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Columbine film refuses the easy answers

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The oddly titled "Elephant," written and directed by Gus Van Sant, amazed almost everyone by taking the top prize at last spring's Cannes Film Festival.

The movie had polarized its viewers into very vocal camps. One side applauded it for exploring American violence in a poetic, meditative fashion. The other side decried it for the very same reason.

Mr. Van Sant borrowed his title from a 1989 short by British filmmaker Alan Clarke, which shows political violence in Northern Ireland as an outpouring of arbitrary mayhem traceable to no clear, rational cause. The new "Elephant" also shows violence as a huge, powerful beast that's as hard to understand as it is inescapably present in our environment.

Based on the Columbine High School shootings that rocked Colorado and the nation four years ago, "Elephant" starts with a long, leisurely depiction of an ordinary day at an Oregon school. Students attend classes, wander hallways, play sports, drift in and out of casual encounters, and show their feelings toward one another with typical teenage candor.

Among them are Eric and Alex, modeled on the Columbine shooters. All the film's characters have the same first names as the actors who play them, suggesting that there's no crisp division between real life and the fictions that mirror it. It's also worth noting that Alex is the name of the brutal antihero of "A Clockwork Orange," another movie that dared to look random violence straight in the eye.

At first "Elephant" seems like an artfully made, even lyrical "day in the life" kind of tale, with the camera gliding effortlessly, almost dreamily through the school.

But gradually you realize its timeline is somewhat scrambled - the same small events are shown multiple times, from the perspectives of different participants.

No violence occurs until long into the movie, and when it finally does erupt, the contrast with earlier scenes makes it almost as shocking in motion-picture terms as an actual shooting must seem to the people whose lives it abruptly explodes.

What causes the horror? We see Eric and Alex playing violent video games, but we also see Alex playing Beethoven on the piano; we see the boys kiss just before the shooting, but as an openly gay filmmaker, Van Sant surely doesn't blame homosexuality. In short, he gives no pat or easy answers. Instead he makes us squirm, worry, and think. That's why "Elephant' is a must-see movie.

Rated R; contains violence, vulgar language, and sexuality.


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