Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Elephant – Movie on HBO Last Night

Last night at 9:00 I watched a dramatization based on the Columbine Massacre.

A little history refresher that I found online:

On April 20, 1999, in the small, suburban town of Littleton, Colorado, two high-school seniors, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, enacted an all-out assault on Columbine High School during the middle of the school day. The boys' plan was to kill hundreds of their peers. With guns, knives, and a multitude of bombs, the two boys walked the hallways and killed. When the day was done, twelve students, one teacher, and the two murderers were dead. The haunting question remains: why did they do it?

From speed-reading a couple pages of the article, it seems that the movie was pretty accurate factually. I want to comment on the movie’s presentation mostly and its subtle interpretation of the events.

The movie intends to be an experimental, artsy film. There are lots of interesting things done with camera angles and transitions. For example, the camera often follows behind various students as they are walking through the school going about their business. The camera is focused directly behind them at head level so that you see the back of the student’s head and his or her upper torso. It is as if you are walking directly behind the students with only a couple of feet of space between you. Interesting as this is at first, the device becomes monotonous because each time we are held in this viewpoint well beyond a comfortable endurance. I read somewhere that video is an inherently boring media. This is true if you think about a security camera that just focuses on one spot and does not pan. You very quickly become bored watching the same view. Hence, in movies there are constant shifts in camera angles from panoramic to close up, focusing on one person then another, the person in profile, the person’s full face, etc.

I liked how this film spends time with several students, transitioning in and out of their lives. You get to know these students and get glimpses into their talents, friendships, hopes, dreams, and problems. You come to care about these students. Granted, some you like more than others. I think it is here that the film subtly emphasizes the waste of the murders. Youth, intelligence, talents, dreams, potential—all cut abruptly short.

I was struck by how large the school in the movie was. The hallways seemed endless. It seemed like the school was a maze on the scale of city blocks. Most of the rooms shown inside the school were incredibly spacious as well. You never saw the words Columbine on the school building or on the students’ clothing. There was some other name, probably a made up school name.

The treatment of the fictionalized “Dylan” and “Eric” in the film was interesting. They were portrayed as normal teenagers. They were not shown as blatantly evil. No maniacal laughing as they shot at people. No crazy eyes. No evil monologues about why they were doing this. No extreme outbursts of profanity. Instead, you are struck by how they are just normal and at times awkward kids walking through the hallways with guns shooting people, concentration and an almost serenity on their faces. That serenity was most unsettling. Earlier in the movie you see them take turns playing a video game on a laptop in which they shoot people in first person. It is the same calmness and concentration you see the next day in the hallways.

I don’t know if it was “Dylan” or “Eric” in the movie, but one of them was shown at length the day before the killing spree sitting at a piano playing music beautifully. I remember Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in particular played with great feeling. The irony of this gentle and sad song against what you knew was coming was eerie. The same boy was also a gifted drawer, and you saw his artwork on the wall at a distance. You wanted to get a better look at the artwork because from a distance it looked like it could have violence in it, but you are not sure.

The movie offers very little in the way of explaining why the shootings took place. The only meanness either of them suffered during the movie was during a physics class. The same one who could play the piano so beautifully was having food or some other white gunk flung at him and landing on his clothes as he sat in the back of the class by himself while the teacher was lecturing on atoms. There is also a brief scene where Dylan and Eric shower together and kiss.

Beyond the terrible cold-blooded shooting of their fellow students (some of them obviously not popular like Michelle who is the first person killed in the library), I only recall two incidents where their evilness was bumped up a couple of notches. One of them comes across the principal or vice principal of the school. After pointing a gun at the principal while the principal is cowering on the floor and saying how the principal shouldn’t mess with people, he says the principal can leave unharmed. As the principal gets up and runs away he is shot repeatedly in the back. The other incident is at the very end of the movie. The other shooter finds a jock (who was one of the boys flinging food at him earlier) and his girlfriend hiding in the cafeteria’s meat locker. He steps into the meat locker with them and points the gun from one to the other while they try to either reason with him or plead with him. As he alternates pointing the gun at the jock then the girlfriend he says: inny, meany, minny, moe, catch a tiger by its toe…..

Two inconsistencies bothered me in the movie that were not explained. Where did they get the money to buy all of these rifles and pistols? They even order an semi automatic assault rifle the day before the shootings, and it is delivered by a fictionalized FedEx/DHL delivery company the day of the shooting while the boys cut school and watch Nazi documentaries on TV. The other inconsistency is that they take the new assault rife in the garage and take turns firing it into a woodpile. You assume that they’ve shot into this wood pile before, so why haven’t their been inquires by neighbors about gunshots and why haven’t the police investigated?

I wonder about the film’s title: Elephant. Maybe it’s referring to how an elephant never forgets? Maybe that saying about people ignoring the elephant in the room?


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