Studying a New Genre: The High School Massacre Film
by Howard Feinstein
Hark, a new genre has emerged! It’s a bloody blend of secondary ed movie, prison flick, and western: the American high school massacre film. Movies like “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Blackboard Jungle,” and “The Breakfast Club” have had their day. The Columbine affair shifted the emphasis. Violence is the salient (and most dramatically dynamic) characteristic of public school life today. What little innocence has remained in our high schools, preoccupied a few short decades ago with electing cheerleaders and trying to cop a feel, vanished on April 20, 1999, the day that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., and, instead of bearing barbs from other students, shot them and a few teachers. Then, the coup de grace: They killed each other.
This was not the first high school massacre in the U.S., but it attracted the most attention. Why? Perhaps because Littleton is an upper-middle-class neighborhood, and because the boys, who planned the act to the last detail, murdered with such accuracy. Klebold and Harris worked in tandem: Massacre is rarely a solo act among teens. Many terribly unhappy students continue to commit suicide; lots, unfortunately, succeed. Now, however, we occasionally witness a shift away from internalization of teen misery to an externalization, deflecting pain — and maybe bullets — toward those who trouble you, or just toward random classmates. Over the past 18 months, Gus Van Sant (“Elephant”), Michael Moore (“Bowling for Columbine”), Ben Coccio (“Zero Day”), and Paul F. Ryan (“Home Room”) have made, from four different perspectives, films inspired by high school massacres.
With the Palm d’or-winning “Elephant,” Van Sant opts for an intimate approach to the Columbine killings. Few filmmakers better understand the workings of the teen mind — OK, the male teen mind. During our interview in a seafront cafe in Cannes, one of the young leads saunters up from the beach and interrupts us, exclaiming enthusiastically to Van Sant how late he partied the night before and saying, “Look at these cool new sunglasses I got!” Van Sant goes right into the boy’s head, asking him sincerely where he and his pals went and validating the shades. No condescension, not even a wink after the kid leaves. Van Sant is endlessly fascinated with adolescence, its pains and pleasures. Van Sant made the film with love and empathy for his characters, once again revealing his keen understanding of the topsy-turvy lives they lead.
He deploys perfect formal strategies for conveying the states of mind of students attending a large American public high school. He uses a square format, common for television but virtually nonexistent in theatrical releases that serves as a prison-like box for the students to inhabit. (You must also take into account that he made the film for HBO.) His extraordinarily long behind-the-shoulder tracking shots down endless corridors, with row upon row of lockers on either side, connote a world of ennui and apathy. From the beginning, he introduces his characters without elaboration: We know almost all will be victims. He eschews suspense, respecting the memories of the Columbine dead and their families by refusing to cheapen the incident as a thriller.
His film owes a lot — consciously — in theme, pacing, and formal design to the late British director Alan Clarke’s short film, the same-named “Elephant” (1989), in which a Steadicam follows two Northern Irish hit men as they assassinate 18 people, separately, each time without any visible emotion. (There the camera lingers for a while on each corpse.) Clarke makes the acts mechanical, linked to one political cause or another but executed, like those in Van Sant’s, without any moral veneer.
But Van Sant has a unique way of getting under your skin. He subscribes to a psycho-sexual approach, one so subliminally heavy for the viewer that he or she can not help but feel devastated by movie’s end. How else do you reach a spectatorship immune to overt violence in films? Using all nonprofessional actors from the Portland, Ore., area, he introduces an assortment of characters. Eli (Elias McConnell) is an amateur photographer and the director’s alter ego. (Van Sant was photographer for his high school yearbook.) John (John Robinson), a boy troubled by a problem father, is the first to realize the tragedy-to-come and warns students on their way into the building.
Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) are the misfits who assemble rifles delivered by UPS to Alex’s home and casually plot their brutal revenge while one plays piano, the other, computer games. (In John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” set in college, Michael Rapaport is such a reject that he becomes a skinhead Nazi overnight.) Alex and Eric have a spontaneous kiss in the shower before they venture out for the apocalyptic act — an act born of hormonal buildup and one that sets up a dramatic moment that underlines the amorality, the lack of commitment of young people who have gone beyond the pale of alienation. These are teenagers — unpredictable, self-absorbed beings — and Van Sant refuses to let us forget their reality.
“I’m not offering an explanation from me to you,” Van Sant explains. “I’m trying to set up an environment that encourages you as a viewer to regurgitate your own thoughts about what you have seen and heard over the last four years since it happened. Your mind should wander; your thoughts should become intensified. Each individual can find his own answer.” I found mine. In Cannes, I cried after the “Elephant” press screening and ran back to my hotel room. Images that lay dormant for many years addled my brain. I graduated from a large, charmless public high school in the execution-happy state of Texas. My father had guns in his socks drawer, under the car seat, beneath his pillow. He went on joy rides with the Houston cops. What I remember of our home life is Mama screaming at Daddy, Daddy screaming at Mama, both of them screaming at us, and Daddy beating me with a horsewhip. At 15, to get away from it all, I tried to do myself in and very nearly succeeded. You needn’t have had a nasty childhood, however, to be overwhelmed by “Elephant.”
Unlike Van Sant’s approach, muckraker Michael Moore’s take in “Bowling for Columbine” is discursive. The Columbine massacre is a point of departure for an essay on violence in America. His thesis is that the recurring school shoot-’em’-ups are not isolated acts. We live in a climate of fear, he notes, depicting with actual footage how network and local news focus on individual murders and other crimes to pound fear into our thick skulls. He makes significant connections — much as he does in his finely researched book, the scary “Stupid White Men.” It’s not just about availability of guns, as many contend. “Before the Dublaine massacre, Britain had 120 murders a year for 60 million people; now it’s 60,” he tells me in Cannes in the American Pavilion. “The U.S. had 11,127 killings last year. Britain is a different society. Having fewer guns will reduce the number of murders; having fewer croissants will reduce the number of calories that I’m putting into my body right now BUT it won’t change my basic attitudes.” He is not being glib when he points out that day the U.S. dropped the most bombs on Kosovo was on April 20, 1999, and that favored military weapons-contractor Lockheed has a huge plant just outside of Littleton.
“The personal violence of guns in our homes is intertwined with the larger societal and global issues of violence,” Moore continues. “It’s all part of the fabric of society: We rely on violence as a means to an end. That’s what those kids did that day, and that’s what we as adults do when we go bomb other countries.” His montage of American interference in the affairs of other countries is prescient. It begins with the deposing of the leader of Iran in 1953 and his replacement with the totalitarian Shah, whose iron hand (supported by our money and the notorious SAWAK secret police) ended up inadvertently moving much of the Islamic world toward a rabid fundamentalism that would take over that country and spread throughout the whole region.
Ben Coccio jumps on the Columbine bandwagon with “Zero Day.” He renames the two teen boys Cal and Andre and the school Iroquois High, but plays the storyline as a fake doc. The conceit here is that the boys videotape each other throughout the process of preparation, as well as during moments of horsing around and familial interaction. (The director does not display Van Sant’s feeling for the teen interior state.) This is the record of buildup to an apocalypse; surveillance cameras of murders on cheesy sets complete the picture. Coccio has the boys make a couple of passing comments about being picked on, but the remarks feel gratuitous, out of synch. These are two good-looking fellows with neither psychological nor political motivation. They are never even bored. The film is manic, and that’s a big problem. It’s more the enervating effect of high school that breeds the worst in people. In hippie times, Cal and Andre, the so-called “Army of Two,” would have been speed freaks.
“Home Room,” by Paul F. Ryan, is set in Connecticut. Ryan does not show us the (rare) lone shooter, but focuses instead on the aftermath. A teacher has ordered tough Alicia (Busy Philipps), under suspicion of being an accomplice, to visit pert, studious Deanna (Erika Christensen), severely wounded in the attack, in the hospital. As you might imagine, they joust until they find common ground. The only problem is that Americans are interested more in the perpetrator(s) and the act — for all of the reasons Moore so clearly spells out. Whether that’s good or bad, I will, to paraphrase Van Sant, ask that you find your own answer.