03/10/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Elephant (2003)

Elephant (2003)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen


“Why would two seemingly normal teenage boys load themselves up with assault rifles, walk into their own high school in broad daylight and pick off classmates as if they were ducks in a shooting gallery? If that could be answered in a sentence, a film like Elephant wouldn’t need to be made.”

Elephant attempts to delve beneath the surface of an evil happening, an event so close to the tragedy that happened in Columbine that it touches off a familiar dread and far enough removed that it sets off profound questions about what could possibly account for such bizarre behavior. Although the murderous acts committed by two teenage boys at Columbine may have stemmed from a deep emotional disturbance, random killing has become too commonplace for insanity to be its only explanation. Elephant invites a systemic look at the problem, taking an activist stance and demanding social responsibility.

One of the most provocative aspects of Elephant is its portrayal of abnormal as completely normal. The teenage killers in Elephant seem like normal boys, at least as normal as other students in their high school.

Elephant opens with a teen taking over the wheel of the family car because his dad is too drunk to drive properly – at 11 am! The son treats the whole thing like it’s par for the course; he’s obviously used to taking over his father’s responsibilities and covering up for his father’s failings. He does it with a straight, quiet face. That’s how the film gets its name. When there’s an alcoholic in a family and everyone covers it up, AA calls it ‘the elephant in the room’ syndrome. Everyone looks with a blank face. Harboring an alcoholic family member distorts how everyone thinks, feels and behaves but the source is a secret. Such a protected secret is like an invisible elephant, trampling childhoods, families and communities with an insidious mind-bending effect that flattens feelings.

Elephant points its finger at a couple hidden elephants as it probes for the source of a deadly teenage shooting spree. Elephant points first in the direction of teenage alienation, a state of quiet insecurity marked by sarcasm, scapegoating and an air of indifference. Gus Van Sant creates the presence of this elephant of estrangement by following teens around, mostly from the back, as if they were avatars in a computer game. After they’re made familiar, their first names come up on the screen. Only their first names. They are anonymous in their familiarity. The elephant stalks teens hanging out in the halls of a high school campus draining feeling from their personal interactions. Not even the most popular teen feels secure. Each exists more or less in their own bubble, feeling alone and worrying that they aren’t measuring up.

There’s the shy boy who uses photography to get people to pay attention to him. He shoots photos of a symbiotically dressed Goth couple who think he’s a bit of a freak but lets him take their picture anyway. His favorite photo of them is an anti-romantic shot of them looking completely away from one another. Then there’s the frumpy overweight girl who’s too embarrassed to put on shorts for gym class and never takes showers. There’s the stereotypic popular couple; the guy who wants to impress his guy friends by being with the cutest girl in the school and his girlfriend who is so jealous that she’s ready to beat up any other girl who even looks at her guy. And there’s the hot girl clique in tight jeans and mini-tees, longing to replace the popular guy’s girlfriend; they all keep their tiny figures tiny by throwing up after they eat lunch. To complete this picture, there’s a hanger-on girl who wants to be in but she’s out. So, when a boy who plays classical piano is visited by a friend who plays endless computer games while he practices, who’s thinking “this doesn’t seem very normal”? All these teens have problems and it all seems pretty normal — just the ordinary, everyday wallpaper of modern adolescence. Then, the friend boots up his computer to a website that sells military guns and everything changes.

Two teenage boys order assault rifles over the Internet with the ease of ordering a pizza. One minute the guns are on the computer screen, the next they’re in a cardboard box at their door. The boys sign for them, try them out on a wood pile in their garage and, dressed in combat black with the guns stashed in duffel bags, head out to school. They park. They walk across the school’s front yard at lunchtime. No one notices. Well, not quite. The first teen, the one with the alcoholic dad notices. One of them is a friend of his and he asks him, “what’s happening”. He’s told to get out here, some weird stuff is going to be happening. The two boys walk into the school, wait for some pre-planted bombs to explode and when they don’t, one guy says to the other, “Whatever you do, dude, be sure to have fun”. As if they’re walking through a computer game, they proceed to shoot those rapid-fire rifles and wipe out a myriad of students and teachers. It all happens so fast that one even calls 911. One student even looks for them, searching the halls, as if he might be able to just walk up and talk them out of it. He gets shot dead without a thought. Unreality is reality.

The alienation that many, many teens feel, bear in their everyday lives as they drive to school, take classes, pursue their hobbies and navigate the social pressures of judgement may seem normal – but it’s not. ‘Cool’ is no longer ‘cool’. Cool covers up a desperate anxiety about keeping up, keeping on top and keeping on going that – like the young man’s face in the opening scenes of Elephant – is a complete faade. The world is large now, overwhelming and certainly over the heads of many who have only been on this earth a bare few teen years. Parents as well their children often withdraw from the challenge, leaving teens even more vulnerable to a pressing anxiety – angst. A parent acting ‘cool’ often simply doesn’t have the answers, the skills or the strength to take on the job. They yield to their adolescent’s withdrawal with their own, doing the best they can but leaving the elephant loose in the house, the streets and the school.

The other hidden secret lumbering in plain view through Gus Van Sant’sElephant is a culture that idealizes macho images of gun-toting soldiers and action-adventure actors as real men. For teenage boys struggling with hormonal confusion and failing fathers, these role models not only distort, they torture. Any desires for touch or comfort or sympathy may be a sign of being soft, worse – gay. The culture dismisses gay as inferior and an embarrassment, certainly not acceptable as a real man nor indicative of what it’s going to take to be successful. Unfortunately, idealizing macho and demonizing gay elevates the threat of violence from boys. With guns so easily available, the war on terror billed as a patriotic act and boys eager to be men, picking up a gun can seem like an easy solution to sexual certainty. And safety from humiliation.

The gay issue is such a known issue now that efforts are made to address it. Students at the high school in Elephant meet to discuss whether you can tell just by looking at someone whether they’re gay. That’s the concern. Not what gay is but whether you can tell. What abnormality may be lurking beneath a ‘cool’ exterior that sets a guy apart, makes him weird and unacceptable. No matter how bright, how nice, how talented or how good-looking a guy may be, being thought to be ‘gay’ is high on the stigma list for derision and exclusion. All teens struggle with wanting to fit in. The two boys who became killers had fooled around with each other sexually and, presumably, chafing under the weight of their secret, felt in danger on their own turf — their home and their school. They anticipated being ostracized, for sure, and could be hurt physically, maybe even killed. Identifying with the military, men at war against a legitimate enemy, double solves their problem. They are identified with ‘real’ men and they’re on the right side. The fact that they could end up dead is all part of a game they don’t think they can win.

It would be easy to accuse computer games, computer access to guns and computer anonymity as engendering a teen’s alienated sensibility. But computer games are not the culprit. They’re the symptom. And symptoms are clues. They can lead to the source of the dis-ease in our society that makes killing seem like a solution to an adolescent challenge, the one of becoming a man in today’s society. Helping to free boys from the narrow and harmful constraints that traditional expectations of masculinity impose on them is critical. The film doesn’t give guidelines, leaving the quandary to its audience — what “elephant” of artificial normalcy were two teen-age boys seeking to overcome, shoot dead in the broad daylight of an ordinary afternoon at their high school?

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03/01/01 Other Writing # , , , , , ,

Do On-Line Games Create Isolation or Community?

Published January 20, 2001

You can write a book in six months and it may take someone a week to read it. You can make a movie in a year and it takes someone two hours to see it. On the other hand, when you create an on-line computer game, thousands of people spend mega-hours, seven days a week, and may continue playing it for two years. One of the oldest games, Everquest, is still around and continues to be played by thousands of people. Is this an addiction or a modern window of opportunity? Many people are asking. But do on-line games further the alienation of already isolated people or educate curious people in a safe venue with an unprecedented forum of creative communication.

I’m not sure I have all the language to describe the interactive entertainment that comes under the name of “On-line Games” but I’m learning and you will be too. On-line computer games aren’t new. They’ve been around since it’s been possible to go on-line. What’s new is how many people are playing them and how many are playing at the same time. Community. That’s the catchword. Players want to be a part of a community. Makers want to create community. Community is the opportunity to make yourself up, change yourself at will and interact with others who are doing the same in the same world of reality you’ve chosen. The makers of the games will tell you that individual choices are limited but when you’re playing the game, you don’t know that and you don’t feel that. As a matter of fact, if players figure out how to affect the structure of a game, they wreck it for themselves and for others. They’re called hackers. But here comes community again. The makers look at the hackers as players and plunge right in to figure out how to make a game that includes them.

For instance, one game attracted killer players. They were more interested in how to “kill” other players than they were at playing the game. Big problem. Any new player who logged on got annihilated before they ever got started. Bad feelings. Bad for business. Another game attracted hackers who learned how to go behind the scenes, rack up the maximum scores and lord it over their friends. Everyone wanted to learn how to beat the game rather than play it. Bad feelings. Bad for business. The creators of each game took different tracks. The first group took a social approach and created a reality within the game where “killer players” could play their killing game and another where it was impossible to kill anyone. They also took a social approach in one reality structure where players could sanction killer players or gang up against them and give them handicaps. The second group took a different approach and broke their game into several different structures so that playing the game or hacking it became a choice. But you get the gist of it. The makers have to be interactive with the players to survive – and thrive.

And then there are the creative players who create realities for other players who aren’t into the “kill and be killed mentality”. They create a space (website) for players to come in, choose an avatar personality and interact with other players who are also appearing as a selected avatar. Wondering what an avatar is? An avatar is an artificial likeness of a character that usually has some archetypal quality – a hero, an animal or historical figure. The player fills out their identity and comes into the game as this avatar. This can be on a low level of chat in which you come in as a cat and have conversation with dogs and monkeys. Or it could be a high level of gamesmanship in which a central avatar creates an opportunity for any and all participating avatars to engage in a particular reality – grief group meeting around the loss of a loved one, a romantic tryst a la courtly love, a circus adventure auditioning as a trapeze artist, etceteras. A player logs on, takes on an avatar persona, begins to make up an identity, joins the story at hand and finds out where it takes him or her. Identity morphs according to one’s choices. The story has a broad structure but one’s choices determine the direction and the depth of the pursuit. And you can quit at any time. It seems that most people don’t. They become part of the community and stick around for hours and hours, days and days, months and months – as well as years and years.

One begins to wonder. Does this alienate or facilitate relationships in real life? Of course, one also wonders, where does on-live and on-line begin and end? And, of course, there’s no answer. For one person, an exploration of self as an avatar may offer just the freeing up experience that furthers a relationship that has been problematic. For another, it may be an alternative that is more captivating. It is definitely time consuming. To make or create alternative realities for other people takes a major amount of time. To log on and engage as one or many avatars sucks up time like soda through a straw. But there hasn’t been much research done on what people are getting out of their experience. Some people would just watch a soap opera or randomly search the web if they weren’t playing; others take the game they’re playing and make more of the game they’re playing in real life. The latter group turns a birthday party into a survival game, writes up dialog for a cartoon series as a homework assignment and starts thinking about what games would be good for hospitalized invalids or corporate executives on a training weekend. And therein lies the dilemma. We’re back to basics. How do we raise children and educate grown-ups to view the Internet as just another tool, not a life in itself?


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