Elephant: Gus Van Sant’s Poetic, Chilling and Mundane Columbine Story
Originally written in Fall 2014
On April 20th, 1999 two students at Columbine High School executed a highly complex and vicious attack on their fellow students and faculty of the Jefferson County, Colorado school. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, both seniors at Columbine, carried out a mass shooting and claimed the lives of 12 students and one teacher while leaving dozens of others wounded throughout the building where explosives were rigged
throughout. The pair subsequently committed suicide after their onslaught as national headlines cried out “The Monsters Next Door: What Made Them Do It?” in the weeks following the horrific incident (time.com).
Nearly four years later, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and was given the event’s most prestigious honor, the Palme d’Or, for Best Feature Film while Van Sant took away an additional Best Director award. Van Sant’s highly regarded film holds its foundation as a social commentary based off the unruly events that unfolded at Columbine High in 1999. Though the film lays its foundation in fiction -- set at a fictional school in the suburbs of Portland and using untrained, fictional characters -- both stories’ chaotic violence draw parallels with Elephant trying to make sense of this senseless act.
Although, Van Sant’s minimalist treatment of this sensitive material, which reflects on the social complexities associated with death, becomes all too passive through its poetic, yet striking structure. Elephant’s dissection of the lives several teenagers proposes vague implications of social acceptance, alienation and reprisal that detaches the viewer from a clear-cut story and analysis of the Columbine shootings. Elephant’s detachment works both for and against Van Sant’s hypnotic exposition at times though, as it ultimately becomes senseless through a tragic, free-floating and weirdly beautiful journey.
It is important to note where Elephant fits in with Van Sant’s filmography of the early 2000’s and where it stands within the world of cinema after the Columbine massacre. Elephant is the second of Van Sant’s “death trilogy,” which began with a sommbarant and dreary Gerry from 2002 and ended with a somber dramatization of the death of a rockstar in Last Days from 2005, all of which presents death unfolding slowly on the screen. “They don’t psychoanalyze. They don’t speculate. They don’t offer answers. They’re dreamy encounters with terrible things and if they’re about anything it’s the impossibility of understanding in the face of those things,” Ross Scarano of Complex Magazine said of the trilogy’s overall thematic similarities (complex.com). Yet, even though each film has its own intriguing and unique qualities, Elephant is a refreshing social perspective of Van Sant’s examination of death that separates itself from the trilogy.
Gerry and Last Days can both be defined as tedious accounts of a personal and almost philosophical journey into an eventual death. In Gerry, Casey Affleck’s and Matt Damon’s characters are marooned and lost without vital resources in the desert, where they are destined to die but never explicitly state that reality with each other. Their death unfolds over the course of several days through blistering elements while we get only a glimpse into their own personal relationship with each other and watch what feels like every second of them dying. Last Days compliments this notion, as a Kurt Cobain-like rockstar named Blake shrugs off life and relationships with his inner demons and depression all hanging onto his shoulders. Last Days is nothing but Blake’s death and personal struggles with others, even though as Scarano puts it bluntly, “We can’t be there when he makes his art. We can’t access that space. We can't know him,” (complex.com).
Van Sant also sets apart Elephant from not only his own films of the same time period, but also from other portrayals and examinations of the Columbine tragedy. Van Sant noted in an interview shortly after the film’s release that there was a certain media hypersensitivity in the years prior to the shootings where nobody wanted to make a fictional or dramatic piece that would approximate the mind of the kids involved (YouTube.com). On the contrary, filmmaker Michael Moore had already released a critical documentary on the subject with Bowling for Columbine (2002), but presented a stark contrast to what Van Sant felt needed to be to discussed.
Moore and his extreme political ideology solely attacks gun legislation in the United States after the Columbine massacre, in what theorist Toby McKibbin says only appeals to the comfortable socially liberal viewer. “(It’s) a sort of ideological suturing into the text where we’re positioned as political good guys against the baddies who are in essence the political right and gun-lobbying groups,” (McKibbin, sensesofcinema.com). McKibbin notes in contrast that Elephant does the topic more justice in destabilising and detaching an audience through its structure. “The cumulative impact of the slowly unfolding events leads viewers to a point where they are forced to examine how exactly it has all taken place,” (sensesofcinema.com).
In lieu of these films, Elephant still doesn’t give us what could’ve been a psychosocial exploration of the killers motives that was so harshly constructed by Moore. He instead offers a new perspective and unpacks this tragedy gently. Van Sant makes use of ambiguous landscapes, a looping narrative and an ensemble cast to place Elephant within the larger social context, highlighting one of the most distraught social worlds of the postmodern era: high school.
Elephant never explicitly establishes who or what we are supposed to be focusing on throughout the film, further detaching us from a disjunctive story as we look into several social worlds within the lives of teenagers. Though it may be best to recognize the shooters Alex and Eric, who are seemingly ordinary to begin with, as the main characters, Elephant presents different portrayals of adolescence that allow for a social culmination at the film’s climax.
Neera Scott explains that, “each character bears a stoicism which never quite plunges into resignation” as we survey the high-school environment (sensesofcinema.com). We begin with John, who is on screen the longest and could possibly be seen as Elephant’s protagonist, as he rides to school with his drunken father crashing and stalling throughout the suburban streets. John is also somewhat an outcast within the school, as we see him cry alone and is never given a specific social clique. Although, he is given a peck on the cheek by Acadia, a member of the Gay Straight Alliance, and is clearly friends with Elias, “who spends a lot of time shooting -- so to speak -- his student subjects and scrutinizing his pictures in a darkroom” (Edelstein, slate.com).
Elephant also presents Michelle, a nerdy alienated girl who has body image issues, shown being reprimanded for not changing out or showering after gym. She is also bullied by three girls, Brittany, Jordan and Nicole who are ironically bulimic, as well as vain, jealous and only caring for social acceptance amongst their peers. In addition, there are brief encounters of drug-using kitchen workers and an oblivious, but self-conscious singer which all broaden the perspective of social issues that Van Sant notices within the high school other than the deranged killers. Perhaps most notable though is Nathan, a leader amongst the jocks that Alex and Eric explicitly want to get back at. He is mature, strong and has a popular, good looking girlfriend Carrie -- who may also be pregnant -- and is ultimately what Alex and Eric seem to despise most.
Finally, there are the shooters Alex and Eric. We are first introduced to these outcasts trudging into the school with with giant duffel bags full of automatic weapons, ammunition, and explosives, moments before the massacre. Backtrack to the previous day and earlier in the morning -- later in the films running time -- and Alex and Eric are preparing for their retribution. They are desensitized through violent video games -- juxtaposed later in a virtual reality during the shooting in their high school. They search for weapons on the internet and receive them shortly after in the mail, all while listening to the sweet musings of Beethoven’s "Für Elise" and a documentary on Adolf Hitler, who Eric does not even recognize. Finally, the two shower together and make out for the first time and decide to, “Most importantly, have fun man.”
These scenes of active and passive nihilism leading up to a mundane massacre are the most direct social commentaries Van Sant displays within Elephant in terms of determining the killers’ motives. Yet, the material is “(still) an attempt to make sense of a senseless act, while at the same time being true to its senselessness -- leaving the material unfinished, suggestive, and sermon-free,” (Edelstein, slate.com). No questions are ever answered in full and we are still left wondering -- what just happened?
Van Sant has mentioned several reasons why he chose to meditate on this poetic musing of tragedy rather than expunging the killings with a definitive cause like Moore attempted in Bowling for Columbine and what the national media had been doing since 1999. “(Elephant) would not have been in like a fictionalization or something that approximated maybe the minds of the kids the ended up shooting the school and killing themselves,” Van Sant reflected on what the film’s overall aesthetic would become. “...We were showing the things that really kind of happen during your day in high school … those things being more mundane, more ordinary moments in their day,” (YouTube.com). Van Sant emphasizes this notion by using mostly inexperienced teenage actors, who wear their own clothes and use their real names, and by tracking behind these students as they do “mundane, more ordinary” things. Almost all of the dialogue was made up by the actors during shooting, as Van Sant followed traditions of the cinéma vérité to allow for moments to unfold naturally. Add in avant-garde shots of the darks clouds trudging through the sky and an eerily peaceful scoring of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and Elephant is stitched together as more of an artful elegy to a mass death than a reflection on society and the Columbine shootings. All of this makes Elephant intriguing to watch and ponder, but it still leaves you wondering why two seemingly innocent students would go and shoot up there school in the first place.
Scott lays out the essential problem behind Van Sant’s ideology: “The paradox is: while at the simplest level it is possible for the viewer to draw a neat connection between Alex’s victimisation and the later attack he unleashes on his classmates, there still appears to be a loophole. It simply isn’t enough of a motive,” (sensesofcinema.com). Elephant presents multiple psychosocial situations that never really amount to anything in the film. All of the personal issues with the teenagers seem to just be snapshots thrown into the story, while Alex and Eric’s reasoning behind their plot are all too minimal for justification as Scott suggests. Critic Eric Snider bashed -- then praised -- the film for these reasons: “...to simply drop those details into the film without exploring whether they are causes of the boys’ urges, effects of them, or unrelated altogether, is irresponsible. It would seem Van Sant is suggesting they are causes, which would be a lame oversimplification,” (ericdsnider.com). No definitive causes behind the events, they just simply happen.
Strangely enough though, it all seems to work in hindsight. Van Sant puts the spectator into his own lucid dream -- which also wraps around the lives of the innocent victims and eventually Alex and Eric -- while those outside of the film are left clueless wandering through the halls much like the school’s inhabitants, what Scott calls an “enigmatic disconnection”. This notion is all tied together through interpretations of the previously noted looping disjunctive narrative, an eerily beautiful classical soundtrack and the use of extremely long takes. We can also identify the significance of disconnect Elephant presents in the poetic bookends of ominous dark clouds coasting across the frame. They signify cold, dark reality that sweep across the landscape. The clouds are inevitable much like these horrific realities. But the most abrupt and direct interpretation lies within the film’s title.
Elephant makes reference to two separate but essentially equal aspects involved with the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, the first being maybe the most apparent. After April 20, 1999, Columbine was something everyone knew about, but no one wanted to comprehend -- an elephant in the room. “Nobody is in control, nobody is watching out, and nobody knows how to deal with the consequences. We have the Elephant,” (Scott, sensesofcinema.com). Second of which is highlighted by a critic named David Schwartz where he explains Van Sant “initially understood it to refer to the parable of several blind men describing an elephant by each touching a different part; extending the meaning to refer to the infinite perspectives each of us can bring to the one thing,” (sensesofcinema.com). This analogy would suggest and defend why Van Sant would detach the narrative away from the audience, as deeper meanings and insight behind the incident were necessary to push the audience to collectively try to understand, as a society, what transpired.
What Van Sant presents in Elephant seems to be a test of the human condition for us -- and probably himself -- in dealing with atrocities. It is exasperating, but necessary. Elephant is an overall touching nightmare that plays with the way we think about cinema and is a film I can’t seem to get out of my mind. And although Van Sant makes us work, the film’s detachment brings frustration, curiosity and meditation for the Columbine shootings -- and the similar school tragedies since then -- to the surface of cinema and ultimately demands confrontation.