Lost in the Movies: Elephant


#51 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

Of the two most cited interpretations, the most frequent reading of Gus Van Sant’s enigmatic title holds that it refers to “the elephant in the room,” which nobody wants to talk about. Yet this is facile – was it really true that nobody wanted to talk about Columbine in the wake of the 1999 high school massacre? Was this true even beforehand, given that Columbine was actually the climax to a spate of school shootings, all of which received ample press coverage, rather than the kickoff? Furthermore, what exactly is it that’s not being discussed? Social isolation? The influence of the media? Video games? Gun control? Violence in America? Not only were all of these issues seized upon after the killings, but Van Sant makes a point out of eschewing all these explanations in his film (giving each of them a bit of airtime before moving on to other matters). So no, there’s no elephant in the room here, and if there is, no one’s ignoring it. The second reading, the one that it seems Van Sant actually intended, references the allegory of the blind men and the elephant, each touching a different part of the body and varying wildly in how they describe the animal. Likewise, Van Sant’s meditative, almost cruelly cool film is, at 81 minutes, too vast to take in from one perspective – which is not to say it’s particularly deep.

After April 20, 1999, the most frequently asked question in the media was "Why?" Perplexity and sadness were the dominant emotions among adults, but I don't recall many actually in high school asking that question. To most of us, the shooting seemed to be an exaggeration of the intensity, cruelty, and confusion of high school itself - and most people were not sad or quizzical, but frightened. It was taken for granted that this could happen anywhere, and that it was only a matter of time before we were hit too. In this sense Columbine was a microcosm-in-advance of national trauma: suspicion characterized our interactions with those who were "different," terror gripped our guts as we shuffled between class, security clamped down in ways that tended to scare more than comfort us. The day of the killing, it seemed just another unfortunate incident, one which our generation had grown numb towards. Within days, weeks it was larger-than-life, the media having amplified the murderers into snarling adolescent demons looming over our consciousness, waiting just around the corner by the water fountain, or outside the school doors during a fire drill, finger resting on the trigger, anticipating the kill. A year later, on the anniversary, we still skidded from class to class, practically running through the hallways, hoping that it wasn't our dumb luck to be the subjects of a candlelight vigil later that evening. Only by 2002, when those of us who were freshmen in '99 were preparing to graduate and face the wide world, did 4/20 recapture its original, hazy, more benign connotation. By then we had another slashed date to mourn, an American rather than just an adolescent tragedy, with - much to our relief - external instead of internal enemies.

Elephant is not directly about Columbine; it changes the killers' names, and some of the details of their actions. The victims all appear to be fictional. But to say the film is "inspired" by the incident is an understatement; one of the shooters even wears the trademark black duds and backwards baseball cap seen in security videos from the school. At the same time, Van Sant only uses the school shooting as a starting point, a hook for his exploration of high school (literally, given the preponderance of investigative, mobile long takes), and through it a general portrait of life passing by. The deaths to come heighten the eerie sensations of the moment, allowing us to see the beauty and sadness of the everyday; this could be seen as the film's "point" if it has one (and until I wrote that sentence, I didn't really think it did). The film's aestheticized quality, the camera's deadpan gaze and speechless gliding through hallways - the means by which Elephant achieves its meditative mood - has been criticized as cold, pretentious, and disrespectful. Is there something vaguely obscene about Van Sant's "Columbine art project," as critic Charles Taylor disdainfully dubs it? At times, yes. When the approach feels too intellectualized, or when the weirdness slides over into gallows humor, the film does appear to be in poor taste. A long scene following three ditzy girls from the hallway to the cafeteria to the bathroom seems to be gently satirizing and humanizing the silly teenagers, until it concludes with a misogynistic joke about bulimia. It's not the only time that the camera's unblinking stare seems more dehumanizing than empathetic, or more interested in gags and grace notes than people: "Van Sant isn't interested in exploring teenagers as much as in fetishizing them," Taylor gripes again, concluding, "The camera lavishes more attention on one boy's blond surfer hair, or on the clothes the kids wear, than on the kids themselves." Indeed, Van Sant can take Bela Tarr's inscrutable sarcasm wherever he likes, but doesn't applying such an approach to mass murder seem callous, glib?

Compounding this particular elephant-texture is the sense that Van Sant is rather out-of-touch with his subject. As they mope limpidly or make out in the shower, these schoolkids seem more like pawns of the director's particular sensibilities than agents of their own consciousness. The movie does not really capture the texture of high school life at the turn of the millennium or probably at any point, come to think of it. Where's the vitality, the energy - the devilish cleverness of bullies, the miserable dreaminess of the losers? Everything seems so relaxed, so casual. The cool kids strut around like Abercrombie & Fitch models but you can neither sense nor envy their hubris, that ineffable air of popularity they carry with them, as if flying the colors of some impeccable tribe. It isn't that the students Van Sant shows us don't exist - one unfortunate dweeby girl (Kristen Hicks) is perfectly realized, and quiet, genial photographer Elias (Elias McConnell) is the archetypal good kid. Rather, it's the fact that Van Sant focuses on more withdrawn figures like these, mostly eschewing the extroverts who largely characterize the tempo of public high school.

I was going to criticize the film for making these characters islands unto themselves, unconnected in any broader sense. However, upon reflection, I don't think this is true. The connective tissue in the film is the school itself, and Elephant could be considered a triumph of resonant geography. Not in the sense that we could understand or navigate the pathways of this rather upscale, massive layout by ourselves, but in the sense that - moment-to-moment - we have a dreamlike immersion in a particular place. As we repeat certain scenes from different perspectives (with different angles and focal lengths in tandem), we experience a weird and almost contrary sense of deja vu, in which actions are repeated yet something seems ineffably different. This too mimics a quality of dreams where we know what place we're in, even though it looks nothing like it does in real life (in a way, the movie flips this phenomenon, but with the same effect). At the same time, the movie's mystic streak is not fully explored, because we stick so strictly to the figures who guide our perspective like avatars in a video game. Hence, we're never really allowed to immerse ourselves in our surroundings, studying light fixtures as if they're holy stigmata or the vastness of hallways opening up like gateways into another consciousness. These possibilities are suggested but curtailed by the dominance of the human figure; perhaps, at any rate, that's for another movie to explore.

Elephant concludes with the shootings, and they don't settle any questions, but rather leave us even more unsettled and questioning of Van Sant's approach. He plays cat and mouse with the viewer, sometimes candidly presenting gore, at others evading bloodshed when it would seem too indulgent. This game too rankles - perhaps he should either show all the violence point-blank, or refuse to represent any of it. To do both, ducking and preening, varying the speed and size of the notes as if composing a sonata, seems a coy cheat. One wonders if the whole Columbine angle isn't exploitative, a way to magnify and heighten the melancholy mood and meditative displacement the director wants to explore in his setting. Reluctantly, one comes to the conclusion that it is necessary; that without this "exploitative" hook it would be difficult to become quite so immersed in the milieu. Whether this is an essential flaw in Van Sant's conception or an honest acknowledgment of dramatic necessity remains an open question. Like many other aspects of the movie, judgment and analysis depend upon where one stands and what one is grappling with at that particular moment. The tactile qualities of the movie, its sense of space and of the relationship between it and people (and between the people themselves in that space) are so rare that, however compromised, they deserves celebration. Like many notable films, one can be ambivalent about a movie's effect but admire how it was achieved. And also wonder if that's really the whole elephant one has in one's grasp, or just the trunk, the tail, the leg...

(originally linked on The Sun's Not Yellow)

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