[…] precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life.
– Slavoj Zizek (1)
Thus we can understand poetry is anarchic in as much as it questions all object relationships between meaning and form. It is also anarchic to the extent its occurrence is the result of disturbances leading us nearer to chaos.
– Antonin Artaud (2)
Elephant (2003) is Gus Van Sant’s cinematic response to the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, in which twelve students were shot down by two of their peers. Due to his somewhat experimental treatment of the material, the film has divided audiences and critics alike. The film, which was awarded both the Palme d’Or and Best Director awards in Cannes, displays the director’s trademark minimalist aesthetic. Elephant refuses to conform to conventional notions of cause and effect, and instead weaves an inexorable spell on the viewer with its strangely meandering long takes, striking visual harmony and looping narrative structure.
Slavoj Zizek’s comment intimates an inevitable social backlash against postmodern ennui. Elephant depicts such a situation, and Van Sant’s poetic treatment of the material reminds us to look beyond the obvious causes.
Antonin Artaud asserts the radical nature of poetics to disturb conventional points of reference, and Van Sant’s open-ended treatment of the Columbine event is one example of how this stylistic strategy is able to foreground the social complexity behind the incident, and promote inquiry in the spectator. In this way, Elephant gestures beyond the frame to where an elevated perspective might suggest more mysterious causes at work.
Van Sant’s loose script is enacted by mostly non-professional actors and high-school students who kept their names and chose their own clothes for the film. Van Sant has sidestepped potential melodrama and sensationalism, and, together with director of photography Harris Savides, takes the spectator on an almost somnambulant journey as the camera follows each character around the school. The action is moved along by the steady trajectory of the camera tracking behind students as they navigate the school corridors. The spectator is positioned as a passive witness to the action as it unfolds inexorably. The result is a slow-moving film with a cumulative and powerful impact.
Reviewer Dennis Schwartz says the title comes from Alan Clarke’s 1989 film of the same name about revenge killings in Northern Ireland. Clarke apparently intended the title to refer to “the thing affecting everybody that nobody wants to talk about” (3). Schwartz says that Van Sant initially understood it to refer to the parable of several blind men describing an elephant by each touching a different part; extending the meaning to refer to the infinite perspectives each of us can bring to the one thing.
This also translates to the many dimensions of the film experience (sound, editing, narrative, etc.), which are explored by Van Sant in a way that renders them open to interpretation by the spectator. This approach sets Elephant apart from the genre of films dealing with adolescent issues. Van Sant spells out all the recognisable themes of the high-school experience – the all-pervasive desire for social integration, and its cost (bulimia, bullying, etc.) – but, in recognising the limits of presenting what he finds in any conventional way, the director takes those familiar elements and elevates them to something far greater.
There is a scene towards the end that can be seen to present a metaphor for what Van Sant, as a filmmaker, takes upon himself to do. A moment before Alex opens fire on Elias and the rest of the students, Elias raises his camera and takes a picture of the gun pointing directly at him. The shot has enormous significance: Elias’s moment of photographing Alex provides a key to understanding the kind of “anarchic” art that Artaud proposes in the opening quote. On one level it contests meaning by functioning as an odd pun on the significance of a “shot”; on another, it suggests the radical response (and responsibility) of an artist.
Columbine: the ‘Elephant’
We have a gigantic educational assembly line that coercively processes students and treats them with Ritalin or therapy if they can’t sit still in the cage. The American [sic] high school as social scene clearly spawns internecine furies in sexually stunted young men – who are emotionally divorced from their parents but too passive to run away, so that they turn their inchoate family hatreds on their peers. Like the brainy rich-kid criminals Leopold and Loeb (see the 1959 film Compulsion), the Columbine killers were looking for meaning and chose the immortality of infamy, the cold ninth circle of the damned.
– Camille Paglia (4)
Such a shocking event as the Columbine shootings surely provokes an intensive inquiry into its causes, and there is much debate surrounding the event. Camille Paglia’s view expresses some of the issues facing teenage kids in high schools in the United States, and she suggests the murderous act was an attempt to find meaning. Theories, of course, only go so far, and Van Sant is much more interested in the real life stuff of the teenagers who are the subject of the film. In this way, Van Sant takes his job as filmmaker seriously, affirming the medium’s great investigative power. This mean he absolutely avoids promoting a sense of entertainment, and instead pares down characters and dialogue to allow the action to unfold with an apparent naturalism. There are a handful of characters in the film who are given equal screen time; their days intersect and loop around one another so that we view the action from each perspective.
In stark contrast to Michael Moore’s polemical documentary Bowling For Columbine (2002), Van Sant treats the Columbine event with great subtlety. In an article in Sight and Sound, Van Sant claims that he approached the material as if he were crafting “a song or a poem” (5). The result has a peculiarly unsettling effect on the viewer, enabling a deeper engagement with some of the issues it raises. While Bowling for Columbine attacks gun legislation in the US, some theorists, such as Tony McKibbin in Senses of Cinema, have criticised it for appealing to a smug leftist audience, whereby the spectator is secured in an already familiar and comfortable position:
a sort of ideological suturing into the text where we’re positioned as political good guys against the baddies who are in essence the political right and gun-lobbying groups. (6)
McKibbin argues that, in contrast, Elephant is a far more significant work in its ability to destabilise and detach the viewer. The cumulative impact of the slowly unfolding events leads viewers to a point where they are forced to examine how exactly it has all taken place, both by having to fit together the looping narrative, and placing it in the larger social context. While Elephant is essentially a film about two teenage boys who gun all their classmates down one day, Van Sant does the remarkable thing of refusing to foster moral or emotional alignments. Alex and Eric are ordinary guys doing fairly ordinary things, though Camille Paglia might find this a façade, suggesting darker forces at work.
However, we aren’t even able to pin the adult characters as the bad guys: they are more often than not portrayed as pitifully inept. We see them depicted as irresponsible (John’s alcoholic father); disconnected (Alex’s parents, whose faces we never see, and who speak to one another in flat and loveless tones); and patronised (Mr Lewis, the school principal, who persecutes John with a comically disappointed look). The adult characters are revealed from the start as impotent.
The opening scene begins with a high-angle shot of a Mercedes Benz lurching down an autumnal tree-lined street. John’s Dad is drunk again. With a resigned air, John insists on taking the wheel and drives himself to school, where he runs through what the viewer learns is routine: car keys are deposited at the office, safely out of Dad’s hands; then John phones his brother to come collect their father. John is then bailed up by the principal, who seems to enjoy this little power game with the always-late-to-school student.
John briefly takes refuge in an empty room where he sheds a few tears. His friend Acadia enters, asking, “Did something bad happen?”, to which John replies, “I don’t know.” She simply kisses him on the cheek and leaves. There it is: nobody is in control, nobody is watching out, and nobody knows how to deal with the consequences. We have the Elephant.
With this opening scene, Van Sant presents a slice of the social issues familiar to many adolescents. There is also a comment being made on the inherent hypocrisy of those with authority. The scene presents a culture in which the organising social principle is unworkable, but also unquestioned.
Postmodern anxieties and the Big Picture
Elephant depicts a world untethered from certainties and authority, and in this way it can be seen to reflect postmodern anxieties. Slavoj Zizek’s comment offers a relevant critical perspective. The quote cited at the beginning of this essay, taken from an interview at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2001, is Zizek’s response to a question about his concept of “foreclosure”: the idea that contemporary society prohibits a real articulation of the subject.
According to Zizek (and philosopher Alain Badiou, from whom he borrows the French term), the “foreclosure” of the subject has an inevitable flip-side: “la passion du reel” or “the passion of the real”. (7) Elephant demonstrates some of the implications of Zizek’s notion, and through its poetic strategies affords the viewer an opportunity to piece together some of the elements in the bigger picture. We might regard the killers Alex and Eric as embodying the disenfranchisement that many teens (and not just in the US) feel. Viewing their apparently left-field violence in this context reveals a failure within society to deliver a secure place for their emerging sense of identity.
In the same interview, Zizek compares the idea of foreclosure and its implications with the Nietzchean opposition of active and passive nihilism. He describes passive nihilism as that state of apathy resulting from “living a stupid self-satisfied life without great passions”, which invokes the opposite form of conscious self-destruction. (8) Zizek argues that freedom in contemporary society is devoid of the more “radical dimension” of true democracy, existing instead as the watered-down freedom to choose lifestyle. (9) Zizek also sees in the pervasiveness of virtual realities (such as the Internet) a further disconnection from authentic experience.
In Elephant we can roughly align the characters according to the idea of active and passive nihilism. The adult characters present varying forms of apathy or disconnection; their lifestyles – particularly Alex’s parents, as revealed through the lifeless atmosphere of the family home – suggest an arrival at an unquestioned comfort zone, or passive nihilism. We see Alex and Eric attempting to break out of their transparent, but nonetheless prescribed realities: a bid for active nihilism.
However, there is irony suggested by the pair’s staging of the attack on their school. The heavy-duty army gear, Alex’s careful planning of the attack (down to mapping the school) and the pair’s arrival at the scene laden with bombs and weapons all appear as elements in an elaborate fantasy, rather than an authentic outburst of self-expression.
The pair succeed (or at least Alex, as the mastermind behind the assault, does) in an act of self-destruction that draws attention to their plight. However, the way in which they go about it, with the attack mimicking a sniper video game, points in a way to their ensnarement in a form of virtual reality – and perhaps to the impossibility of true freedom (or, as Zizek might say, “articulation”) within that paradigm. The video game æsthetic is reinforced by the cinematography of the final scene: the colours lose their naturalism as Alex moves through the strangely lit corridor, while the soundtrack becomes one of jungle sounds and bird calls. At this point, Alex seems to become absorbed in a “heart of darkness”-style fantasy, wrestling not only with his personal demons, but enacting a cultural myth.
While these cultural tensions are embedded in the narrative, Van Sant continues to propose an alternative viewpoint: both a sublime æsthetic (the impossibly vivid colours of the natural environment; the extended shots of the sky that punctuate the narrative), and an impersonal (or perhaps transpersonal) perspective. We are cued to an omniscient point of view right from the opening time-release shot of the sky as it turns from day into night. The human voices of the soundtrack are very much in the background, while the sky darkens ominously. The foreboding is momentarily relieved as the next scene opens with a high-angle shot of a sunny, tree-lined street. The autumn tones of the leaves are a striking contrast to the vivid light of day. This, however, is not a big-picture which Van Sant presumes to fit neatly together for us by the film’s conclusion, but underscores an enigmatic disconnection.
The characters: selfhood, culture, ennui
While the high school mise en scène with its attendant themes is possibly overworked in cinema (and especially that of the US), what is remarkable about Elephant is its delicate treatment of such sensitive material, and its poetic rendering of the day-to-day life of the students. The characters, however, reflect an ennui that is veiled somewhat by the dreamy æsthetics. It is not on the surface of things, in a social realist way (in the way director Mike Leigh might employ it, for example), but is interwoven into the fabric of the mise en scène. (10) As Van Sant himself says of Columbine, “the causes have already happened” (11).
Tony McKibbin argues that Elephant’s narrative centres on a drive towards self-realisation which ultimately results in psychosis. (12) While Elephant demonstrates the adolescent desire for social integration, it refuses to draw neat conclusions as to the motives of Alex and Eric. We see the kind of paradoxes inherent in freedom, individuation and peer pressure, and the various characters present the typical array of teen issues. Of these, “geekdom versus cool” is an understated but prevalent reality which each student must negotiate, and some (like Elias, the photographer, and Nathan, the jock) seem to cruise through effortlessly. The social codes which delineate ways of being within the high-school environment are transparent: the proverbial “elephant”.
Each character bears a stoicism which never quite plunges into resignation. We see this even in characters like the self-conscious Michelle. In one of the film’s most poetic scenes, she moves into the frame on the sports field, turns to look up at the sky, her breath clouding the air in front of her face, and then moves off. The soundtrack is of cheerleaders and football players practising over Beethoven’s delicate Moonlight Sonata. The scene moves in slow-motion – another moment where Van Sant delivers us back to the Big Picture.
An omniscient point of view is reinforced throughout the film by a combination of visual motifs (shots of sky, clouds and high-angle compositions), and by detaching the viewer from the characters’ interiority. Characters aren’t organised against the event in the way that a conventional Hollywood narrative would dictate. We are not privy to characters’ real motives, conflicts or desires. Instead, we see effects. One example is the three girls, Brittany, Jordan and Nicole, who chat, bitch and gossip over lunch, and then go together to the bathroom to throw up. Their bulimia is portrayed as incidental, ironic, a kind of given; but also points to the superficiality of their exchanges. McKibbin finds in the girls’ bulimia a notion of “will as a social achievement”, which is a clue to the underlying tension and competitiveness between the girls. (13) While Nathan seems to effortlessly navigate the social terrain, his girlfriend Carrie appears to, but we learn that “she punched a girl” for looking at her boyfriend, a further clue to the hostile atmosphere of competitiveness.
Elephant doesn’t present the classic narrative of individuation, or rebellion against authority. The characters simply don’t have that oppositional space. In this postmodern school environment, freedom does exist, albeit it as the right to wear what you like, or leave school with your boyfriend (as Carrie and Nathan do), as long as you say when you might be back. There is irony, too, in the early scene between Elias and the punk couple he photographs. The couple – who are dressed in tastefully ripped shirts, combat boots and matching hairstyles – are an æsthetic touch against the autumn-hued campus, a benign image of young love. This is postmodern punk: unhinged from its original context, depoliticised and appropriated as a fashion statement.
Alex, who will emerge at the film’s climax toting a machine gun, cops a barrage of spit-balls in science class. He calmly wipes them off in the bathroom. Later we see him casing the cafeteria, presumably planning his attack. The only cue to his internal conflict is the sudden and dramatic increase in the noise level, with Alex indicating his sense of being overwhelmed by holding his head in his hands. Alex and Eric appear as equally innocent and blank-faced as their victims, though it is apparent that Alex is the instigator, while Eric tags along for his own unspoken reasons. When plotting the day’s shooting, Alex appears excited, rather than full of hate (“And most importantly”, he says to Eric, “Have fun man!”), while Eric, looking a little worried, concentrates as if he were about to do a difficult exam. The level of disconnection is creepy – not because these are the clearly defined bad guys, but because it says so much more about the world in which they (and, by extension, perhaps we) live.
‘Sublime Anarchy’: Poetics and ontology
While poetical reference suspends literary reference and thereby appears to make language refer only to itself (as the structuralists argue), it in fact reveals a deeper and more radical power of reference to those ontological aspects of our being-in-the-world that cannot be spoken of directly.
– Richard Kearney, “Ricoeur and the Hermeneutic imagination” (14)
Richard Kearney’s comments on the power of poetic language to articulate liminal spaces within human experience is widely recognised by any practitioner of the arts, and the film medium’s visual and sound tracks contact the more intangible dimensions of our perception. If we regard classical Hollywood cinema as structured according to certain rules of narrative and film form, then the alternative must be a cinema that seeks to gesture beyond convention, breaking rules through stylistic or thematic innovation. In doing so, this less entertainment-oriented style of cinema has a radical dimension, and this is manifest in Elephant by its dreamy, contemplative pace.
Antonin Artaud’s quote, cited at the start of this work, reflects an avant-gardist’s concern for interrogating meaning via the production of radical art. In “The Reinvention of the Human Face”, Donald Gardner has written of Artaud:
What makes him unique to my mind is his genius not just in wresting something from disaster but in actually turning it inside out and making of it the very substance of his work as though disaster and nothing less was a sort of touchstone for reality and truth in a work.
– Donald Gardner (15)
Though Artaud wrote in the context of theatre, his comments still have relevance for understanding the power of poetics to address contentious issues. Artaud uses the term “poetry” to refer not only to language, but a broader range of creative expression with anarchic potential. It is Donald Gardner’s notion of Artaud’s ability to “wrest something from disaster”, and use it to produce powerful, authentic art that I see paralleled in Elephant.
Artaud reads the visual in a way that reveals the underlying metaphysics, or poetics, of the work. Though film is in many respects quite a different medium to theatre, it can be regarded as an aspect of visual art, and Van Sant has capitalised on this through the striking visual harmony of Elephant’s mise en scène. There is also a continual gesturing beyond the frame in each scene, with shots of the sky, or unusual angles that emphasise a non-human (or non-character) perspective. This is a constant reminder to the spectator of a larger vision. In an essay titled “Production and Metaphysics”, Artaud examines an example of visual art in terms of the “ideas” it contains, finding broad themes such as “chaos”, “the marvellous” and “balance”. (16) Considering Elephant in this way reveals the ideas of ‘the sublime’ and ‘anarchy’.
Point of view, causality and kakataliya
We shall consider narrative to be a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space.
– Bordwell and Thompson, Film Art: an Introduction (17)
Van Sant’s brand of naturalism eschews the classic narrative convention of order leading to climax and denouement (as Bordwell and Thompson suggest), and instead positions the viewer as self-conscious voyeur to the unfolding events, following characters around the school corridors in endless tracking shots. The camera narrates, creating not a sense of surveillance, but of a bigger picture being unravelled. In this way, the conventional codes of causality are brought into question. There is a concept called “kakataliya” described in an ancient Indian text called the Yoga Vasishta (18), which I think sums up the kind of point of view proposed in Elephant:
Suppose a crow lands on a cocoanut [sic] palm tree and at very moment a ripe cocoanut [sic] falls. The two unrelated events seem to be related in time and space, though there is no causal relationship.
Viewed from the ground, it looks as though the crow were responsible for the coconut falling. Viewed from far above, the movement of the crow and the coconut is one thing flowing into another; that is, causeless. The metaphor points to the movement of life as a whole, and the impossibility of nailing down specific start points and end points. This is not to suggest that Van Sant hasn’t sprinkled networks of potential causes throughout Elephant (in fact, there is plenty to stir debate), but rather that the flowing, open-ended narrative is a little like the concept of kakataliya: the day seems to flow endlessly as we see the same events unfolding from the perspective of different characters. Rather than functioning as a way into the interiority or motives of each character, this only underscores the sense of omniscience and – after we see the killers enter the school with their backpacks full of firearms – foreboding. With what we know of Van Sant’s understanding of the title “Elephant” referring to the parable of the blind men, it seems that he also intended to flag the connection between vantage point and truth. His choice to promote an impersonal perspective also has the potential to liberate the spectator from a partial view.
The camerawork in Elephant constantly brings self-consciousness to the spectator’s experience. Van Sant makes use of both high- and low-angle shots throughout, playing with the viewer’s positioning and, together with the long tracking shots, continually calls into question the notion of causality. One example is early on in the film, when the camera follows Nathan from the sports field and across the campus to the school building. The camera has been keeping up with the back of Nathan’s head, but then, as he reaches the building, it suddenly remains stationary – as if someone who has been following him stops. We see a similar tactic in the film’s chilling final scene, when Alex tracks down Carrie and Nathan in the cafeteria’s cold-room, where they have been hiding out from the shooting. As Alex points a gun at the pair, playing “eenie-meenie-minie-mo” the camera pulls away, removing the spectator from the action.
Elephant retains many seemingly “blank” seconds of film time as the camera follows characters, sweeps around a room as if taking in detail, or rests on the image of the changing sky. There are very little conventional editing techniques, but the result creates a significant sense of spaciousness. As Ron Burnett says:
to edit a film is not primarily a way of ordering recalcitrant elements but a way of discovering their own inherent significance.
– Ron Burnett (19)
Elephant is filmed entirely in fluid long takes and sequence shots. There is none of the standard shot/reverse shot editing during conversations; a convention based upon reaction. Van Sant’s panning from face to face, and scene to scene, creates a fluid and hypnotic momentum. In the scene between Michelle and her sports teacher, the camera moves with the pair as they walk from the sports field and inside – again, the sense of events carried on a steady current, the spectator is hostage to a pending inevitability. Time is also manipulated by the rhythm set up: a single day seems endless, bracketed only by shots of the changing sky.
Dialogue is minimal in Elephant; it’s as if communication between the characters occurs more as an aside, rather than a device to move the narrative along, or to reveal particularities of character. As Van Sant says:
It’s a suspicious fabrication within cinema that words are meant to entertain us, like we’re at a cocktail party. The dialogue in Elephant is anti-entertainment because it’s trying to teach at something that’s lifelike. (20)
Much, however, is revealed in the casual exchanges. When, for example, the gym teacher gently chides the self-conscious Michelle about why she wears long pants instead of the required gym shorts, Michelle replies, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Meaning is conveyed through these kind of oblique perspectives on character (via the cinematography), rather than having characters voice their inner realities.
Causes and conclusions
The open-ended conclusion to Elephant places the critical emphasis with the spectator. Van Sant has wisely declined putting forward his own moral perspectives, a criticism of many reviewers. While some critics have tended to draw simplistic conclusions about the reasons behind the boys actions, others, like Eric Snider (below), have criticised Van Sant’s inclusion of details such as Alex and Eric’s viewing of Nazi propaganda, without making more of such details:
[…] to simply drop those details into the film without exploring whether they are causes of the boys’ urges, effects of them, or unrelated altogether, is irresponsible. It would seem Van Sant is suggesting they are causes, which would be a lame oversimplification. (21)
The paradox is: while at the simplest level it is possible for the viewer to draw a neat connection between Alex’s victimisation and the later attack he unleashes on his classmates, there still appears to be a loophole. It simply isn’t enough of a motive. Alex’s characterisation is complex enough to include scenes where he plays Beethoven’s Für Elise on the piano, before joining Eric in a violent game on his laptop; then they browse the web for guns. (22) The only cinematic cue to promote tension is the following shot of a darkening sky as storm clouds roll in. This shot lasts for several minutes more than is apparently necessary, increasing the viewer’s sense of events orchestrated by larger, impersonal forces. By not lending the boys’ internal realities any more emotional weight than any of the other characters, Van Sant insists on promoting detachment, and also a certain compassion.
What is flagged for the spectator and critic alike is the film’s play on audience expectation and the desire to make meaning: the human “need to know”. In his 1994 article, “Movie Pleasure and the Spectator’s Experience”, theorist Carl Plantinga has described this phenomena as a human adaptive function. (23) Perhaps by suspending his own judgement, and focussing on the very ordinariness of the students and their day at high school, Van Sant forces the viewer to become aware of their own position, and their readiness to draw – what are, finally – uncertain conclusions.
- Slavoj Zizek, cited in Reul and Deichmann (2001), ‘Interview with Slavoj Zizek’, at Spiked Online (15/11/01). Downloaded 2/8/04.
- Antonin Artaud, “Production and Metaphysics” in The Theatre and its Double, translated by Victor Corti (London: John Calder, 1985), p. 31.
- Source: Dennis Schwartz, “Elephant Review” in Ozu’s World Movie Reviews Online. Downloaded 28/10/04.
- Camille Paglia, “Guns and Penises” in Salon Arts and Entertainment: Ask Camille. Downloaded 7/11/04.
- Gus Van Sant, cited in S. F. Said, “Shock Corridors”, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 14, No. 2 (London: British Film Institute), p. 16.
- Tony McKibbin, “Too Cool for School: Social Problems in Elephant” at Senses of Cinema (2003).
- S. Zizek, op cit, p. 1.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 1.
- See Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996), Naked (1993) and Life is Sweet (1990).
- Gus Van Sant cited in Sight and Sound, op cit, p. 17.
- Tony McKibbin, op cit.
- R. Kearney, in T. P. Kemp and D. Rasmussen (Eds), The Narrative Path: The later works of Paul Ricoeur (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. 17.
- D. Gardner, “The Reinvention of the Human Face” (1987). Downloaded 24/12/01.
- The painting cited is Lot and his Daughters. From “Production and Metaphysics” in Artaud, op cit.
- D. Bordwell and K. Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 65. Italics in original.
- Swami Venkatesananda, Vasishta’s Yoga (New York: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. x.
- R. Burnett, Explorations in Film Theory: Selected Essays from Cinetracts (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991).
- Van Sant quoted in Sight and Sound, op cit.
- Eric Snider, “Elephant: A Review” (2003). Downloaded 28/10/04.
- In an interesting piece of intertextuality, the two figures in the game are animated versions of the two characters in Van Sant’s previous film Gerry (2002).
- In Journal of Film and Philosophy, Vol. 2 (1994), at http://www.hanover.edu/philos/film/vol_02/planting.htm. Downloaded 29/8/03.