What is Elephant
? For one thing, it’s not so much a movie as it is a debate; the screenplay, credited to director Gus Van Sant, is actually the progeny of conversations with the young nonprofessional cast about their fears and concerns in the post-Columbine world. Due to this method and Van Sant’s penchant for improvisation, Elephant, a devastating and insightful look at the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, is rife with ambiguities. Even the title doesn’t have a definitive meaning: derived from Alan Clarke’s 1989 documentary of the same name about a series of violent killings in Northern Ireland, Van Sant mistook the source of the title. Clarke meant to evoke the proverbial “elephant in the living room,” a large problem right under our noses that we still ignore, but Van Sant misunderstood the origin as the Buddhist parable about blind men each feeling a different part of the creature and mistaking it for a different species. Van Sant explains, “the elephant is like a wall to one; a rope to another; a tree to another; a snake to the fourth one . . . It’s an unanswerable question.” Each of these interpretations can be applied to Van Sant’s animal, the sterile and haunting hallways of the modern high school. At once, Elephant
presents a society ignorant to its own problems, but recognizes how hard it is to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
The film itself is best described as a puzzle—scrambled narrative pieces, jumbled out of order. Labeled by a character’s name, each section takes on a new focus; first, it’s that of John, late to school because of his drunken father; then Elias, photographing other students on campus; followed by Michelle; then Nathan; a group of girls. All of these pieces appear relatively banal on their own, and hardly total a complex storyline. Rather, they weave a thematically rich tapestry, building Hitchcockian suspense and evoking Robert Bresson’s naturalism. Rejecting traditional storytelling methods, Van Sant’s approach is meandering but focused, fluid but constant. Even as the camera lazily travels from character to character, it retains the theme of teen angst and a tone of impending doom. Sequences are perceived multiple times from varied angles, and are arranged out of order with only a loose sense of time; intersecting plotlines and character trajectories, the film systematically rebuffs narrative development. The consecutive sequencing of that traditional structure implies that every scene is a consequence of the one it follows. Van Sant believes otherwise: Elephant’s world is one of a consequential continuum, in which each moment affects and is affected by those that both precede and follow it. Integrating the cyclical style of Béla Tarr’s Santantango and the varying realities of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Van Sant works not only to achieve this mood but also to repel the overwhelming audience urge to organize Elephant into a story. As Jonathan Rosenbaum explains, “Faced with a succession of film frames, our desire to impose a narrative is usually so strong that only the most ruthless and delicate strategies can allow us to perceive anything else.” In many respects, Elephant isn’t so much non-narrative, as it is anti-narrative—a vigorous denial of the easy way out. Elephant ends where it begins, with a shot of the day closing into night: just as the society can’t progress past its infantile assumptions on the serious issues Elephant presents, the film’s narrative doesn’t progress beyond its own starting point.
Harris Savides’s observant camera maps a circuitous route around the school, following characters from behind only to leave and meet up with them again with new perspective later. Elephant’s dreamlike non-linear style provides further insight into the lives of the students; as Van Sant approaches a repeated scene, he captures deeper detail and unearths what’s beneath the surface. The first time around—or second or third—the vehicular character restricts our understanding of the events on screen, but the reconsidered focus reveals another layer of the action. Elephant’s narrative parallels its themes: we might intensely and continuously study our culture, but we’re always missing something. According to Van Sant, Columbine wasn’t—or couldn’t have been—anticipated because we are far too myopic, if not blind, to comprehend something so expansive.
The problem arises not that the characters, and their real-life counterparts, aren’t observant enough, but that they don’t focus on the right things. From the opening sequence of the film, Van Sant is skeptical of the continuous scrutiny, especially from parents. John’s father doesn’t hesitate to remind his son to “buckle up for safety,” despite the fact that he’s just been driving the junior around while under the influence. Once John takes the wheel, his father recommends that they go hunting later in the week, one of Van Sant’s many hints at the culpability of American gun culture. Later, Jordan laments her mother’s intrusions, recounting waking up to ruffled sheets and opened drawers. Jordan’s nameless mother—as all the parental figures are in Elephant—makes these attempts to understand her daughter, but ultimately misses her habitual bulimia. (Jordan and her friends instinctively travel to the bathroom complaining of bloated stomachs after a two-minute lunch.) Finally, with the killers themselves, Van Sant indicts absent parents, who don’t even attempt the however feckless efforts of the others. Alex’s parents’ faces never appear on screen—their bodies always cut off at the torso. Eric’s parents never even garner mention; he stays at Alex’s house overnight without ever contacting them.
When we first meet Michelle, a gauche misfit who refuses to show her legs in gym class, she is stopped, peering awkwardly toward the sky as other students play out a game of touch football behind her. There’s a sense that something is wrong, but ironically the inevitable doom comes from behind her and not up above. Just as with the children’s parents, Michelle misinterprets the source of the problem. Throughout Elephant, characters constantly recognize community issues and imperfections, but never make more than superficial attempts at ameliorating the consequences of our society. During a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting, the camera circles the room as students discuss trite issues like determining how to tell if someone is homosexual and a newspaper article about gay rams. These are the people making the effort, but their observations are undeniably uninspired and banal.
This scene also wonderfully captures the vulnerable teenage disposition: the camera focuses on one student at a time as Van Sant juxtaposes a giggling girl with a dejected boy slinking in his chair. Paralleling these shifting emotions, throughout Elephant, light is constantly in flux. In one extended sequence of Nathan—having just dressed himself in a symbolic Lifeguard sweatshirt—traveling through hallways passing dancers and gawking girls, shadows absorb white light and the glaring sun overtakes dark passages. The instability of the light mirrors the frailty of the film’s characters: both easily slip from vivacity to despair, geniality to loneliness. Each and every character in Elephant suffers through the anguish of adolescence just as much as they their bright spots. The killers aren’t the only ones dealing with self-hatred, depression and isolation.
That teen angst threads itself through all of Elephant’s characters to the point that the audience takes time to discover who the killers are. Is it the boy with the drunken father? The geek? The jock? Van Sant keeps us guessing because there’s no one way to tell. Ultimately, the finger pointing is futile; we can’t pin down the perpetrator of such horror through broad generalizations or stereotyping. In the chilling moment Van Sant reveals the killers as they enter the school, questions of “why?” accompany the existential dread. No easy answers are to be found here either. Eric and Alex embody society’s characterizations of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Van Sant places them safely within the margins that America has defined them, only to deconstruct and destroy those very notions. None of the pop psychology applied to Columbine adds up: the violent video games, the tortured art (Eric’s extended performance of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is the film’s musical soundtrack as well), a Hitler documentary, the satanic air freshener in the car all amount to little more than feeble stabs in the dark. Just as with the parental scrutiny, there’s more stupidity than validity to these explanations. Van Sant only plays the blame game to prove how artificial it is: all these factors may contribute but nothing can define the mentality behind such horror. (Ironically, Van Sant’s film was quite idiotically blamed as a cause of the Red Lake High School shooting in 2005—proving the director’s points about society’s tendency to irresponsibly censure various aspects of American culture.)
Through these actions, the killers are also looking to define themselves and justify their actions. Directly before they commit the atrocity, Eric and Alex enter the shower together and engage in a dispassionate kiss. Van Sant isn’t blaming homosexuality—the director himself is gay—but rather evincing the connections with others they lack. As he leans in, Alex admits, “I’ve never even kissed anybody,” and makes real contact. Though Elephant hardly offers this as the definitive answer (and I don’t doubt Van Sant would deride those who do), it’s a moment of real human connection. The only other kiss in the film occurs at the beginning when Acadia comforts a crying John with a gentle peck on the cheek. Both moments resonate as pure humanism, desperate attempts to make the sort of contact they miss through their discordant realities. Like most scenes in Elephant, Van Sant doesn’t propose an ultimate meaning or provide whole context for their occurrences—in each case, the recipients are unsurprised by what appears to the audience as abrupt—but he tenderly and ambiguously intimates his characters and elicits true human emotion.
Excepting Michael Moore’s bombastic Bowling For Columbine, Elephant is the first cinematic realization of a school shooting following the fateful April day in 1999. Comparing the two films, Elephant strikes me as a much more accurate account of the climate in which the massacre was committed and much more like a documentary than Moore’s film. Elephant fits the documentary mold not only because of its natural style, but also in its constant search for meaning. Where Bowling For Columbine has a programmed thesis and sets out to uncover examples that solely underline it, Elephant journeys for an answer and, along the way, discovers varying evidence that’s sometimes contradictory but always insightful.