catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 22 :: 2007.11.30 — 2007.12.14


An ordinary day

The pacing is excruciatingly slow.  The time-lapse photographer displays an obsession with the sky.  A main character is filmed playing “Für Elise” in its entirety, followed by a good portion of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”  And perhaps a third of the film consists of minimal, continuous shots following students as they walk down hallways or perform mundane tasks.  Some critics reviled Gus Van Sant for such seemingly detached treatment of a subject as emotional as a school shooting, but given the potential for overly sentimental schlock in the wake of tragedy, Elephant may be just right the way it is.

Released in 2003, Elephant was originally intended as a television film about the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, but was transformed later into a fictional account.  Given its proximity to the events at Columbine, the film, though fictional, was still about Columbine. Watching it in 2007, however, it’s also about Virginia Tech and Red Lake and Buell Elementary and too many others.

In Elephant, Van Sant follows a series of characters through an ostensibly normal day as they get sent to the principal’s office, negotiate relationships, eat lunch, participate in discussion, shelve books in the library and develop photos.  Early intimations of impending violence, however, disturb the viewer’s potential boredom and nostalgia.  As the story line skips back in time over and over again, the questions form a constant backdrop for the ordinary: when will it happen?  Who’s going to die?

Van Sant is simultaneously despairing and hopeful about his characters and, by direct association, teenagers in general.  Though they’re depicted at times as being mean, vain and ultimately murderous, they’re also variously shy, intelligent, thoughtful, brave, curious, creative and kind.  Minimal dialogue and action seems to result in occasional pigeonholing (the “jock” and the “nerd”, for example), but a generous interpretation might allow that the director is taking viewers on a tour of what is easily perceived from the outside, rather than creating a probing character study of internal motivation and memory.  He’s showing, not telling, and from the outside, many high school students appear to fall into neat categories, even to each other.  But Van Sant hints at more by alluding to the students’ very real power—power to kill, make babies, save lives, parent their parents and create art.

One might conjecture from the film’s marketing poster that Elephant is ultimately about John, a student forced to become an adult too soon who lies to the principal to cover up his father’s alcoholism.  Seeking out what he thinks is an abandoned room to cry in, he receives a genuinely tender, comforting kiss from a female classmate.  John, in fact, is shown to have some of the same resources and reasons for violence as the eventual shooters—namely, access to firearms and being deeply misunderstood by the administration—but he taps into additional resources that drive him to save people, rather than murder them: community, a sense of humor, and a general delight in the world.

Van Sant’s film, though not very gory, is not easy to watch, nor does it offer cheap hope by neatly tying off all of its story lines.  There are no suicides.  There are no rescue teams.  There are no police.  There are no saviors but the students themselves—students who are also the killers.  As we should be in the face of such callous violence, viewers are intentionally left cold and confused, yet with the spark of deeply tender moments still aglow.  Such moments are literally touching; as one student gently helps another exit a blood-soaked classroom through a window, we understand Van Sant’s thesis that death will not get the final word.  There is a hope no bullet can destroy, but one must look very closely to see it.

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