Watching Gus Van Sant’s Elephant at the New York Film Festival last fall, I had a feeling that invariably steals over me sometime during the year–a strong inkling that, whatever else the cinematic year might bring, this movie would rest atop my 10-best list at year’s end.

And so Elephant did. Yet even as my own liking was solidifying, I sensed that the film would hardly be the subject of universal admiration. And that came to pass to an even greater degree than I expected. Far from being the year’s most acclaimed movie, Elephant seems to have turned out to be the most divisive.

And “divisive,” rather than “controversial,” is definitely the word. People don’t come out of Van Sant’s latest arguing about it and the social issues it treats. Rather, they come away either loving it or loathing it, enraptured by it or repelled by it, reactions that occur at the most visceral of levels. Indeed, it’s as if there’s hardly any basis for discussion between the film’s supporters and detractors because their differences aren’t really intellectual; they’re as gut-level as any matter of taste can be.

Do such divisions stem from the film’s subject matter? I would say, in essence, no, but to elaborate on that necessarily means saying something of what Elephant is about, which I do somewhat regretfully. As is the case with certain other movies, the optimal way of experiencing Elephant would be to go into it knowing nothing of what it’s “about.” And if you’re an adventurous viewer lucky enough not to know anything of the movie’s contents, I’d advise just that: See the film forthwith and read this and other reviews afterwards.

Such is the ubiquity of publicity, though, that most viewers will know the film’s premise long before they set foot in a theater, as indeed I did. So I won’t avoid the topic here, but rather, after a metaphorical throat-clearing, will give the standard minimal description in noting that Elephant concerns a Columbine-like high school massacre.

The reason it’s a shame, I believe, to know this in advance is that it colors every moment of watching the movie, and up until its final section, Elephant does not appear to be about an incipient tragedy. What is it about, then? Well, many things. The look and feel and rituals of high school. Fall sunlight. Faces and bodies. Space and its ineffable contours. The dream-like sensation of movement. Sound. Air.

In fact, through much of its length, Elephant deemphasizes drama and accentuates its own hypnotic formal approach. Far from the standard formulations of an “issues” film, it creates its own factual-poetic universe that’s somewhere between a Frederick Wiseman documentary and Alexander Sukorov’s spellbinding Russian Ark.

The key to this approach is the seeming autonomy of the camera-eye. As the film begins, that eye is high above a street following an erratically moving car. Eventually the car arrives at a school and disgorges a boy who goes into the principal’s office. The camera-eye follows this boy for just a short while before it jumps off and follows others students and groups of students. There is no evident dramatic logic to its choices. It is apparently looking (and following) because it desires to look.

Which is to say that the looking here has both a logic and an intensity that can well seem erotic. What is being looked at? Well, there are three boys–a blond, rosy-cheeked surfer type; a shy, amateur photographer; and a casually, graceful athlete–who intersect with each other only very briefly, and who are all, in their different ways, very attractive. Given that we almost surely know the film’s premise, we must wonder which of them will be alive at the end.

Two other boys, a bit less attractive than the others, gradually emerge into the narrative stream. Again given what we know of the premise, we recognize them as the killers. They are picked on at school and hang out together at home, watching a TV show about the Nazis, playing video games and shooting guns. The film’s gaze also alights on four girls–a geeky loner and three Valley Girl types–but here the look’s erotic quality is noticeably less intense.

Yet such intensity hardly depends on human subjects. As the camera-eye roams around outdoors and in, it seems to drink in color and motion and light. Undoubtedly the film’s most memorable images–cinematographer Harris Savides deserves great credit throughout–are those in which the Steadicam glides down school corridors, most of them illuminated by natural light from plate glass windows. We’re inevitably mesmerized by these passages, I think, in part because they register what’s perhaps the archetypal private moment in high school: walking down a hallway alone. Yet there’s another reason they stick in the mind: on a purely sensory level, they’re beautiful.

The formal beauty of Elephant, though, seems at the heart of what its detractors dislike. From what I gather, some are bothered by the extent of the film’s self-conscious lyricism, others by its undercurrent of homoeroticism. Beauty of this sort, it is thought, is inherently repugnant, or, given the horror of the subject, is inappropriate to the point of being irresponsible.

In answer to such I objections, I would offer that Elephant‘s precedents perhaps stretch back as far as Renaissance painting. Then, artists began working in ways that made their own gazes and formal maneuvers more important than their ostensible subjects. When, say, the luxuriance of a drape or the painter’s dramatic use of red began to overshadow the Biblical meaning of Delilah holding Samson’s head, a certain brink was crossed that would forever after separate sensual formalists from puritanical literalists. One need only imagine Martin Luther’s reaction to the Sistine Chapel’s blatant beefcake to sense a divide that still characterizes Western ideas of art.

The analogy is appropriate to Gus Van Sant, who started out as a painter and made his name as a filmmaker with small, formally inventive films such as Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy. However, following the huge success of Good Will Hunting, which he made as a gun-for-hire, Van Sant was sucked into the Hollywood system, where, in mounting movies like his Psycho remake and Finding Forrester, he seemed constrained and not entirely happy.

In recent years he reportedly became fascinated with the work of such foreign formalists as Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami and Hungary’s Bela Tarr (Elephant also owes a debt to a British film of the same title by Alan Clarke), and these interests caused a revolution in his own work. By all indications, Van Sant has renounced Hollywood and big-budget moviemaking for small, determinedly idiosyncratic projects like last year’s Gerry (an even stranger piece of minimalism than this one) and Elephant. At a time when personal moviemaking on a grand scale is getting to be a contradiction in terms, Van Sant seems to have made a choice that’s not only sensible but hugely beneficial to his art.

Which is another way of saying that Elephant needs to be understood for what it is rather than blamed for what it’s not. It is an auteur film, meaning one founded on one artist’s way of looking at the world. (When Van Sant has the two killers kiss in the shower, he’s not limning the desires of their real-life prototypes, but his own.) And it is an art film in which formal values are deliberately allowed to predominate.

The movie’s beauty thus is not simply its own justification and reward; it is also one of the primary subjects here. We are invited to consider how films parse the world’s visual attractions, and how our own desires contribute to the pleasures–or anxieties–afforded by any piece of cinema. Given how few filmmakers even set their sights on such heady matters, Van Sant’s dexterity in addressing them seems to me as significant as it is ingenious.

But does the film not fall short in failing to penetrate the significance of Columbine? Isn’t it irresponsible for using a terrible tragedy as the pretext for a formalist exercise? On the contrary, I think Elephant‘s take on Columbine is as acute as its stylistic attack.

At the New York Film Festival, Van Sant said he considers the movie a “thought machine.” He explained that when he was researching Columbine he kept formulating questions that, rather than leading to answers, simply produced more questions. Intending the film to duplicate that experience, the director shows us how all the salient questions–cultural, political, psychological–of such an incommensurable event ultimately double back on those asking them.

Consider that you would never get that response in a news article or a TV special–which are guaranteed to produce pat answers even when there are none–and you have the difference between the prepackaged glibness that passes for serious inquiry in our media and something far rarer: the discomfiting honesty of art. Ultimately, Elephant‘s confrontation with the unknowability of Columbine–and its insistence that any answers that do exist reside not in a movie but in us–is as remarkable as its mesmerizing formal surface. EndBlock