Thoughts On: Elephant - Confounding, Confused


Elephant - Confounding, Confused

Thoughts On: Elephant (2003)

A depiction of the day in which a school shooting occurs and the characters that it affects.

Van Sant's Elephant is a confounding film that, from one perspective, hides behind its complexity, and, from another, utilises complexity to articulate a story about a tragedy in the only perceivable manner. With long, wandering shots that follow characterless figures along an empty, meandering and hyperlinked plot, Van Sant expands the time element of his cinematic space whilst constricting the spatial element. In such, there is a sense of the inevitable when watching Elephant - especially on re-watches. In following characters around halls there then emerges a tinge of dread that only intensifies as we wonder "when will things explode?" both literally and figuratively. This dread of the inevitable future ahead of our characters leaves us not only clinging to the present moment, but wanting to understand it; to pick up on who characters are and what they say about, comment on, or, depict concerning the devastating phenomena of school shootings. In parallel to this, we are trapped: we have to stare at characters' backs, stuck in time with them, often in a very shallow world restricted by a tight depth of field. This sensation of entrapment has the colours of this film - the innocent yellows, reds and whites, as well as looming browns and dark shades - define the surroundings, creating a strong atmosphere of disharmony. And this disharmony is only ever emphasised through the use of music and the clunky social exchanges throughout the film; nothing flows, the music is off-beat, wrong notes are hit and the interactions between characters are dry and often very awkward.

All of this disharmony within the temporally and spatially restricted prison of a frame that Van Sant creates grinds rather uncomfortably against the free nature of the camera and, further to this, against the hints of comedy and familiarity in the content and setting of this narrative (as a high school movie). From a distance we can then see that Elephant is constructed on the narrative and formal level with conflicting dichotomies. And when considering all of the mentioned details under such a guise, we can assume that Vant Sant, at least in the first half of this movie, is attempting to create anxiety within the viewer that will have the inevitable conclusion be a release of our worst nightmares. However, this is not the case.

Watching Elephant as it presents itself - without preconceptions or a preloaded political and ideological mindset - this film appears very paradoxical. We assume that there is supposed to be a commentary on high school shooters, one that is focused on--at the very least, and without expectations of a solution to the problem--the tragedy of the phenomena. However, try as I might to see the finale as a dire disaster, I can't manage it.

The actual shooting that ends this film presents itself, and I perceive/experience it, as catharsis. This paradox of Elephant may be specific to me only, but I wouldn't be surprised if you, too, found that none of the characters in this film are given any substantial humanity. In fact, you, too, may agree that they are rather made out to be annoying caricatures that only complexify the two school shooters. So, after about 40 minutes of just following depthless jocks, dorky nerds, problem kids and bulimic blondes, seeing them shot dead is almost a release; we get some sense of why the two disturbed boys decide to shoot up a school. And absurd as this sounds, without truly indulging their evil, Van Sant captures the shooting without any sympathy for the victims. As a result, the anxiety, pressure and dread culminated through the expansion of time and restriction of the cinematic space leaves the once-dreaded conclusion cathartic; you enjoy it on some level.

Again, I wouldn't be too surprised if I'm alone in thinking this, but, equally so, wouldn't be shocked at hearing the same from others. However, it is at this point that I ask myself if this is a bad movie or not. After all, much of Elephant is constructed around hints of criticism with references to parental neglect, homophobia, the ease of gun access, ignorance, bully, etc. This leads us to believe that Van Sant wants us to perceive the ending to be a devastating tragedy. With him failing in this regard, it seems that the movie is a bad one; one that is riddled with clumsiness, pretence and ethical issues.

There is a counterpoint here, however. Van Sant seems to have precise control over what his camera says and does; it seems that he wants to alienate and push us away from melodrama, emotion or even basic drama. Does he do this to test our ability to humanise characters ourselves and empathise with innocent victims? Does he do this to simply and objectively capture truth? Does he do this so we don't see school shooters as monsters, rather, broken humans?

I struggle to commit to any one of these suggestions as they do not completely resonate with the formal or narrative design of the film in my perception. When watching Elephant, I then feel lost in a precisely constructed world that bears no point and attempts to, but then bails on the decision to, abstract meaning from the inert, mundane and possibly meaningless. In the end, I can't say that Elephant is a bad film, but nor can I say that it is a particularly good one just because it is impenetrable. To suggest that the idea of a tragedy (a school shooting) is equally impenetrable and thus imply that this validates the way in which Van Sant constructs Elephant is a particularly weak and uninteresting suggestion to me as it says little about the intricate details and outcomes of the film.

All I can then end on is the opinion that this is a confounding, confused film. However, I'd like to know what you think of Elephant, so, what are your thoughts?

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