Retrospective: Cinema after Columbine

Columbine - a no go for Hollywood

Hollywood won’t touch Columbine, but indie film-makers are finding unique ways to respond to the massacre, says Stephen Applebaum

Five years after the Columbine High School shooting, the subject of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’s murderous rampage remains virtually untouchable in Hollywood. Yet, despite the major studios’ reluctance to explore it, three Columbine-related films — Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Ben Coccio’s Zero Day and Paul F Ryan’s Home Room — did open in America last year.
Significantly, they were all independent features.

Hollywood’s problem is that, in the wake of the shooting in Littleton, Colorado, studio chiefs found themselves in the firing line from Congress. Politicians desperate for answers pointed the finger at the film industry and its role in marketing violence to children. After all, the 14-year-old gunman who killed three students at a school in West Paducah, Kentucky, had claimed that he was inspired by The Basketball Diaries, in which Leonardo DiCaprio shoots up his classroom; and the Columbine killers were practically addicted to violent films and video games like Doom, which they tailored to their fantasies.

Hollywood is now leery of anything involving children and guns, says Eli Roth, the director of last year’s horror hit Cabin Fever. “I wrote a script called High Noon High with a friend, and we basically wanted to make a film that would show the absurdity of kids bringing guns to school. It was set 100 years ago. But it went out around the time of Columbine, so nobody would touch it. I have since tried to resurrect the project, and I always get the same comment: ‘The subject is taboo.’”

Although there had been school shootings before Columbine, none shocked America in the same way, partly because of the scale of the event (15 died, including the shooters), and partly thanks to the live news coverage from outside the school on the day of the attack. Primarily, though, it was the location that made Americans sit up and take notice. “The event occurred in a middle-class, suburban context, whereas most had grown to assume that this, in America, was an urban problem, a problem with poor communities, and often a problem with young men of colour,” says Deborah 
 Prothrow-Stith of the Harvard School of Public Health, co-author of the book Murder Is No Accident. “So it became the pivotal event that made it clear, even if people were ignoring it, that this was a bigger issue.”

Van Sant and Coccio knew immediately that they wanted to make films exploring what had happened at Columbine. Ryan was a little more hesitant. He was already working on a script about a hostage situation in a suburban high school, in reaction to shootings in Paducah and Jonesboro, Arkansas. After Columbine, he no longer felt it did justice to the subject. Nor could he imagine trying to move forward with a movie about a shooting in the immediate fallout. He was, more-over, made queasy by the revelation that Harris and Klebold had made tapes in which they boasted about how their action would inspire film-makers.

“I thought, ‘F*** you. I’m not going to tell your story. You don’t even have a story that’s worth telling,’” recalls Ryan. “That’s why Home Room, in a large degree, changed from being a story about the shooters to being one about two survivors. The shooter in Home Room isn’t even given a name, and he is completely absent from the whole story.”

While Ryan says it was easy for him to raise the money to make his film from independent backers, Van Sant, despite his standing in the industry, struggled to find someone who would support his project, which he wanted to do for television. “There’s so much journalistic coverage with an event like that, but I think there are other types of treatments that could also address the issue, and not so much in an entertaining way, but in an informational way,” he says. “People tend to consider any movie that’s not a documentary an entertainment. That’s the reason I wanted to do it, because of that thing in people’s heads. So I wanted to make a television movie in the sense of a CBS, NBC or ABC television movie, because that is the mainstream forum where the journalistic articles are as well.”

Unfortunately for Van Sant, at the same time as he was pitching his idea, studio chiefs were flying to Washington in the fear that there would be actions against television violence. It was a while before HBO, the risk-taking cable channel, finally agreed to do something on the subject, and then it was a different movie from the straight re-creation Van Sant had initially envisioned. Instead, Elephant is a languid immersion in the quotidian details of high- school life on the day of a massacre. Inspired by playing Tomb Raider, which he encountered after learning computer games supposedly influenced the Columbine killers, and by watching the work of experimental European film-makers such as Bela Tarr, Van Sant shoots in long, flowing takes, replaying the same moments from different characters’ perspectives. The result is like a waking dream that gradually becomes a nightmare.

Elephant won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. However, its success proved highly controversial, with some (mostly American) critics arguing the film was exploitative because it failed to explain the massacre. Actually, the clues are there. It is just that Van Sant leaves it up to us to decide what impact an environment containing drugs, violent computer games, television violence (represented by a documentary about Nazis), bullying, an impersonal school setting, access to guns and so on might have on children at a time when they are arguably at their most vulnerable. 

“It’s the style of the film to have the conclusions emerge from the audience, collectively,” explains Van Sant. “It’s like a group mourning, or a group investigation.”

Elephant is not an attempt to “pinpoint why these particular kids did this particular thing, because then I would be leaving out all the other wicked things that go on in the world. It’s really about why violence happens”.

He partly blames his own generation for tragedies such as Columbine, although he says he may change his mind if and when the shooters’ tapes are released. “When I went to high school it was the late 1960s, and conformity was suspect, at least in my circle. People battled against it. But those same people, the hippie generation, for some reason became ultraconservative when they grew up. Now they drive sports utility vehicles and they want children to succeed beyond all expectations. They make their children feel that anybody who doesn’t exist like they exist is somehow cancerous — to the point that they’d probably be proud of their children if they picked on classmates who are ‘losers’.”

Coccio, who funded Zero Day with credit cards and loans and, like Van Sant, employed non-professional actors, says he does not have any answers either. “As a film-maker I get inspired by things I haven’t made up my mind on yet. I have that luxury because I am an independent film-maker, and I definitely wasn’t answering to anyone making this film. I just went off and did it.”

Shot in the form of a video diary by two friends as they plan a school shooting, Zero Day creates a compelling feeling of intimacy with its subjects, Andre and Cal, who address us both as confidants and sometimes, chillingly, as potential victims. We watch them with their families, who are blissfully ignorant of the small arsenal, including guns and bombs, their sons are amassing. We think we know the boys, but when we watch them in the final school- massacre scene through the dispassionate lens of a CCTV camera, the disturbing realisation dawns that, like their families and friends, we do not know them at all.

Zero Day, the most subversive of the three films — and, given the amount of apparently accurate detail about making bombs and reconfiguring guns in it, also the most worrying — Coccio agrees, could never have been made in Hollywood. “Not before. Not after Columbine.”

“There’s only one thing that will change their minds,” suggests Roth about the big studios, “and that’s the box office. A $100m box office for Elephant will send a message that it’s okay to talk about these subjects, because people will pay money to hear what the film-makers have to say about it. But the reality is that these films are very small releases, and with so many movies crowding the multiplexes, it’s a real long shot for any of them to break out.”

First published in The Times, January 18, 2004

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