Santa Cruz Good Times

Apr 18th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

The Elephant in the Living Room

Gus Van Sant’s ponders school violence and heads the top of his class with ‘Elephant’

Gus Van Sant delivers a haunting, hypnotic, mesmerizing odyssey in Elephant. This fascinating piece of cinema tells you nothing, but shows you everything you need to see about the complex issues of violence and school shootings. Often poetic, and a bit esoteric, in the way Van Sant unravels his mindbender, he suspends  his audience in a visual symphony rife with subtle yet artistic shifts in tempo, all of which crescendo toward a dramatic finale that is both stunning and perplexing. It’s one of the best films of the year.

To understand Van Sant’s intention here, it helps to delve into the tale that may have been its inspiration—an ancient Buddhist parable that backs to 2 B.C. The characters: Some blind men and an elephant. The story: The blind men inspect a different aspect of the elephant—ears or tail, tusk or trunk—and become convinced they fully comprehend the true nature of the animal based on the on parts they inspected. No man, however, has absorbed the entire essence of the elephant. It was with this in mind, that Van Sant set out to write and direct his Elephant, because, school shootings, like the fabled elephant, the filmmaker believed there were many different ways of looking at the “beast.” One of them came in the form of British filmmaker Alan Clarke’s Elephant, a 1989 unconventional BBC offering that explored Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence. Although Clarke’s work was titled after the noted phrase about a  “problem that is as easy to ignore as an elephant in the living room,”  Van Sant originally believed that Clarke’s title held its origin of thought in the ancient Buddhist parable. It wasn’t until he read, much later, and after Clarke had died, that the filmmaker was, in fact, referring to “elephant in the living.” Regardless, Van Sant plowed ahead and his finished product is a winner.

In general, Van Sant’s works never seem to rise to the typical Hollywood PR-blitz. He’s more abstract-filmmaker than commercial-celebrator. Mala Noche turned heads in 1985. In 1987, there was  Drugstore Cowboy, followed by 1991’s My Own Private Idaho. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, in 1993, elevated Uma Thurman’s star; he did the same for Nicole Kidman in To Die For in 1995. There was, of course, the critical, award-winning commercial hit, Good Will Hunting (1997), which gave the world Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. (In hindsight, it’s hard to know whether to thank the Van Sant or diss him for leading Affleck and Damon through the show business portals.) Another coup with Finding Forester in 2000 was a brilliant vehicle for Sean Connery. But, while some noted last year’s Gerry was “austere,” critics wondered what in the world Van Sant was doing placing Damon and Casey Affleck in an improvisational existential romp.

Although the mood of Elephant often dips into surreal waters, its shining triumph lies in Van Sant’s ability to present an 81-minute piece of cinema that ebbs and flows naturally. With the exception of Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp minor,” an ominous presence when it arrives, this film offers no musical score. The dialogue, what little there is, sounds real, believable. Van Sant does not arrive at any startling conclusions. Instead, he focuses on scenes, these moments that unravel like a ball of yarn—sort of nonlinear, lucid day-in-the-life  opus replete with intersecting paths and karmic crossing points.

Central to the story is John (John Robinson), a blonde high school kid who plays caretaker to his irresponsible father in between classes. There’s also Nathan and Carrie (Nathan Tyson and Carrie Finklea), two lovebirds distracted by romance. Eli (Elias McConnell) is  a wannabe photographer attempting to capture real life beyond the standard Kodak moment. Gossipers Brittany, Jordan and Nicole (Nicole George) spend more time in the girl’s room studying the finer points of bulimia than any algebraic equation. Lastly, and most significantly, are Alex and Eric (Alex Frost and Eric Deulen), co-conspirators in the inevitable holocaust. Here, Van Sant doesn’t go over the top. The violence seen is never so unbearably graphic. It’s used more as an instrument to show how lives can instantaneously shift from real to surreal.

Van Sant also deals with all hiss events from multiple perspectives. He shows John weaving through his day, and then takes turns illuminating the paths of the other prime players. Eli’s story  intersects with John’s, John’s with the thread walked by Alex and Eric, Nathan’s with the gossiping girls, and so on. From time to time, seemingly insignificant characters ultimately become major points of reference. By the time Alex and Eric have unleashed their wrath—that, too, has its own surprising twists—why is not the point. The point, Van Sant reveals, is to simply watch these events play out—every lovely and tragic piece of it.


*** 1/2 (out of four)

With Alex Frost, Eric Duelen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell and Timothy Bottoms. Written and directed by Gus Van Sant. 81 minutes. At the Nick.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger


Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share


Cardinal Grand Cross in the Sky

Following Holy Week (passion, death and burial of the Pisces World Teacher) and Easter Sunday (Resurrection Festival), from April 19 to the 23, the long-awaited and discussed Cardinal Cross of Change appears in the sky, composed of Cardinal signs Aries, Libra, Cancer, and Capricorn, with planets (13-14 degrees) Uranus (in Aries), Jupiter (in Cancer), Mars (in Libra) and Pluto (in Capricorn), an actual geometrical square or cross configuration. Cardinal signs mark the seasons of change, initiating new realities.


Sugar: The New Tobacco?

Proposed bill would require warning labels on sugary drinks Will soda and other saccharine libations soon come with a health warning? They will if it’s up to our state senator, Bill Monning (D-Carmel). On Feb. 27, Monning proposed first-of-its-kind legislation that would require a consumer warning label be placed on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in California. SB 1000, also known as the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act, was proposed to provide vital information to consumers about the harmful effects of consuming sugary drinks, such as sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened teas.


Film, Times & Events: Week of April 17

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >


Growing Hope

Campos Seguros combats sexual assault in the Watsonville farmworker community Farm work was a way of life for Rocio Camargo, who grew up in Watsonville as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her parents met while working the fields 30 years ago, and her father went on to run Fuentes Berry Farms.
Sign up for Tomorrow's Good Times Today
Upcoming arts & events

Latest Comments


Foodie File: Red Apple Cafe

Breakfast takes center stage at Gracia Krakauer's Red Apple Cafe Before they moved to Aptos, Gracia and her husband Dan Krakauer would visit friends in Santa Cruz County and eat at the Red Apple Café all the time. Then they moved up here from Santa Monica five years ago, and bought the Aptos location (there’s a separate one in Watsonville) from the family who owned it for two decades.


How would you feel about a tech industry boom in Santa Cruz?

I feel like it would ruin the small old-town feeling of Santa Cruz. It wouldn’t be the same Surf City kind of vacation town that it is. Antoinette BennettSanta Cruz | Construction Management


Trout Gulch Vineyards

Cinsault 2012—la grande plage diurne The most popular wines on store shelves are those most generally known and available—Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are all superb for sure. But when you come across a more unusual varietal, like Trout Gulch Vineyards’ Cinsault ($18), it opens up a whole new world.


Waddell Creek, Al Fresco

Route One Summer Farm Dinner You’ve been buying their insanely fresh produce for years now at farmers’ markets. Right? So now why not become more familiar with the gorgeous Waddell Creek farmlands of Route One Farms?