Sunday, Jun 08, 2003
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By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Such thinking was a mere reflection of what went on before the Cannes Festival began in mid-May. The French-American rift over Saddam Hussein and Iraq was in a way touted as the reason for a less visible presence at Cannes this summer of Hollywood, often considered close to the echelons of power in White House.
What added some credence to this whole business of recognising `Elephant' was the general consensus at Cannes, at least among critics, that there were certainly two films which had an edge over Van Sant's work: Lars Von Trier's `Dogville', a period-drama set in the 1930s rural America and shot engagingly and stylistically in a truly experimental manner, and Samira Makhmalbaf's Afghan diary, `At Five in the Afternoon'. While `Dogville' was a classic example of cinematic excellence, `At Five in the Afternoon' was a painful, powerful look at a country destroyed by not just the Taliban, but others as well.
But it is always hard to predict the ways of a jury, and Van Sant known for his popcorn stuff such as `Goodwill Hunting' and `Drugstore Cowboy' was not only invited to Cannes for the first time in his career, but he also managed to clinch the highest Palm.
Van Sant's `Elephant' fictionalises, albeit in a documentary mode, America's Columbine High School massacre. His camera follows some students in a high school as they go about discussing schoolwork, sports and sex, and the dramatic, though not quite shocking, finale comes at the end of a day, the period of the story and movie itself.
`Elephant' comes a year after Michael Moore's `Bowling for Columbine', a documentary on the American gun culture, was released. Van Sant told journalists at Cannes that he had approached all the U.S. broadcast networks to make a movie right after the Columbine killings. "They turned me down'', he said, "because they were in panic. It was commerce for them. They were afraid that after Columbine, television violence would be eliminated''.
It was not, and their fears, unfortunately, remain unjustified.
But those who watched `Elephant' were uniformly disappointed on one score: Van Sant's missing explanation. Why did the two boys go on a shooting spree? The work meekly follows events without giving a clue to what might have provoked them to commit such savagery.
Several studies in the past have concluded that screen violence has an important bearing on impressionable teenage minds, and that it was imperative to show "cause'' and "effect'' as well as "punishment'' along with the actual event. It is only such a balanced view that will serve as a deterrent to crime outside cinema. In fact, some surveys even feel that punishment must follow quickly in a piece of celluloid, and not after many reels, if the concept of deterrence has to actually work.
Van Sant's `Elephant' may have failed here.
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