Friday, November 23, 2018

Elephant (2003)

USA, 81 minutes
Director / writer / editor: Gus Van Sant
Photography: Harris Savides
Music: Ludwig van Beethoven
Cast: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, Kristen Hicks, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Alicia Miles, Timothy Bottoms, Matt Malloy

It's not possible to deny the power of Gus Van Sant's strange meditation on school mass shootings. Yet it is also full of groaning missteps and off-key decisions. Start with the title, so portentously vague as to mean almost anything, good discussion fodder for a high school classroom by implication. What do elephants have to do with a high school in suburban Portland, Oregon? An elephant never forgets. The elephant is the mascot symbol of the Republican Party, conspiring with manufacturers and their lobbying arm the NRA to irresponsibly flood the country with guns. The "elephant in the room" is the obvious thing no one wants to talk about (in this case, presumably, the relation between huge numbers of guns and high levels of gun violence). In the old parable, six blind men could not agree on what an elephant looks like. Elephants are presently the largest land mammals on the planet. An internet rumor claims that elephants consider humans "cute," because of the size difference, the way that humans consider dogs and cats and other smaller mammals cute. Two of these are actual reasons for the movie's title. Darrell, can you tell us which ones you think they are and why?

Elephant has an obvious source in the 1999 Columbine school shooting. The fact that the movie works from the assumption that Columbine was an extreme outlier event—like most of the rest of us thought in the early 2000s—does tend to date it already a little. But Van Sant is so meticulous about abstracting high school life to the symbolic nub of physical space and motion I think he manages to overcome that. Fifteen years later, nearly 20 years after Columbine, Elephant in its best moments has the cool terrifying look of unassailable reality. It's the realization of a nightmare carried in the head, the one going on several times each year. You feel like you are seeing exactly what it looks like to be caught in the situation. The strange urgent silence as people frantically run away. The panting and whimpering. The panicked adults. The empty hallways. The strange noises. The way death is dealt in a way at once clumsy and breathtakingly efficient, always impossibly sudden. But then, geez, I swear every 10 or 15 minutes, Van Sant indulges some ridiculous impulse that makes you want to jeer and hoot.

I think what finally saves the movie—because I think it's definitely worth looking at and looking again, more than ever in the Donald Trump era—is its brevity. It moves so fast in its way and finishes so abruptly it's like pitching over a cliff. Like a great horror picture you're not sure what hit you. But you have to be prepared for the missteps too. Its sins are mostly lazy (or perhaps ironic) affirmations of suburban high school stereotypes and/or weird torques on the same. Three cute chatty upscale popular mean girls, Brittany (Brittany Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Taylor), and Nicole (Nicole George), for example, are perfectly rank clichés even allowing the kernel of truth at the core of clichés. They carry on at a school cafeteria lunch about shopping and boyfriends and their tender bruised feelings, complain of feeling bloated after eating half of a dry salad, and then retire to the bathroom, enter separate stalls, and throw up in unison. I think it's supposed to be a moment of comic relief, but really? As for the killers, Eric (Eric Deulen) and Alex (Alex Frost), they play violent video games, shop for guns online, watch Nazi documentaries on the History Channel, play Beethoven on the piano, and kiss in the shower, swearing to one another they have never kissed anyone before.

Because of their youth we are predisposed to like them and look for excuses for their behavior such as bullying. Indeed, there is a scene of Alex being bullied. But Van Sant seems determined to close off the routes to sympathy. I'm not sure he missed anything in the cliché parade of Alex and Eric, so perhaps injecting gay sex is there to close off another avenue, to make them even less sympathetic. In the early 2000s gays were still just another kind of "illegal" person in the conservative mainstream. But it's still almost shocking to see from Van Sant. What are we supposed to take from that shower scene? Alex and Eric are already so alienated they are alienation itself. They are notably chilling figures when it comes to the massacre, like monsters from serial killer movies like Henry. As they go over their plans and options and contingencies ahead of time, their intentions could not be more clear: kill as many people as they can at the high school and then die. They have the munitions for it, they have backup plans, they know they are going to die that day. Alex's last word to Eric as they go over the plan is, "Most importantly, have fun, man." There is little question where Van Sant is putting the onus at this point, and it's not the NRA.

Elephant is also unusual in its structure, working a little like Alejandro Iñárritu's 2000 picture Amores Perros in the dreamlike way it continually drifts back and focuses on specific intersections of characters in space and time. We see one casual hallway encounter, for example, three separate times from three separate vantages, one for each of three characters. The camera swirls up and down the dimly lit linoleum floor hallways of the high school. Much of the movie is spent watching people walk, from two or three paces behind them. All this alienated walking offers up a gnawing portrait of people essentially alone in the world, bumping and jostling in parallel but existing within cocoons of isolation. This is more effective in some cases than others—the last time I looked Elephant worked extraordinarily well for the pathos of the designated nerd girl of the picture, Michelle (Kristen Hicks, one of the few players whose name does not match the character's and what is up with that?). As a device, the crisscrossing pathways suggested too many gaps, too many other missed hallway encounters. For such a short and abstracted picture, Elephant is rich with characters or maybe I should say rich with high school stereotypes. It is always too close to being patronizing and lazy and at the same time unforgettably vivid and heartless. It's a lot like adolescents, come to think of it. An odd mix.


  1. I hated this movie. It prompted one of my most "famous" blog posts, one that actually got 15 comments, a huge number for me. And, of course, Phil had it in Top 50. Here were my thoughts when I saw it:

  2. I'm somewhere between you and Phil. I think the shooting scenes and high school ambience have held up way better than I would have guessed. But the conceits still tripped me up a lot. Great post and thread, thanks for the link.