DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Elephant

Monday 29 August 2011


Elephant (2003) dir. Gus Van Sant
Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Timothy Bottoms, Elias McConnell


By Alan Bacchus

Like Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, in Elephant Gus Van Sant magnificently manages to create great art out of great tragedy. Indeed, both works of art are comparable. From the bombing of the city of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, Picasso rendered his most recognizable painting. For Gus Van Sant, his inspiration for Elephant, his universally celebrated Palme D’Or-winning film, was a reaction to the Columbine school shooting – a seminal event in recent US history. Years from now when we look back on his career, this might be his crowning achievement.

Van Sant’s determined minimalist style is so very deceptive and wholly cinematic. It’s cinematic in the sense that the languid and quiet pace creates an eerie tension. This serves to establish realism and makes us believe that the high school and students depicted in the film could actually exist – a high school with nameless, faceless kids free of all preconceived notions of a movie ‘high school’. But it also establishes a sense of boredom, which disarms the viewer to the inhumane tragedy about to unfold.

The film is a technical touchstone of cinematic technique. Harris Savides’ steadycam achieves some rather unique accomplishments, moving both inside and outside the school with complete unity in the lighting and depth of field. Whether or not you notice this specifically, the fluidity of the camera that creates a feeling of elegant motion is front and centre. The visual design of placing his characters in the centre of the frame moving through hallways might even connect, whether purposefully or subliminally, with the point of view in which computer games are played by the two killers in the film. Or maybe Van Sant intended to echo the eerily cold feeling of the overlook hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Look closely to follow the shifting point of view. In mid-shot, Van Sant often moves from a tracking shot following a character to a reaction shot of other characters looking down the barrel of the camera. This occurs specifically when the handsome jock turns the heads of the nattering bulimic girls in the hallway.

If there’s a false note in the film it’s the depiction of Alex and Eric as emotionless stone cold killers. When the film switches to their stories, he’s clear to show their inane and confounding activities prior to the carnage, including their planning process, executed without an ounce of remorse or self-doubt, or an acknowledgement of their fate. There’s also the gay shower scene, which creates even more confusion and questions. Regardless of how the Columbine killers conducted themselves before their rampage, their detachment from reality is frightfully terrifying.

The massacre scene that fills the third act admirably does not sensationalize the murders. The depiction of death and the often confusing actions of some of the kids just before death feel so utterly real. Benny, for instance, skulks around the school like a brainless zombie thinking he’s immune to the killers’ weaponry. And his death, so undramatic and thoughtless, is difficult to comprehend or make sense of, yet it makes sense given the way Van Sant plays out Benny’s movements.

That said, Elephant is not meant to make sense of any aspect of this tragedy, other than, like Guernica, an abstract instinctive visceral reaction from the soul of an artist.

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