Thursday, May 13, 2004

The President Appears Before the Commission

From William Katz and the New York Sun (No link as the whole paper's site is behind a registration wall! Screw you fella.) comes this transcript of the President's appearance before a Commission examining why we got into the War.

No, not that President, not that Commission, not that War.
Mr. Ben-Gorelick: Good evening, President Lincoln. The Select Commission on Gettysberg thanks you for taking time out from the Civil War to appear.

Lincoln: You're welcome, sir. I respect the commission.

Mr. B.: Before I get to the blunders at Gettysburg, sir, I must ask about the speech you just gave there dedicating the cemetery. This "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth..." Do you have the...

Lincoln: I know it.

Mr.B.: I call your attention, sir, to paragraph three, where you state, "...that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause..." Do you recall that?

Lincoln: "...for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."

Mr. B.: What cause is that, sir?

Lincoln: Why, winning the war.

Mr. B.: No, that's not what I meant. We all want to win the war, and, of course, we honor the troops. But what's the cause? Let me be clear...

Lincoln: I wish you would be.

Mr.B.: Mr. Lincoln, you took us to war two years ago and said it was to save the union.

Lincoln: It still is.

Mr.B.: And yet - and I'll put this text in the record - there's not a single reference in this speech to saving the union.

Lincoln: It's implied.

Mr. B.: Not a single reference. Isn't it a fact that you said in the speech, "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal"?

Lincoln: Yes, in the first sentence.

Mr. B.: And isn't it a fact that you say, and again I quote, "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom..."?

Lincoln: Yes.

Mr. B.: Isn't it a fact that you were referring to slavery?

Lincoln: Well, yes. But I also said, second paragraph, that they died, quote, "that that nation might live."

Mr. B.: Yes, but what nation, sir? Clearly, your real goal is to abolish slavery. You took us to war under false pretense, didn't you, sir?

Lincoln: No.

Mr. B.: "...of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Last line of the speech, Mr. President. Nothing about saving the union. This freedom thing is, perhaps, a kind of obsession with you, isn't it? Some would say it's a fever.

Lincoln: There are good reasons for this war.

Mr.B. "I hate slavery," you said in Peoria, Ill. in 1854, seven years before you became president. This is a crusade. You couldn't knock off slavery then, so you're trying it now.

Lincoln: Saving the union is my main goal.

Mr. B.: No, it's a talking point. Let's take a break.


Chris Matthews: This is Chris Matthews, playing "Hardball." The commission's on a break. I'm here with the Gettysburg widows - four women whose husbands died in the battle. Okay, not much time. What'd you think of the president?

Clara: Disgraceful.

Mary: Sickening.

Mr. M.: You other two agree?

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

Mr. M.: Why?

Mary: Can I answer, Chris?

Mr. M.: Sure, Mary.

Mary: He just sits there and lies. He wears this silly hat. He grows this beard to look presidential...

Mr. M.: It's all image these days.

Mary: Right. But he ducked the questions. My husband didn't join the Army to fight slavery. He fought for the union. So Honest Abe, ha, goes to Gettysburg and gives a speech that lasts two minutes...

Mr. M.: Were you insulted? Elizabeth, quickly.

Elizabeth: Were we? He didn't mention a single soldier.

Ellen: Not one. And like Mr. Ben-Gorelick said, never talked about the union. You know what else?

Mr. M.: I've got 30 seconds.

Ellen: You know where he sat? He didn't sit with the families. He sat between that orator, Edward Everett, who gave a speech, and his flunkie, the secretary of state, William Seward. All cozy, protected by the politicians.

Mr. M.: Out of touch.

Mary: Terribly out.

Mr.M.: My gut tells me this guy's going down in the 1864 election. Back to the hearings.


Mr. B.: Mr. Lincoln, isn't it a fact that you also said in your speech that the men who died consecrated that cemetery, and I quote, "far above our poor power to add or detract"? Did you use those words, sir?

Lincoln: I did.

Mr. B.: Aren't you passing the buck?

Lincoln: Sir?

Mr. B.: You're president of America. Isn't it your job to add or detract?

Lincoln: Well, in some matters...

Mr. B.: Presidents add or detract all the time. Isn't it a fact that Thomas Jefferson added Louisiana, and James Polk added Texas?

Lincoln: It was a spiritual reference.

Mr. B.: Like your "under God" phrase?

Lincoln: Yes.

Mr.B: Doesn't that confirm the charge that you're a religious zealot, seeking to impose your views on the nation?

Lincoln: I do think this country exists under God.

Mr. B.: You may be in violation of the First Amendment, and might need counsel. I'll consult with my colleagues. We'll take a break.


Mr. M.: Chris Matthews back. More "Hardball." Wow. Gettysburg widows, what'd you think of that?

Clara: I'm scared to death. He thinks he's God.

Elizabeth: It's where he comes from - the sticks out there in Illinois. They're like that.

Mr. M.: You believe he's on a religious mission?

Mary: He pretty much admitted it.
Question of the Day

Do you think Nick Berg would have minded if his captors had just made him put women's underwear on his head?
Volunteer Tailgate Party Time

It's that other Wednesday, and that mean it's time for another Volunteer Tailgate Party! It's a sampling of the best of some of Tennessee's finest bloggers, hosted this week by Queen Medb of ARACHIBUTYROPHOBIA. This one is a lottery-themed Party, so you know there's a winner in there somewhere. Surf on over and check it out.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The Press as Gatekeepers

I've added a new website to my daily rounds, CableNewser. He scans the media and media criticism, then posts what he's found and some comment. It's not a bad site, for what he does.

Today, he posted an open question about the press in the Internet age:
Allow me to just float an idea here. What would be the reaction if one of the cable news web sites streamed the beheading video? No unsuspecting viewer would be caught off-guard. I've watched the clip several times now, and the parts you don't see on TV are the parts that are truly impactful. In this Internet age, at what point do media organizations stop playing gatekeeper, and start providing raw content for consumers who want it?
An excellent question!

Locally, I don't think anyone is successfully blending Internet and old-media operations especially well. Both the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Flyer have web sites that are mostly repositories for their print content. The CA is doing blogs now, sort of, but they still wait for some reporter, journalist or news service to provide content before putting it on the web site. Perfect example was the Dyersburg hostage situation. The CA was hopelessly far behind everyone in keeping up with the situation, even with a web site available. The Flyer will occasionally post "Hot" material before the weekly update, and I think there's some web-only content, though it's not always clear.

The television news stations are all far behind the curve. Why newscast video isn't put up on their sites, available any time of day after broadcast and for days after, I don't know? Is it the cost of housing all that server space? The cost of bandwidth? Some stations have some stories' video available, and some written summaries of news stories; others have basically nothing at all.

I will say that all these sites -- print and television -- have twigged to the advertising potential, though. Every single one is packed full of flashing ads, java, scrolling stuff, ads, ads, more ads, links to advertisers and marketing stuff, bells, whistles, surveys, you name it! I'm on dial-up, which is already the red-headed step-child of the Internet for major companies in the media business, and waiting for some of these sites to load is just painful. And unnecessary. And off-putting to potential readers.

On the good side was a recent move by the Commercial Appeal. In response to reader requests, they put up the audio of Mayor Herenton's incendiary New Year's Inaugural speech. They posted the whole speech as an mp3 file for anyone to download. They even created a special "themed" web page for stories related to the speech and all the Council upset that followed.

Which is an illustration of what should have happened right away. Tape and/or audio, and a full transcript, of that speech should have been posted to the websites of any or all of the local news websites. It was available and so was the server space. Given that everyone was only printing or showing carefully trimmed edits from the speech, allowing the public to hear and decide for themselves would be the preferable choice. The same goes for Carol Chumney's Day of Hell when she was upbraided in both Council committee and full City Council sessions. Video and audio was available of the whole thing, but we never got more than bits. I and others I've talked to still have no idea what it was that set Councillor Jones off on his tirade in the committee meeting. It's on tape, but we've not seen it. We could....

Print news is limited by space for a variety of reasons. The Commercial Appeal puts a priority on national and international stuff in their A section; local news tends to go to the cramped "Metro" section, except for the big news of the day. As much page count as the Flyer has, most of it is advertising and the rest is already committed to regular features.

The television stations have hours every day to fill, but have chosen a pretty rapid pace of presentation that precludes longer, detailed reports. Plus, showing all twenty minutes of a Herenton speech several times a day, for a week, is too much to ask of anyone. But the format and pace of broadcast news just isn't made fuller examination.

Then there's the whole matter of bias and presentation. The "Brawl at City Hall" and the "fireworks." Deciding what's shown and how much is shown. The way the story is reported by the journalist. Whether you believe that news is carefully reported in a neutral, balanced way or believe that partisan editors and writers put their own spin on what they report, the issue can be sidestepped easily by simply providing the raw information.

Which gets back to the original point. With the websites and bandwidth available, what reason is there to not provide raw video or other data for readers/viewers to check out for themselves? The usual edited and manipulated reporting can still be done alongside it, for those who don't want to check out the raw feed or don't have the time or inclination.

It's a good question.
Even Terrorists Are Editors

I was just doing some daily reading and found this thread on FreeRepublic about the Nick Berg death tape. Some of the commenters had noticed the time stamps on the video. It appears that two separate cameras were used and that footage was compiled out of filmed order!
I have a different copy I think with different time stamps, not only that, but the time stamping does weird things, like at one point, it seems to go from 2:40:40 down to 2:40:10 without skipping a beat, then continues on past 2:40:40. The talking and blather goes on until they throw him to the ground (2:22:42), then the timestamp jumps to 13:45:47, and a different angle (perhaps a different camera?) up to 13:46:33, where it jumps again (apparent an edit here occurs) up to 13:47:46 - 47:52 where they remove the head finally. Then back to 2:46:17 - 2:46:22 (original camera?) where they show off the head. Then back to 13:48:42-49 where they show the head on the body, and pan around the headless neck to show off the blood.
Another poster noted that there's a one minute-thirty seconds gap from the time the blade cuts into Berg's neck until it's severed. That means they took nearly two minutes to behead him!

Gruesome stuff, yes, but compare their brutality to our alleged "brutality" at Abu Ghraib. Our photos were never meant to get outside the Iraqi prison system and military circles. Theirs was sent directly to the Internet. Compare and contrast.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Bloggers Bash Time Again?

Well, it's mid-May. School's almost over and so is Spring. The long hot Summer isn't quite here yet, but is banging loudly at the door. Maybe it's time for another Memphis (and Mid-South) Bloggers Bash? What say you? The last one was a huge success, with great turn-out, lots of conversation, civility and respect o'er all. Since then, we've found more area bloggers; some who couldn't make the last one ought to be more available now.

I'm open to inviting LiveJournallers this time, if any want to attend. LJs are kissin' cousins to blogs; at least some are. And if your blog is a corporate, paid gig, as long as it's publicly open and publicly oriented I'm fine with that too. (As long as all you CA folks don't go all clique-y and reporter-esque on us!)

Ideas, suggetions? I would suggest an earlier start time if we do this midweek, as we flat out ran out of time with the last one! Or maybe a Saturday afternoon? Should we move to someone's home, or would a larger restaurant be better? Maybe a mall food court? We had nearly a dozen last time and I think we can expect fifteen or twenty this time.

Let's start this ball rolling!

[If we use quote marks, can we get away with calling this one the "Memphis in May" Bloggers Bash? Just a thought. Don't sue!]
Hot Internet Babe News

Bad news and good news on the Hot Internet Babe front. It seems that Alabama blogger Sugarmama is taking a summer break. She's got yard work and home remodelling work to get done, and she's getting a bit burned out and fed up blogging. I'm sad to see her go, but at least we know she'll be back later.

On the good news front, spicy Texas pistol (OK, fully automatic rifle) Rachel Lucas is back! She's returned under new terms -- no comments, no email, rants only -- because although she wants an outlet for all the rantage that builds up in her brain, she got disgusted and burned out with all the other stuff blogging can wrap you up with.

On the local Hot Internet Babe front, Memphian Rachel is back from her New York trip and blogging again. With pictures!
Alien Landscapes

I just love the Encounter and Spirit rover photos from Mars, like this one. They remind us that other landscapes are also alien. They are spooky precisely because they don't resemble the world we know and our animal brains react to that.

While you're at it, take a look at these landscape photos from Venus. Donald Mitchell took the original telemetry from Russian probes of the Seventies and applied modern tools and techniques to the data. His results are startling. And, once again, alien. Remember, the air pressure here is equivalent to being at the bottom of the ocean and the temperatures are about 500 degrees; the atmosphere is a sulphurous acid bath, which is why probes don't survive long.
An East Tennessean Talks 'Q

South Knox Bubba is a good guy from Knoxville, and the Big Cheese of the Rocky Top Brigade, " of good standing (and women too, for that matter) throughout the land...hereby enjoined in the battle for truth, justice, and a good single malt Scotch whiskey for around $20." Remember, RTB is TCB! Okay, then.

Well, over the weekend, SKB (as folks call him), posted some of his experience and advice on cooking BBQ. Fine, fun reading for Memphians, who like to think we are the connoisseurs of swine. Be warned, though, that he cooks with gas. (Apostasy!)
Remembering the Jackson Tornados

It was slightly more than a year ago that a series of powerful tornados plowed through Jackson, Tennessee, killing fifteen people and levelling the downtown.

While just following links around last night, I found yet another WMC Channel 5 blogger: Jason Plank. They seem to proliferate like cicadas! He has this vivid post about his evening of chasing the storms and covering the damage.
Arriving in Newburn, there was indeed some damage. At the time, I honestly thought I would be bringing home the "video of the night." Among other things, I shot a UHaul truck that was blown over, a home that had it's roof blown off, and a lots of various wind damage to local buildings. While the weather there was still REALLY bad, I huddled with the camera under a gas station roof with a group of other people unfortunate enough to be out in it. I also phoned back to the station, and gave a report over the phone that ended up going on-air. The most striking thing I saw was when I went to the top of a hill, and pointed my camera east. The lighting was so constant and so bright that you almost didn't need any other light to see.

When I had everything I could get in Newburn, I was told to head back to Jackson. It was probably 11:30 or so by this time. Listening to 101.5, they kept talking high winds and a possible tornado in Jackson. At one point, I heard something to the effect of, "It's heading right for our location here downtown. We're going to take shelter now", followed by silence. Shortly after, calling the TV station was impossible as well...the line simply was dead.
Read the whole thing.

Jason also notes the calls a television station gets whenever they interrupt programming for weather alerts. I'm of divided mind on this. On the one hand, yes it's important to offer information that protects peoples' lives. It's part of their civic responsibility to the communties they serve. On the other hand, the stations really seem to leap at any serious storm and define "community" more by the reach of their radars than anything else. "Memphis' most powerful Doppler radar" (or whatever) suddenly becomes a guardian for Jonesboro, Arkansas, or Bolivar in Hardeman County, or Olive Branch, Mississippi. To the bulk of the viewing audience in Memphis, it's hard to embrace these far-flung places with our sympathies.

But Jason's post shows why. One Jackson viewer emailed to say: "I don't care if people are dying, put the damn show back on." People were dying -- fifteen of them. I wonder if the station ever later contacted that emailer to ask what he thought now?
Video Makes the Story

On Saturday, a body was found in Baghdad. It was American Nick Berg, who had been missing since April 9th. The story says:
An American civilian was found dead near a highway overpass in Baghdad, the United States military said today.

There were signs of trauma on the corpse, the military said.
"Signs of trauma." You can see a picture of the body as it was found here. It's an ugly, but not graphic photo.

Now today, Tuesday, an Al-Qaida website posts horrifying, graphic video of the death of Nick Berg. They slit his throat with a large knife, and then beheaded him, parading the head before the camera.

Hunh..."signs of traumu" indeed. Did the military downplay his death for "the family's sake?" Who took the photo of his body? Why wasn't that in the news? Did no member of the press bother to get the details?

Notice that Berg's initial discovery barely rated a mention around the media. It was far, far behind the "story" of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, and all those "shocking" photos. Only now that there's "graphic video" to show does Mr. Berg's death become a "story."

Murderers, bombers, grenadiers, snipers. Killers. Locked up in American prisons to be pumped for information that will lead to capturing their leaders and cohorts before they are tried, convicted and then imprisoned or executed. The guards' leaders didn't supervise them, military and civilian intelligence agents egged them on, and the guards lost the restraints of civil behavior. But never forget that the folks they are guarding are scum and murderers

The Al-Qaida goons captured Nick Berg long before the Abu Ghraib story broke. Was he being held for trial, the slow grinding of a legal process? No, he was held like a cow for sacrifice, to be offered up as "revenge" for whatever blood lust needs justification. He was held in reserve, to be used when needed.

Which story got, and will continue to get after the initial days of sensationalisation, sustained coverage? Who will be held up to America, day after day, as the "bad guys?" Which moral and ethical system will be studied and found lacking?

What exactly are the organising principles that our national news media operate under? Which story, to the average American worried about Americans in Iraq, average Americans in "flyover country," is the more important to tell? Where are the medias' priorities? Their allegiances?

I think this "story" tells us a lot about that.

UPDATE 10PM Radio station KTAR in Phoenix, Arizona, has posted 10 screen grabs from the video. You can see them here. WARNING! Extreme, graphic gore.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Principle Before Personality?

Radley Balko of The Agitator has a great post looking at a new book about Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson. After quoting a passage from the book, about Bill's final days, he writes:
So did your blood run cold? Were you shocked that Bill Wilson would ask for alcohol on his deathbed, but relieved to learn he didn't get it? I'd guess that a healthy majority of the people who read the article felt the same way.

That's because they've been brainwashed. I found it rather abhorrent that Bill Wilson couldn't get a taste of the one thing that may have made him feel a bit better on his deathbed. That allegiance to some stupid code of an earthly recovery group made one man's descent into death much more difficult than it needed to be.

I'm not horrified that Bill Wilson asked for alcohol as he was dying. I'm horrified that he didn't get it.
I wasn't especially surprised, nor did I find it heretical as some did. AAs have always had a tendency to forget the dictum from the Big Book to place principle before personality, moreso when it comes to Bill and Doctor Bob, AA's founders. It's easy to want the man to conform to our needed vision of him, rather than accept the messy and conflicting realities. There are also, as Balko notes, too many AAs who turn the Program into a psuedo-religion to assuage emotional problems they still haven't faced using the Twelve Steps. That's not healthy for the recovering alcoholic, nor the people around them.

On the other hand, we're not really given enough information to have a really informed opinion. If Bill was on powerful painkillers, alcohol would have been dangerous to him. So denying him was the right course. Did Bill, while still in his "right mind" before the final, pain-filled, days, specifically tell those around him to help him keep from drinking? Then they were honoring his request and acting as any good friend would. Without more background, we just can't know.

Read the Whole Thing, especially the comments. It's tough stuff, but a good corrective as well. It's always too easy to let AA turn into a psuedo-cultish evangelism in which you're a disciple and your whole life revolves around the Program. I've seen a lot of that and don't think it's healthy. Folks who treat their recovery and the Program more like a treatment regemin, say the way diabetics treat their insulin injections and their dietary changes, tend to be healthier overall. But that's just my opinion.
No Spoiler Space For You!

Spoilers -- those leaks of what's to come on your favorite television shows -- are a fact of life in the Internet age. They're easy to find and hard to ignore, especially if you're a fan of a particular show and participate in message boards. Producers and creators have a love/hate relationship with the folks who traffic in them, as the New York Times article shows.

Personally, I like spoilers and look for them for the few shows I watch, right now just Alias, Enterprise and Angel. It's good to know, for some reason, and if the episode is going to suck, I can avoid it. I have the ability to forget what I know once I start watching the episodes themselves, which helps.
The Singhsons

The Simpsons' Indian relations. Meet Omar, Mar-ji, Bartinder, Lisajit and Mugglie! Make sure to read the background stuff, too.

Hat tip to my new posting outlet:! Make sure to stop by and click around.
Fun With Numbers

The headline says, "More Ads Found in State Judicial Races." You can read the story here. Some advocacy group is up in arms and the story starts like this:
The number of outside interest groups trying to influence state supreme court elections by running political advertisements on television doubled from 2000 to 2002, a report released Thursday said.
Oooh, some real FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) here! Sounds ominous. There's even a scare quote a bit later on:
"No state that elects judges is safe," said Bert Brandenburg, deputy director of the coalition, which is concerned about the influence of special-interest money in state supreme court elections. This year, 29 states will hold such races.
Wow, I'm worried now!

Then comes the meat:
In its study, the Justice at Stake Campaign, a coalition of 40 groups advocating for an impartial judiciary, found that 10 groups intervened with ads in state judicial races two years ago compared to five groups in the 2000 elections.

Commercials were aired, either by the candidates or interest groups, in nine states in 2002, up from four in 2000.
To quote from Butt-head: "Uhhh...whut?" Four states had five groups producing ads in 2000. Two years later, nine states had ten groups. Go ahead and do the math. I'll wait.

Note the scare word used: "intervened." And note as well that the groups themselves arent' identified or explained in any detail. I have a feeling that's where the real story lies.

But wait! There's more!
In 2002, candidates spent $6 million on TV ads, while interest groups allotted $2.2 million. The most money by far was spent in Ohio — $3.7 million by candidates and $1.6 million from interest groups.
So, subtract out the one anomalous state (Ohio) and you learn that nine candidates spent $2.3 million, or about $256,000 each. Interest groups spent, per state, roughly $56,000.

Yeah, I'm really worried.
Memphis Redblogs

I got an email from Mick, of Fishkite, with a great idea: a Memphis alliance and/or group blog along the lines of the Northern Alliance. The idea is an alliance of conservative and libertarian bloggers in the Memphis and Mid-South area. He's reserved the domain name of "" and has even created a swell Redbirds-derived logo! (I'll get that up tomorrow. Trust me, it rocks.) The red comes from the "red state / blue state" electoral maps.

I'm game! It would be nice for Memphians and Mid-Southerners to have one-stop shopping for local conservative and libertarian news and punditry. We've got the summer to get up and running, to get the word out and build some connections, before the big push in the Fall. Leave any thoughts or ideas you might have in the comments. It's still a work in progress, so speak up!

While we're speaking of Fishkite, make sure to stop by and read Mick's excellent review of the John O'Neill book, The Price of Loyalty." Admit it, you didn't read it either. Mick did the hard work and now you can benefit. Very good post.
The New Blogger

In a word: Ugh. I don't like change generally, as regular readers will know. I'm still using Win98, for heaven's sake! This stuff is pretty clearly "repositioning" Blogger for bringing in newbies. Well, fine. I have the MT blog almost going. See y'all around....

Things are too spread out and over too many screens now. Used to be, everything was right there, all tucked into one window. Now I have to scroll up and down to see most things. I can't view the published post and the "edit" post at the same time to spell- and error-check. Too much wasted white space and I have to jump back and forth between windows.

Too much wasted screen space. Too much monkey motion. Not a good thing. Just more motivation to move to MT.

UPDATE: I've posted a few times now. Still don't like it! I can't see my post immediately, to know if I've made an HTML mistake that's made hash of the blog, like before. I have to click through a lot of screens to see things. When I post, I get shuffled through a lot of fancy pages with fancy graphics to land at a page that tells me to "rebuild." Do I need to? What's up?

Nope, don't like it.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

DVD Review: Elephant by Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant's quietly released Elephant has gotten quite a bit of praise for its deadpan portrayal of a Columbine-like school shooting. The movie leaves nearly every question unanswered, supposedly forcing the viewer to provide their own answers. The movie's texture is long, slow takes with little action or dialogue, timelines that cross and loop repeatedly, building to staccato bursts of violence at the end, blank and affectless. The movie intends not to shock, but to confound.

(Note: this review will spoil many movie points. While the story line is already known, there are many directorial choices and tricks that will be discussed.)

I have to say, while this is by no means a bad movie, neither was I especially impressed by it. I kept waiting for "something" to happen, which I guess was Van Sant's point. While it is supposedly "deadpan" and "realistic" I found it instead to be very, very restrained but deliberate in its use of camera movement, soundtrack and incidental music, and editing. It resembles a documentary in some ways, but make no mistake: this is a work of fiction.

While he uses Columbine as his source material with some fidelity, there is one major authorial thematic intrusion. The first classroom moment we see is a meeting of the school's Gay Student Association as they discuss stereotyping, knowing a person is gay by their appearance. I may be old-fashioned, but when a school movie's first class scene is a GSA meeting, I think a point is being made. (It's even in the credits!) Had this been all, it wouldn't rate mention, but late in the movie when the killers are showering before leaving for school, they take a shower together and kiss deeply! There is no evidence that either of the real Columbine killers were gay, so this is a directorial invention that unnecessarily rattles. It smacks of making an extraneous point. Some have said that since the beta-male boy has said he's never been kissed, that it's a "last wish" thing, but it doesn't feel that way, in the context of everything else.

Van Sant borrows some documentary techniques, but they are always used in a standard Hollywood way. The film uses static camera POVs, framing that allows some action to happen or to drift out of the frame, long tracking shots without expediting cuts, and long sections without dialogue. But the static camera still pans, sometimes to stop, other times to complete a 360 degree sweep and other times conveniently following the action. He also violates that simulated docu-purity by using slow motion at key moments and by using background sounds or added "music."

For example, one early scene has the camera focus on a pick-up football game. Action moves around and out of the frame constantly. Then a new character appears in the front of the frame, running track. She stops, looks up and around and behind her, then restarts her run. This makes the important point that we can only know what we see, that things happen outside our view that may be vital to understanding. After she has left, another character approaches the camera, to change shirts, then walk into the school.

Here is another trick he uses. During the long walk into the school, the camera stays with the young man, following the back of his head the whole way. I guess the point was to make the character unknown to us, since we do not see his face or reactions during the walk. Many shots are like this: sometimes behind the character for long stretches; sometimes in front, but then swinging to some other bit of business in the school. It's not consistent, but used to serve the narrative needs.

Sometimes the long shots are tracking shots, like in a school photo lab, where we follow a trio of students developing some shots they've taken, or down long, long hallways with two characters just walking with each other. Van Sant is not above cheap tricks, too, like starting with one character, following their bit of business, only to pick up another, unrelated character and follow their bit of business, etc., etc. Only occasionally do these long shots serve some narrative purpose. Mostly, they're just long thematic reinforcers.

Although the movie eschews "rock sountrack" music, there is a lot of orchestrally-created sound used to enhance what we're seeing. Several times we hear animal or jungle sounds; one stretch of hallway-tracking shot is supported by smeared, ennervating noise.

The movie's biggest "effect" is the use of disjointed narrative. The movie starts before school the day of the shooting, but cuts and loops constantly. We see some events from three different viewpoints during the course of the film. A late stretch turns out to have happened some day or days before the fateful morning. The general drive is forward through the day, with one major detour into the killers' last evening before we jump back to "now" and the killings we've been waiting for.

In fact, this points up one of the movie's strengths and its most endurance-testing feature. Nearly all viewers know we are going to see a Columbinish shooting. The movie spends its entire first third just introducing various people (some with title cards). We wonder as we meet each one, "Is it him?" Then, in a surprising moment as one character leaves the building, we see the shooters -- we know it's them because of their camo / aggro-goth garb and the many heavy knapsacks -- enter the school. Suspense is tightened up, because we are at last clued in. We're waiting for the hammer to fall now. It's only a matter of time. But Van Sant takes us back and forth through the day and around the characters for another third of the movie. We find ourselves watching the corners and backgrounds of the frame, searching for the killers at other moments. Every long tracking shot is filled with dread that the killers will jump out at us.

It never happens. We find ourselves taken to the house of the kids we now know are the killers, to be taken through long stretches of watching them play music and video games, sleeping and hanging out. It's meant to introduce us to them, to "explain" them in the deliberately obfuscatory and translucent way Van Sant deploys.

It's only well in the final third that the "action" commences. The first moment of the final act is the two boys in full garb, with weapons, standing in a tableaux, in an empty hallway as an oblivious janitor in the distance does his job. The boys wait, checking watches, for explosions that don't come. So, they set out.

The first shooting is a girl we've been following the whole movie. She's an "odd" girl with some unexplained problem affecting her gym class. We know nothing about her, though we've followed her throughout the whole movie. We only know she's the "odd" girl from her manner, her appearance (frizz hair, no makeup, large nose and eyebrows, loner affect), from standard Hollywood shorthand. She dies, "pop," just like that. Sudden, bloody blast and out of the frame. Gone forever.

The violence is a lot like that. "Pow" it happens, spray of blood and the body falls, like in a video game, and it's over. The movie even goes so far as to make that connection explicit. One of the boys plays a first-person shooter video game the night before that is nothing but walking stiffs in a vast, empty plain. It's simple and meaningless to pick them off. When they begin the violence, the first scene of shooting is an imitation of a first-person shooter POV, with the gun barrel in the bottom of the frame as kids scatter and bodies fall.

At the same time, while some deaths are very explicit, some are avoided completely. Three girls trapped in a bathroom are surely going to die, screaming, but the film cuts away at the ultimate moment. The movie ends with the jock and his girlfriend (in the movie's forced shorthand they are the "perfect every-couple" of the school, though we know almost nothing about them) trapped in a meat locker in the school cafeteria. The killer does a taunting "eenie, meenie, meinie, moe" as they plead for their lives. The movie fades as he chooses. We don't see or hear what we know is happening next.

One of the movie's few black characters is introduced during the carnage, with title card. We think he might be a hero, as he calmly walks the halls, helps a shocked girl escape, and doesn't get freaked out by a dead body. We seem him approach one of the killers from behind, we expect he'll tackle him. But no, he is shot dead before he can act. Bang, end. This is Van Sant playing with our cinematic expectations. We're primed to think he's going to do something heroic, but that's undercut quickly and brutally. Why? Well, just to slam home the movie's inescapability.

Step back from what the movie's about (the killings) and what you find this movie is is a well-executed ratcheting up of audience anticipation and fear, without the expected satisfying conclusion. This is, if you will, the "anti-slasher" film. The characters aren't even stock or stereotypes. We see so little we can't form any real opinions. Yes, there's the "jock," the "odd" girl, the young man-boy, the "bitchy" girls, etc., but since they aren't played for stereotype, we can't really call them that. No one "deserves" to die, in classic slasher-film morality, but death meets them anyway. The killings may be random, but the build-up has been careful and sure. The movie doesn't lull with reassurance, but numbs with blandness, repetition and incomplete set-ups. We are anticipating the killings, since we know the narrative, but also because we want something to happen, to connect it all, to draw a "through-line."

One last point is the use of clouds and sky. The movie opens with a soundtrack of kids just talking and doing something we can't figure out, though to me it sounds like mild bullying of someone. I could be wrong. What we see is a teal-colored sky with fast-moving, high cloud cover. At the point in the film after we know who are the killers and that they are about to act, we get a long shot of the same colored sky, but with building clouds, thunder, and storm clouds. At the end, we close with a dark sky where the sun seems to break through. It is, without question, a framing device, much like the title cards.

I'm not sure the movie does what its fans claim: putting Columbine in a neutral context that forces us to confront the violence naked. There is too much manipulation of elements and the audience; we are directed to the Van Sant's point, rather than having it revealed. The movie isn't neutral. It's explicitly anti-gun, even to showing the boys buying a gun through the Internet and mail, then signing for the delivery themselves. (I checked with Say Uncle who assured me that it's been illegal to do that since 1968 without a Federal Firearms License! It's completely bogus, propaganda! It wasn't the case with Columbine, I'm pretty sure.) Where the real Columbine killers had ample evidence laying in the open in their homes, the two Elephant boys have none at all, only lots of teen-angst art and the usual teenboy clutter. You can even make an argument that Van Sant fetishises their "cave" as some kind of gay idyll.

The actors are all good, though none stand out for acting talent, unsurprisingly. The two killers are a pair: one looks like a young John Cusack and the other like a suburban-wannabe Eminem. Most of the kids are visually distinctive, but blend together personality-wise. Most of the male actors have that Van Santian "boi" look to them.

As a formal exercise in building fearful anticipation in a formalist, Last Year at Marienbad way, or as a study for film students, I could recommend this movie. He tries to make points about the incompleteness of seeing and knowing, about the photographic instinct as a way of seeing, and about propaganda. But as a way of coming to understand the Columbine killers, I think this movie fails. Too much liberty is taken, the director pushes and prods everything too much, to do that. He's borrowed the media narrative, which was wrong. The truth is much darker and weirder than most folks understand. His additions come from some other agenda. Seeing the two boys kiss in the shower is just off-putting and not in the source, though consistent with Van Sant's homoerotic themes in his other films.

The actual DVD comes only with the movie (in widescreen and theatrical formats), the usual language and subtitle choices, the trailer and a video-diary of the film's making without narration, though there are a couple of comments made by the actors that are surprising and in one case stunning. These I won't spoil! There is no director's commentary, which isn't a surprise. Van Sant's serious about leaving the viewer on their own.

I think this is a failed film, though a fascinating one. Not really recommended.