Political Film Society - Newsletter #185 - December 1, 2003

December 1, 2003


ElephantExactly how did the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, occur, leaving 13 dead and 23 wounded? The film Elephant, directed by openly gay Gus Van Sant, attempts to recreate something similar to that unhappy day by depicting the various victims at a suburban high school, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then the shootout by two teenage boys (played by Alex Frost and Eric Deulen). Rather than a dialog, the camera follows the various victims as well as nonvictims entering and leaving the school, walking through the school's hallways, attending the school's gay-straight alliance meeting, and elsewhere. Some of the victims of the massacre are introduced with subtitles, and their personalities are developed just enough so that their deaths seem all the more tragic. The film also shows the two boys ordering mail-order weapons and watching a documentary on Hitler. After the two boys jump in the shower, kiss, load up with guns and ammunition, and one reminds the other to "have fun," they go to the school and open fire in various locations, including the cafeteria, library, hallways, and even a girl's restroom. Using hunting rifles, they stalk their prey and discharge their weapons without emotion as if shooting animals in a hunt. Most film critics claim that the film merely asks why two teenagers would do something so outrageous without providing answers. But three clues about reasons for the massacre appear to point to their isolation as gay boys on campus and to the other side of the coin--homophobia.

(1) The discussion in the gay-straight alliance meeting, for example, deals with superficial issues rather than the very real issue of homophobia on campus. (2) A homophobic classmate throws a white substance of some sort onto Alex Frost's jacket. (3) The kiss between the boys while taking a shower together. A possible fourth clue is that Eric Deulen tells the school principal not to "fuck with him" any more, suggesting a conflict that the principal could not handle. Rather than being exposed to Michael Moore's sermon in Bowling for Columbine (2002), filmviewers are astonished witnesses in Elephant to action without much dialog or explanation. Straight film critics, in other words are admitting that they unable to understand what might have driven two gay teenagers over the precipice. Anyone who is gay, however, will know that the terrorism inflicted by heterosexual bigots, which is rarely forgotten or forgiven, has triggered a dramatic response. Where does the title come from? From An Elephant Never Forgets, a 1935 cartoon involving animals attending a school in which an elephant takes revenge at a disruptive student? From a 1989 documentary, entitled Elephant, which describes the conflict in Northern Ireland involving two communities that refuse to deal with their common fate? The analogies to the homophobic disruption of the lives of gays and lesbians fit, and elephants indeed crush anything in their paths while running amok. But if Elephant goes overboard in depicting the rage of gays marginalized and vilified by straight society, what indeed is the appropriate response to homophobia and homophobia mongering? For decades, mature gays and Lesbians have been boycotting homophobic businesses and spending their money in gay- and lesbian-friendly establishments. But such options are not apparent to isolated teenagers who have little spending power and few support groups. Elephant suggests that those who discriminate against anyone, gays and lesbians or others, should think twice before pushing them to the edge. MH