I really like Roger Ebert, but I also strongly disagree with his thinking sometimes. In his review of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, he criticises the film for not making an explicit moral judgement.
“Van Sant seems to believe there are no reasons for Columbine and no remedies to prevent senseless violence from happening again.”
This is surely a misunderstanding on Ebert’s part – a misunderstanding, not just of Van Sant, but also of art. He goes on to praise the film and explain why its refusal to provide answers is a powerful choice. Nonetheless, lets consider the problems with this comment on its own.
Firstly, just because a film makes no explicit moral judgments on a real-world issue, we shouldn’t assume the director doesn’t have any to make. The film may choose to withhold judgement for artistic reasons – perhaps to allow the audience to make their own judgements, or to elicit a particular response by displaying a horror simply as it is: cold, unsentimental, real. Ebert seems to think the filmmaker has no beliefs about the issue because he doesn’t present them within the film. This leap of logic presumes a great many things, most problematic of which is that a work of art directly represents the moral opinion of its author. Surely this is not necessarily the case? For example, a film might explore a murder and its motivations (with no denunciation of them), without its author intending to in any way promote or endorse murder.
Ebert also notes Todd McCarthy’s review, which makes a similar error, but takes the mistake even further, condemning the film for its choice to stay detached.
Van Sant may have chosen to tell this story straight, without judgment, for any number of reasons. One of which is that this detached, cold presentation allows for a richer, more open exploration of the issues – unimpeded by a political message – than, say, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002).
Documentaries serve their purpose, and art cinema serves a different purpose. Elephant is not simply a vehicle for a political thesis. Elephant is not a documentary. It is an art house movie. Its function is not to present an argument, but rather to promote thought, reflection, and emotion. Its choice to do so from a cold, detached perspective, without judgement, adds to the verisimilitude and immersion of the experience. For McCarthy and Ebert to measure Elephant by its success at explaining or condemning school shootings is to apply the wrong measurement altogether.