Reading the reviewers of Van Sant's Elephant, you get the feeling that there is a very definite split between the audience. People either love it or hate it - there doesn't seem to be any grey area. Unfortunately (or furtunately, depending on how you choose to look at it), this is probably the best way to describe challenging and ambitious art cinema - doesn't this rule generally apply to most avant guarde films that are considered the best of their time?
It's true Elephant is long, and nothing happens for about an hour, you do merely follow students around the corridors of a school, and yes the killers are surprisingly cliche. And these are the elements that people will base the fact of loving or hating the film.
One of the major problems of a film like this and the subject that it is tackling is that it will gain a large recognition. And because of this it will be given more of a mainstream audience than it probably would have done otherwise. This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that a large number of people going to see a film like this that is tackling a hot topic of the day will be unprepared for the unconventional, voyeuristic piece of art filmmaking that will unravel. Film students, and people well conversed in filmic conventions and styles will, more often than not, love it as it subverts and offers new conventions. But to an audience that is more accustomed to watching 'normal' films, it will strike a barron and boring chord.
So does this mean that the film is boring and pointless? No of course not, and it is also not a film that is merely preaching to the converted, as even that has much to teach and bring to filmmaking and so is definetly not futile. In the end the film is what it is, the audience will get out of it what they bring, and probably the ones that find it boring are the ones that are more used to having narrative set up in the standard way.
Obviously, I found the film to be extremeley rewarding and I got a lot out of it, but then I've done a film studies course and am going into filmmaking. I thought the first hour was very clever and needed the slow uneventful burn, you needed to know that these were real, normal people, you neeeded to become accustomed to them. The killing needed to be numbing senseless and real.
The prblem with films like this and others like Monsters Ball is that they reach the wrong audience, one that cannot deal with real emotion and reality as they have been raised on hollywood films that subvert reality - which is fine, but makes it very hard for them to deal with anything but, it also has a very narrowing effect on film culture.