[Marxism] Elephant

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 18 10:59:40 MDT 2005

Gus Van Sant got the title and the idea for his idiotic film about the 1999 
Columbine High School massacre from Alan Clarke's "Elephant," a 1989 
half-hour TV movie that follows Catholic and Protestant gunmen around 
Belfast. There is no explanation for the shootings that take place in the 
film. The word "elephant" comes from Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty who 
described the 'Troubles' as "having an elephant in your living room, 
getting in the way of everything - but after a while you learn to live with 
it." In other words, the Irish struggle was basically mindless killing 
without a political explanation.

My first encounter with one of Van Sant's films was the 1989 "Drugstore 
Cowboy," that told a fairly interesting story about a young junky. It was 
notable mostly for a cameo appearance by William S. Burroughs who played a 
priest! Three years later he made the horribly mannered "My Own Private 
Idaho" that I walked out on after perhaps fifteen minutes. But he is best 
known for the saccharine "Good Will Hunting" that was co-written by Ben 
Affleck and Matt Damon, who also co-starred.

Out of curiosity, I watched "Elephant" on HBO last night, which also 
produced the 2003 film. It can best be described as a Frederick Wiseman 
documentary with a mass murder tacked on at the climax. There is no attempt 
to get inside the heads of the two teen-aged killers. In the moments 
leading up to the shooting, we watch them assembling their weaponry as they 
stare at a History Channel type documentary on the rise of Hitler. Just 
before they leave for school, they kiss each other while showering. Is Van 
Sant, who is gay himself, trying to explain the shootings as a reaction to 
homophobia? Or does he view the two killers as latter-day versions of 
Leopold and Loeb, the two gay youths who kidnapped and murdered Bobby 
Franks just out of a Nietzschean ambition to transcend good and evil? Oh, I 
forgot. The whole purpose of the film was to avoid explanations. That would 
be too uncool.

"Elephant" won the top prize at Cannes two years ago, only a year after 
Moore won a prize for "Bowling for Columbine," a typical documentary from 
the liberal director that blamed the military-industrial culture around 
Columbine for the tragedy. (I discuss it at: 

Van Sant told the Independent on January 18, 2004 that he refused to 
explain the events because that would be "boring": "This is something the 
boys have decided to do before the film has started, so what you're 
watching are the machinations of the event itself. The idea is to get the 
audience to think about what they believe are the causes, not for the 
film-maker to tell you. If I did that I'd just be making a holiday movie. 
It would be boring."

But in a November 8, 2003 Washington Post article, he suggests that the 
youths might be understood in terms of Pol Pot: "Something went terribly 
wrong here. And the audience will find itself not identifying the kids as 
evil, but the event. It's an emergence of something that might be as 
shocking as a larger evil . . . like the Khmer Rouge killing the Cambodian 

Actually, the massacre was easily understood as an extreme reaction to 
bullying that was facilitated by easy access to automatic weapons. Back in 
June of 1998, Stephen Jay Gould spoke on "Science and Human 
Destructiveness" at the Brecht Forum in New York City. I reported:

"Gould said that the problem we face today is that science has produced 
potentially death-producing technologies which are far more 'productive' 
than those of the past. When mankind only had spears and bows and arrows at 
its disposal, genocide was less feasible. Today, nuclear weapons make it 
highly feasible."

On a much smaller scale, that seems to be what went on at Columbine High 



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