“Elephant” forced us to see the normal inside the horrific

Elephant Eric Deulen in Elephant. (Fine Line/HBO Films)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For June, we celebrate the birthday (and the sensitive, insightful eye) of Gus Van Sant. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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There are certain movies that stick with a person to the point where they can remember every detail of the moment. I remember watching Elephant for the first time on the IFC Channel. I was 14, it was a weekday afternoon after school, and both my parents were still at work.

That afternoon can be considered a divine moment in my life as a movie nerd: a moment wherein I was confronted with the shocking and exciting reality that movies, as critic Scout Tafoya succinctly stated, “could be anything.” Stripped of every veneer of Hollywood prestige production value that makes filmmaking seem like an impenetrably expensive and literal magical endeavor, Elephant proved a movie could shake me to my core with just a camera, some people, and almost nothing else.

Gus Van Sant’s career is fascinating in the variety of ways in which he managed to upend expectations at every turn. He attempted a silly, ill-conceived, doomed project of remaking Psycho shot-by-shot right after his single biggest Hollywood success in Good Will Hunting. Then he went back to heavy mainstream drama with Finding Forester, and immediately afterwards he began his minimalist micro-budget “Death Quadrilogy”: Gerry, ElephantLast Days, and Paranoid Park. Then he made another Oscar-contending star-driven drama with Milk

Elephant represents exactly the sort of risk-taking and inspired approach that Van Sant has never shied away from. Perhaps his most controversial film and one of his most divisive, the movie deals with the lead-up to a school shooting by two high-school seniors, a direct parallel to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, just four years prior to Elephant’s 2003 release.

In it, students walk down hallways in lengthy, Béla Tarr-inspired tracking shots. The light gently reflects off of the vinyl tile and grey metal lockers. Sneakers squeak as they’re dragged across the floor, because it’s uncool to pick your feet up. The whispers of lunch gossip are audible too, and they were all familiar and piercingly real having just come home from school an hour before I had begun watching the film. 

Some may find it distasteful how Van Sant goes about taunting us with violence in Elephant, especially given the subject matter, which isn’t really philosophical in nature the way Kiarostami’s and Tarr’s films generally are. It’s deliberate and physical and too close to home. The clichés of high school behavior that fill the movie and the clichés of what makes a school shooter—playing violent video games, being a virgin, watching Nazi propaganda videos—are perhaps too on the nose.

But let me offer this particularly haunting sequence as an example of the movie’s brilliance. In a direct lift from Chantal Akerman’s Le chambre, the camera slowly pans 360 degrees counterclockwise around a bedroom. One of the to-be shooters is playing a video game on his computer, and the other is playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the piano. It’s dark and dimly lit, and yet again the air, smell, and sounds are all too familiar. Coming home from school, parents not back from work, lazing around by yourself or maybe with a friend. In this moment, the boys who would wreak havoc inside the high school are normal teenagers.

The catastrophe that waits at the end of Elephant, like the third day in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, is a dagger through the soul despite its predictability, specifically because of the authenticity of everything that comes before it. The movie captures the uneventfulness of it all from the outside but still, in bursts, pierces through the personal problems of each individual character mired in their own confusing, conflicted adolescence.

Minimalism is often used to build an experience of what it is to live the life of a fictional character. It makes us consciously aware of time and space, and the use of non-actors keeps disorientations between character and “star” at bay. Films like Taste of Cherry and Werckmeister Harmonies, both of which have footprints in Elephant, creep like moss. Keenly aware of every step towards tragedy and that when devastation occurs, it is not by happenstance or random acts of God. It is a carefully constructed series of determined events and breaks in human connection that makes it inevitable.

Elephant Trailer:

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