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Halls of sorrow: Gus Van Sant’s Elephant

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Elephant

***** – a masterpiece

Detractors and those in praise of Gus Van Sant’s Cannes Film Festival success seem to have one sentiment in common – both believe that the film offers no analysis or insight into school violence. That view is certainly correct in the sense that Elephant isn’t bent on the politics of school violence – Van Sant is smart enough to realize that violence isn’t a math problem, it’s too complex to find concrete causes and solutions for. But, to say the film doesn’t offer insight or has a point as a result of its ignoring of politics is a misinterpretation, from where I stand.

On a very base level, Elephant has definite purpose as a technical exercise. Van Sant’s previous feature, Gerry, felt like an experiment mixing a variety of influence and for things to come. Some of Elephant‘s stylisms, in hindsight of that film, clearly come from it. After years dabbling in traditional narrative, Gerry at very least was a way of Van Sant to get a hold of the reigns of experimental cinema once again – and that experience has allowed him to perfect Elephant a bit. Despite its influences, Elephant feels completely unique. I’m not entirely sure I’ve viewed anything quite like it – even with the likes of films with somewhat-similar subject-matter (If…) and aesthetics (to whatever extent, Gerry and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky). As an aesthetic experience, it certainly feels like one that holds its own.

Elephant is an observation and a snapshot (or time capsule) of a general contemporary American high school experience. There is insight that comes from observation, simply showing possibilities is often enough – by allowing the view to decide for themselves what is possibly a defining factor in the warped mindset of the boys. But, the observation serves more importantly in offering a highly-visceral tone that is perhaps the most accurate “explanation” of them all. Most killers aren’t likely to be introspective about their actions – the thoughts “I kill because my parents haven’t met my emotional needs” or “I kill because I listen to violent music and play violent videogames” probably didn’t run through the minds of the Columbine killers, or the killers in the film. Such introspection would lead more to healing and understanding, than it would to violence – one who commits an act is more likely to be an open wound.

The observation itself allows the film to serve as an open wound of sorts. Elephant is without a doubt a highly-visceral experience; the jumbled narrative structure allows it to build suspense and terror in the audience. Van Sant’s portrait of the high school makes it seem sparse, with potential danger lurking in every corner. I never felt comfortable in the environment, as his camera didn’t feel like he was just simply watching his characters, but grasping onto what little time we have left with them. The film’s tone feels like that open wound – one that bleeds of the ups and – especially – downs of being a youth in the present day. The film finds purpose in this, being essentially a tone poem of sorts for what it means to be a contemporary youth.

I consider Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line to be the greatest war film to date for a wide variety of reasons, one of which being that the film’s outlook on war (violence) to be one of sorrow – not anger. There are few films that view violence as senseless as shown in Elephant. Roger Ebert writes in his review, “At one point he [Van Sant] follows a tall, confident African-American student in a very long tracking shot as he walks into the school and down the corridors, and all of our experience as filmgoers leads us to believe this action will have definitive consequences; the kid embodies all those movie heroes who walk into hostage situations and talk the bad guy out of his gun. But it doesn’t happen like that, and Van Sant sidesteps all the conventional modes of movie behavior and simply shows us sad, sudden death without purpose. ” There is purpose, insight and maturity in the way that Van Sant displays the shooting – a lessor film would have made it to be dramatic and exciting, but Van Sant’s is one that shows the true terror and sorrow of slaughter.

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About John

  • http://dirtgrain.com/weblog Dirtgrain

    My sister invited me to go see the movie last Sunday. She told me it was a movie about high school–man was I in for a shock. We watched the movie that night. The next day, I had to drive to my workplace and teach high school.

    It was a creepy day of work. Some strange thoughts have been going through my mind since I saw the movie. I can’t share them with my students without scaring the crap out of them, so I keep them to myself. I envision escape routes, intervention tactics, and potential weapons of defense that can be found in the everyday classroom (e.g., a stapler could be a good projectile). Unfortunately, I have no military training. All of the hypothetical scenarios that run through my mind are an amalgamation of scenes from The A-Team, MacGyver, and Chuck Norris movies. Clearly, I wouldn’t do so well in such a situation. Fortunately, my school has trained us in the aftermath of Columbine on what to do (basically, lock our doors and hide). I also wonder about which students are most likely to go over the edge, which students are being cruel to other students, and if I, as a teacher, have alienated any student to the point that he or she will take me out (am I one who would be spared by a would-be killer?).

    This is the same reaction that I had to the original Columbine massacre. The movie had an impact on me emotionally. But it didn’t add anything to my experience during the original Columbine massacre (I wasn’t there, but we felt it in Michigan, and everywhere in the country). In light of this, I didn’t like the movie so much after I had seen it. I had already been there.

    Elephant did force me to confront those issues again, but schools and their employees haven’t yet forgotten the Columbine tragedy–we still have meetings about school safety and about building positive environments. In fact, we had an incident last year that put us on lockdown, and the swat team, fully armored and armed, searched our school one room at a time. Even though the movie was not anything new for me, it will be good for those who missed the full impact of the Columbine massacre.

  • Linda

    Very usefull comment we got before! So now we know that Van Sant’s movie is not this good but that we can eventually protect ourselves with a stapler!… and the movie was not “anything new”…
    I think the fact it actually got the “palm d’or” should ring a bell here. Van Sant did a great job and gave us an amazing piece of art. Very esthetic, poetic and bringing new visual process. A movie to see, not for the fact that it’s actually based on true events that we all heard about, but because it opens a new level, that was never considered before, into cinematography History