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Elephant is a film it took a while for me to get round to watching. It is also a film which I had hardly heard of, beyond the brief buzz around its Cannes prize winning. I did get round to watching it, and its poetry moved me to try describe it in some aspect.

ElephantLike Russian Ark, it travels around its setting tracing a history, but this is a history in non-linear time, foreshadowing and backshadowing, rather than taking stock of a past. It follows ordinary people; we see them as an other, but we also trace their footsteps as though in their shoes, and we (as the camera, present as our eye) are not really seeing through a subject as in Russian Ark: there is no self, interpretation or discourse here. As if to underscore that fact the camera just flows through the halls, through the doorways, going where these people go, in absorbed, transparent coping, in basic understanding. And at the same time we are interpreting, we are conscious of a discourse by Van Sant on these people, in this place. Not only are we seeing (as them) how they effortlessly, unconsciously and intelligibly navigate their worlds, but we are also seeing them as subjects who are relating to the objects around them, (and so conjuring that intentional space in our own conceptual abstraction). And here is where Van Sant tells his story – a story which delves deeply into the observation of, first, Godard’s assertion that “les travellings sont affaire de morale” and more importantly, Luc Moullet’s primordial formulation, “la morale est affaire de travellings” – because these tracking shots are phenomenal manifestations of morality.

Elephant2What is the title about? I feel it is the elephant in the room. The enormous, raging, nauseating and terrify elephant which trumpets about the halls, the library, the football field, the lunch hall, the changing rooms and basketball courts, the darkroom. The nightmare to unfold, which unfolds, has already unfolded. As we trace the characters about their travels, we are coping as they cope, and we see their worlds with the aspect in which they discover them – the fuzzy faces and the hip jazz of Elias when he is most absorbed and in tune with the world; the crystal clear simplicity of the football pitch and its rituals; and then in turn the closed, violent, terrified world of the alienated and insulted Michelle; the dislocated, dissociative, bleak and hostile realm of Alex.Elephant3 But the finely tuned sounds, focus and fade, depth of field, choice of pan (to include certain small events in the buzzing, frenetic hive of activity which the clearing of the school constitutes), all of these and their underlying individual disposedness are interspersed with the most disturbing and haunting of foreshadows. The muffled echoes of gunshots merge with footsteps down the hall. And explosions, bombs. People run (to class?) down wide, empty halls: easy targets. This anxiety, this palpable sense of the elephant, explodes when we meet Alex, the young killer, as he writes his plan. “Oh, you’ll see.” Having exposed these worlds in this world, and bringing together their tenses, Van Sant manages so effectively to summon the mood of the school in an holistic account which answers (but denies the validity of) such questions as “why”, “how”, “who”, “what?”. This is a phenomenological account of the high school massacre. This is one of the most effective treatments of trauma on screen.

Elephant4Van Sant temps us with possible answers (the clichés his audience will expect). Alex might start to seem abnormal, maladjusted, ostracized, malnourished at home and abused at school. So he will lash out. But this is not Van Sant’s explanation. There are coy hints in such a direction. But there are many brutal juxtapositions which make his real point clear. We listen to a series of unsettlingly vacuous, inane conversations between high school girls, which we are compelled to take seriously (out of the humane empathy drawn from authentic writing – these are remarkably realistic impressions of American girls, right? These are their concerns and this is their characteristic mode of discourse, in all its directness and lack of nuance or subtext – not to mention the fact that these are all non-actors, all taking their real names into the fiction); to our sudden surprise, they all go into the ladies’ restroom and throw up their lunch. From the bulimics, we cut to Alex playing Beethoven (the motif music for the film) on his piano. Here is high culture, alone. He comes from a comfortable, wealthy home (and he does not listen to Rammstein or Marilyn Manson). He plays Beethoven (the calm before the storm). We are disabused of our misconceptions. He paints skeletal works of art: a black elephant on his wall. On his duvet, too. But then his music flirts with cliché, and he cannot finish the piece. Skills failing him, he bangs on the keys, flips the bird to the sheet music, and suffers his comrade’s chastisement in good humour. Meanwhile the friend plays a violent video game – another critical contrast. This is not a real game – this is pure, distilled, skill – a human shooting gallery. Not a game of our world, but of the terrified media fantasy (in its elements of truth – seeing a simple tool that develops skill and clarifies violence as ready to hand, an avenue of authentic action, of world-destroying potential).

Elephant5From here, the dream becomes a nightmare – the world, hellish. The expressionist sky turns from Lynchian green to thunderous void black. There is the terror of the plan executed succinctly in advance; the long drive to school which perfectly captures the power and tension of that space; a final turn to the pivotal scene repeated. And from that intersection where the worlds of all the characters meet, in a turning point like the rehashing of Rashomon, explodes the violence and annihilation. Again, Van Sant brings us to the brink, and over again – folding time back to steal a contentious moment of intimacy between his killers. They too are in desperate need of intimacy, meaningful human interaction (and the film’s gay discussion group make it clear to us that such signs bear no direct relation to the inner soul – this is not a commentary on repressed and abused sexual identity, but rather about existential alienation), in a film where everyone cries out for it.Elephant6 But then Van Sant peels back to the first murder, and Michelle’s is possibly the hardest to take. Elias becomes a war photographer, shooting his assailants with a camera, when the indiscriminate extermination begins (a violent, meaningless game). Just as the sky fell (first on Michelle, who stared at its earlier heavenly visage with such life in the opening minutes) the school itself becomes a vision of hell, with its flames and shallow depth of field. Benny walks around in this void, this collapsed world without any meaning left, as if without fear, for what is there to fear in such a space? And in his scenes, the elephant is that famous soundbite – “they shot the black kid…because he was black“. He dies, because nothing. The killers, too, no longer have a world – they walk like the dead, as living dead. By the final moments of the film, Alex has so systematically rendered the world unintelligible that he simply executes his counterpart, then makes a child’s game out of torment and execution. But before he completes the annihilation, Van Sant cuts back to the clouds, no longer the black nightmare, but a sunrise.elephant8
A wakening from the dream (shedding light on the whole, as Wittgenstein put it) – and we hear the Beethoven again, and we are left to think on the skill in the playing, the monotonous easy skill of the killing. And the terrifying power of knowing complete existential freedom – the disintegration of the moral floor.

In the end it doesn’t matter what causes the killer, just that he has killed – after all, what we are is how we live. Alex destroys, and no moral can change this. We are left to think of every thing we dislike that falls out of these propositions. “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”.


Here are some illuminating contemporary critical reactions:

What story there is in ”Elephant” is told in wisps that blow elliptically back and forth in time, deepening as scenes and encounters are repeated over the space of about 48 hours. The cast consists of nonactor high school kids from the Pacific Northwest, and their naturalism furnishes the picture with its understatement. We meet a blond named John (John Robinson) whose father (Timothy Bottoms) is once again drunk, sitting in the car outside the school. There’s also Elias (Elias McConnell), who snaps pictures until the bitter end, when he becomes a sort of war photographer; Nathan (Nathan Tyson), whose hooded sweatshirt goes well with his varsity carriage; Acadia (Alicia Miles), a raven-haired creature who kisses John like a dark angel; poor Michelle (Kristen Hicks); a coven of bulimic girls; and two boys named Alex and Eric (Alex Frost and Eric Deulen), who will ultimately trudge down the halls and lay waste to the student body.

Wesley Morris, Boston Globe

Working with cinematographer Harris Savides and serving as the film’s editor, [Gus Van Sant] has fashioned a visual style and a narrative shape that has the quality of a waking dream, then a nightmare. Rarely do form and content add up with such harmonious grace and power…As he did in his last film, the experimental narrative “Gerry,” but with far greater impact, Van Sant uses the trope of people walking — often with the camera positioned directly in back of them — as a metaphor for life. All the kids in “Elephant” are on the move. They’re sprinting across the lawn, drifting through the halls, running to shelve books in the library. Van Sant’s camera is never far behind, alternately hovering discreetly and pausing to tenderly catch a detail, like the pleasure in Elias’ face as he develops a photograph. Every so often, Van Sant repeats a scene from another perspective, as if he were winding back time, and decelerates the bustling to put the film into slow motion so we can pay witness to this heartbreaking animation, to the aliveness of these children. I think this is why Van Sant made “Elephant” — he wants to honor the lives of the Columbine dead, to remember all the kids in their radiant, burning life.

Manohla Dargis, LA Times

Rosenbaum pointed out the influence of Bela Tarr:

What interests Van Sant is why no one saw the massacre coming, and his exciting and rigorous structure follows several characters in overlapping trajectories and time frames (a method derived from Bela Tarr’s Satantango) so that we’re constantly noticing details we missed earlier.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Sterritt has a well-informed take on the title:

Mr. Van Sant borrowed his title from a 1989 short by British filmmaker Alan Clarke, which shows political violence in Northern Ireland as an outpouring of arbitrary mayhem traceable to no clear, rational cause. The new “Elephant” also shows violence as a huge, powerful beast that’s as hard to understand as it is inescapably present in our environment.

David Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor

And there is a fantastic essay on the film, an illuminating snippet of which follows:

[…] precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life. – Slavoj Zizek

Neera Scott, Senses of Cinema


Elephant, Dir. & Writ. Gus Van Sant, HBO Films, USA, 2003, available now on DVD

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Written by James P. Campbell

15/08/2009 at 00:47

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