Elephants and the Media

I've been steadily knocking off films from my 2003 Should Have Seem Em list. Among the films recently viewed was Gus Van Sant's striking Elephant. The film portrays the massacre at an ordinary high school much like Columbine (I originally thought it was Columbine, and the similarities are numerous, but apparently not). It simply shows the events as they unfold, from the ordinary morning to the massacre that follows. There is no explanation, no preaching about the ills of modern society, no empty solutions proffered. It is the events of one day, as seen by a number of people, laid bare. Van Sant employs the use of a series of long tracking shots, following this person or that, to lend an air of detached documentary to the film, and it works. This lack of sensationalism was a bold move, but I think the correct one, and it's the only way a movie about such a thing could possibly be relevant. Van Sant has said of this film: "I want the audience to make its own observations and draw its own conclusions," and I think he has succeeded admirably.

Roger Ebert wrote an excellent review of the movie, and in it, he comments:
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. "Wouldn't you say," she asked, "that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?" No, I said, I wouldn't say that. "But what about 'Basketball Diaries'?" she asked. "Doesn't that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?" The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it's unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. "Events like this," I said, "if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory."

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.
Ouch. The entire review is good, so check it out.