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Cheap Shots

In Elephant, Gus Van Sant aims for an objective look at teen shootings in America, but his art-house approach is way too cool for school.

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Student Bodies: Alicia Miles and John Robinson in Elephant.  

Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is a lurid tease posing as an art film. Starring mostly nonactors improvising much of their own dialogue, it’s about a Columbine-style high-school shooting in suburban Portland, Oregon. Before the killings, and also while they are taking place, Van Sant goes in for long, gliding, Antonioni-esque tracking shots through the school’s fluorescent hallways; his tone of eerie dispassion may seem jarringly “objective,” but it serves the same old schlock formula. From the start of the festivities, he wants us to cringe in anticipation of the mayhem to come. Who among these unwitting students and teachers will survive, and who will get it full blast? When a dorky girl (Kristen Hicks) won’t undress or shower in front of her classmates, our first thought—à la Nightmare on Elm Street—is, Oh boy, is she going to get it. Van Sant juggles the time sequences and keeps circling back to the same incidents seen from different perspectives, but there’s no good dramatic or psychological reason for any of this; it’s just another example of art-house hokey-pokey. Amazingly, this film won both the Palme d’Or and Best Director Award at Cannes, beating out, among others, Mystic River.

At the time of Columbine, so many conflicting reasons were given for what happened that probably a lot of people decided the shooters’ motivations were unfathomable. Van Sant, at least on the surface, subscribes to that approach; instead of handing us the standard society-made-me-do-it stuff, he keeps things free-form. After all, he seems to be saying, psychosocial explanations are so square. There’s a seductive appeal to this game plan—we’re free to fill in the blanks, and we don’t feel like we’re being talked down to—but it’s also the easy way out. With so much carnage and pathology on view, Van Sant’s distancing techniques come to seem as simplistic and irresponsible as the old finger-pointing ways. He doesn’t have any insight into why this all occurred. (Then why make the movie?) Mass culture is always offering up reasons for why things happen the way they do. For Van Sant, unknowability is all.

Except that, on the sly, he’s perhaps trying to wedge a little Psych 101 in there, too. The two shooters, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), are best friends who order up automatic rifles from the Internet and watch Hitler documentaries. Before they go on their rampage, they shower together, making out, and when the killing is about to begin, one says to the other, “Most importantly, just have fun.” Is Van Sant making a connection between the boys’ Nazi fetish, or their apparent homosexuality, and their crimes? Who knows? Since nobody in this film has any kind of interior life, it’s pointless to discuss it in such terms. That would be like trying to fill out a hologram. The title of the movie can be interpreted as a reference to the parable about the three blind men who each feel a different part of an elephant and believe that they alone know its true nature. At least those guys made the effort. The only thing Van Sant is feeling up here is himself.


In Jane Campion’s murky, unsatisfying In the Cut, Meg Ryan plays Frannie, a withdrawn literature teacher whose proximity to a gruesome murder leads to an erotic involvement with the mysterious police detective investigating the crime. Ryan might as well be holding up a sign that says OFFBEAT CASTING. As Detective Malloy, Mark Ruffalo is going against his usual typecasting as well—instead of being sulky and disheveled, he’s steely and take-charge. Here’s a guy whose job doesn’t allow him much time for sexual preliminaries; knowing that Frannie is love-starved, he cuts to the quick. Campion is dabbling in several different types of movie here: police procedural, film noir, romantic melodrama, sex fantasia. None really succeeds. The sexual elements are the film’s drawing card, as was also the case with the Susanna Moore novel on which it is based, but Campion doesn’t really have the chops to drive us wild. She may have envisioned making Last Tango in the East Village, but the results are closer to a new installment of Red Shoe Diaries.


Two years before he died, in 1994, Dennis Potter reworked the script for his legendary seven-hour 1986 British television series, The Singing Detective, by switching its setting Stateside to Chicago (later it became Los Angeles), updating the action from the forties to the fifties, and eliminating British pop music in favor of American rock and roll. The movie that director Keith Gordon has made of Potter’s script—which stars Robert Downey Jr. as Dan Dark, the hospitalized, severely psoriatic pulp novelist who imagines himself as a singer in a dance band—is brutally acrid. Potter’s furiousness at Dark’s hapless condition is unrelieved until the balmy coda. It’s powerful, all right, and Downey’s performance is lacerating, but missing is any sense of lyricism in Dark’s hallucinatory yearnings. Without that leap of transcendence, this new Singing Detective doesn’t sing.


In brief: in the marginally entertaining new John Grisham movie Runaway Jury, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman appear together for the first time in their careers. Hoffman plays an idealistic lawyer going after the gun interests and Hackman is the high-priced jury “consultant” for the opposition who believes that trials are too important to be left up to juries. Like most such square-offs—the Pacino–De Niro duet in Heat comes to mind—the inevitable showdown between these two paragons is something of a fizzle; there’s too much over/under-acting going on. Better is the interplay between John Cusack and Rachel Weisz, playing jury fixers of a different stripe. When they converse, steam does not issue from their ears. . . . The problem with Christine Jeffs’s Sylvia, as with most movies about deeply troubled artists, is that for the most part we are seeing the troubles and not the artist. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia Plath is such a hard-bitten neurasthenic mess that it’s not clear how she could ever get through a single day, let alone write great poetry. As her husband, Ted Hughes, Daniel Craig is all intensity all the time. You can’t imagine him making room for anything but poetry.


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