Of the many ways one could make a film about school shootings the way Gus Van Sant approaches the subject in Elephant
is certainly the most unexpected, and without a doubt the most unsettling. Loosely based on the Columbine massacre, Van Sant has created a fictional account of a similar shooting in a Portland high school. Elephant
’s brief running time concerns itself mainly with following around various students, introduced through title cards and characterized almost entirely through banal conversations and the camera’s gaze, as they walk around their school fifteen minutes before the shooting erupts. With two exceptions Van Sant eschews looking at classroom life, or even the complicated social life in high school in general, and is content to track a handful of non-exemplary students through hallways, across green fields, and in and out of their library and cafeteria until all hell breaks loose.
The mood provoked is dreamy and could almost be described as romantic. Cinematographer Harris Savides glides his steadicam behind and around the students in immensely long, uninterrupted shots of traveling time between class, and the beautiful Portland area soaks Elephant in warm light and gorgeous green surroundings. As Van Sant’s camera follows one student while he or she walks, various students are glanced in the background, and the camera later to them, and follow their limited path for an equal period of time; the result is a poetic and oblique picture of the connections and disconnections between students, other students, and their school. If anything, the style intensely emulates the rhythm of a school day, where the periods between classes, no matter how mundane, are usually the highlight and where it seems like everyone is on their own path, doing their own thing. When students meet or run into each other, as occasionally happens between a boyfriend and his girlfriend, or two acquaintances, the conversations are improvised and banal, mere greetings and offhand teenager chitchat. Though all the teens in the film are actors, their dialog is improvised and their characters are loosely based off their own persons and their character names are taken from their own. The general non-specifics of the entire film immerse the viewer in a languid, abstract world where there are no events and no consequential dialog; Elephant
is more an experience than an explanation.
Probably the most incentive element of Elephant
, at least for a bred-and-raised on mainstream film person as myself, was the way convention is used in the film’s aesthetic. Knowledge that the film’s subject is school shootings coupled with the wistful, eventless photography builds an unusually wicked tension as one waits and waits and eventually longs for the “climax” to come, the dream interrupted. For me, it was one of the most disturbing emotional provocations felt in cinema, all the waiting for the car chase of The Matrix: Reloaded
or the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill Volume 1
transferred to the most wrong of places.
Luckily, in a film with this dreamy and intangible of an atmosphere, a number of very overt narrative decisions stand out like slaps to the face and momentarily distract one from the carnage to come. These include a scene of the two killers waiting for their guns to come in the mail and watching a documentary on Nazis in the background, a similar shot of one of the boys playing a violent videogame, a scene where three beautiful girls simultaneously force themselves to vomit their lunch, a rare classroom scene where one of the killers is pelted with spitballs, and a kiss between the two male killers before they go to their last day of school. But before one can accuse Van Sant of pandering to the direct-though much criticized-inspirations for such a shooting one must look at another strange aesthetic decision of Elephant
. With only one exception in the cast of about a dozen every teenager in the film is attractive, having an almost model-quality beauty. Yet there is one girl who is clearly visually labeled as a “nerd.” One would expect this to make some sort of point, but Van Sant negates it by having her be the first one shot. Similarly, several teens setup as “jocks” or “beautiful girls” are nearly introduced as such but not shot. While watching the Nazi film, one of the killers asks with complete naivety “Wait, is that Hitler?” and “Wow look at all those flags,”-not exactly the kind of utterances people assume the Nazism is inspiring in these future killers. Their motives are just as oblique as the film as a whole, or teenagers in general; Van Sant inserts the easy answers but makes sure that their interpretive powers are practically nil. Left without answers one is drawn into the evocative atmosphere of Elephant
, a film named after the idea that what no one wants to talk about what is clearly obvious and tangible, but an uncomfortable subject. Ironically, Van Sant has crafted an experience that defies this idea, making the dangers within schools and amongst teenagers as oblique and mysterious as they truly are. That the danger exists there is no doubt, but after drifting around the halls of the school one will be hard pressed to find an elephant; if anything, there are creepy, shadowy glimmers of inherent tension, but searching for pure inspiration is a fool’s journey. A smart conclusion for a particularly smart film.