past. When mankind only had spears and bows and arrows at its disposal, genocide was less feasible. Today, nuclear weapons make it highly feasible."


On a much smaller scale, that seems to be what went on at Columbine High School.