Elephant (2003) - dir. Gus Van Sant
Every April 20, I wake up wondering if there will be another copycat today.
For people my age, Columbine means something it doesn't quite mean for those a bit older or a bit younger. The "it could happen here" fears were reinforced by years of confiscated trenchcoats, video games and CDs, suspicious, fearful looks teachers gave any angry teenager, and the sudden drop in trips to the shooting range on our scout troop schedule.
For a few years after Columbine, white suburban boys got a taste of what it might be like to be Arab-American.
There was never any good reason for Columbine to become what it did. The car ride to and from school has always been the most dangerous part of the day. I consciously know that diabetes is a much bigger threat to my well-being than the remote possibility of a school shooting, especially since I don't go to school anymore. And yet while I suck on my soda straw, my mind races through ways I could subdue an Eric Harris or a Dylan Klebold. There are always books scattered around. I could simply creep behind him with one, and then once I'm a few steps away, I could charge. I might get shot, but I might be able to take him down with me.
Columbine's power is not in its death toll or the youth of the perpetrators and victims. There have been larger massacres and younger killers.
It is disgusting and it is true. We are mass media spectators, and some events make more of a visceral impact than others. No one is making award-winning movies about Virginia Tech. 9/11 is not memorable for the death count but for the images of the planes and of the buildings. The Hindenburg is legendary, but no one talks about Tenerife.
Unlike the Hindenburg, Columbine was designed and plotted. Harris and Klebold staged the murders as a production. They blogged about their plans and made videos. They made a show out of it, with the world as the audience. Other shooters have as well, but Harris and Klebold were more skillful at it.
In April 1999, all the teenage boys in America were running through their schools hallways, pretending to wear trenchcoats and shooting their classmates. From time immemorial, every boy ever born has idly fantasized about blowing up his school. Harris and Klebold tapped into all this.
I don't wish to write an artistic critique of mass murder. Neither did Gus Van Sant. Elephant strips the massacre of its visceral power. It uses all the hallmarks of neorealism - amateur actors using their real names, long takes, sparse editing grammar. We don't feel the "cool" of a Taxi Driver or Fight Club. Elephant offers us Columbine for what it was - a couple of deranged kids.
But it doesn't help. No matter how much deconstruction we do.