The Columbine Art Phenomenon

A scene from the movie "Elephant."

It's a long time since the last kid shot up his school. Close to three years, even. And it's been a busy three years -- new president, September 11, wars, everybody's broke. It's a different America today from the one that suburban boys were putting holes in. So I guess it's about time for some movies and books to start trickling out, fictionalizing the phenomenon that was the cafeteria shoot-em-up.

What do you know? In the past three months, two movies and two books came out which either use school shootings as a plot device or aim to explain the phenomenon. And they couldn't be more different from each other. We've got a zany farce, an art film, a mockumentary and (what could easily be) a Lifetime movie.

Let's start with the zany farce: DBC Pierre's parodic novel "Vernon God Little." The guy who wrote it is British and I guess he was so baffled by modern America that he decided to write a whole book clowning us. It's pretty funny. The title character is a 16-year-old kid who survives a school shooting, then gets scapegoated for the murders and has to fight a death penalty case in Texas. Now what could be more American than that?

I think the book does a better job explaining the energy behind school shootings than all those CNN child psychologists and Michael Moore combined. The book succeeds because it doesn't fall into the "I'm an expert" trap of trying to blame the violence on one thing. Instead, Pierre singles out the real culprit: the overwhelming insanity of millennium American life -- the richest time in the most prosperous country in the history of the world where everybody's fat (in the book, all the women are on the "Pritkin" diet), TV news media is off the hook with the scandal/murder/celebrity shit, kids are obsessed with basketball sneakers that could feed a dozen limbless Eritrean orphans for a month and every pre-teen boy has been "diagnosed" with some kind of condition. (Quick: What's another word for ADD? How about "being a freaking boy?" Tom Sawyer wasn't on Ritalin.) Pierre weaves all these factors and more into a seamless, insanely funny narrative which should be required reading in every high school right now. Oh, I forgot -- schools can't afford books any more.

vernon god little
DBC Pierre's parodic novel "Vernon God Little."

I guess while we're talking about books, I should mention the other one -- the Lifetime movie one. It's called "We Need to Talk about Kevin" and it's not very good. Or at least I didn't get it. It's about this lonely neurotic lady who writes letters to her ex-husband because she doesn't have anybody else to talk to. Oh yeah, and their son shot up his school and killed seven people. The only thing she can think about is herself, though. The whole book she's whining about "is it my fault?" and "everybody in town looks at me weird." Even though it's a good angle to take and a story I'd like to hear, the mom's perspective here was a little shallow and the shooting itself just becomes a platform for her to talk about guilt she had anyway.

"Elephant" is the art film, directed by Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho," "Good Will Hunting"). The whole movie (or most of it) takes place in a single day at a big suburban high school. Early in the movie, we look forward and see that this is the day that the school gets shot up. So we spend an hour and a half watching fresh faced kids float down hallways, giggling and crying and you can't help but wonder who's gonna die.

"Elephant" succeeds for the same reason that "Vernon God Little" succeeds: it doesn't try and tell you why it happened. It just happened. (Some slip-ups, though. There is a loooong scene of one of the future shooters playing a first-person shooter game and some clichéd bully scenes. And then, inexplicably, the two shooters -- both boys -- take a shower together and make out. There are a lot of ways to interpret that scene, but it's a pretty heavy statement to make with no explanation.) Other than that, though, the main thing I came away with was, "this is what high school is really like, so why didn't everybody go crazy and start shooting people?" "Elephant" makes high school look like high school, which is all at once boring, terrifying, fun and sick.

Then there's "Zero Day," which is the mockumentary. The idea behind it is: what if the Columbine kids kept a video diary in the days leading up to the shooting? The creepiest part is that the actors look just like the real kids and they're saying stuff you would expect them to say (Dude! Where's my pipe bomb?).

Having watched the movies and read the books, I'm in something of a stupor. The school shooting phenomenon has passed and if these examples are any reflection, still nobody knows what to think or say or do about it. It's like America said, "that was weird" and then made some abstract art blindfolded while listening to minimalist techno. And the whole idea of a movie about Columbine is mind-boggling. If you watch movies like "Basketball Diaries" and "Heathers," which both came out years before the shootings started, you can see scenes of schoolhouse carnage which are exactly like Columbine. And if you believe Joe Lieberman, that's why these kids did it -- violent entertainment. So a movie fictionalizing a school shooting committed by kids emulating a movie is art imitating life which imitated art. But forget the cliché. Art and life are in some crazy orgy where you can't tell whose foot that is or who's on top and there are fluids everywhere.

But "Vernon God Little" is a good book and you should rent "Elephant" when it comes out on video just to trip out.

Russell Morse is a senior writer for Youth Outlook.

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