Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

“Get the fuck out and don’t come back! Some heavy shit’s going down!”
Introduction

So, I briefly mentioned this on the podcast when I had just seen Four Lions. While this is not the same as Four Lions, Elephant is similar in its controversy: humanizing people who are seen by many as inhuman. Even merely animals. While Four Lions focuses on four/five would-be terrorists plotting to bomb London, Elephant focuses on the Columbine School Massacre. Not only did this film come to my mind due to the similarities between the two, the main reason was the choice of Elephant being the ‘best film of the decade’ by Matty ‘Ballgame’ Robinson on the Filmspotting podcast. Whislt Sam and Adam chose There will be Blood and Mulholland Drive – this film seemed to come way out of left field. So, we come to my film-dilemma – how can I call myself a film fan if a presenter on a hugely-successful podcast names a film as best-of-the-decade – and yet I haven’t seen it! Thats madness. So, to my favourite store Fopp I went and, parting with merely £5, I purchased Elephant
Tracking the Characters

The film uses a specific style throughout – tracking a range of characters who, potentially, are in no way linked. Obviously they all go to the same school, but the ‘jock and girlfriend’ are not necessarily friends with ‘John’, whilst the photographer is not friends with the girl-geek. But, of course, thats the point. These are just everyday pupils going about their business – the jock is he who he is walking from the sports field to the reception, the photographer does what he does – taking pictures of his friends. Interestingly, John – the first guy tracked with startling blonde hair – looks like he could be one of the murderers.

It opens on a car driving, badly, down the road – this first makes you consider that the killer must be driving this car. Someone who is a rebel and drives a car dangerously down the road. But alas, the car stops and an older man, is asked to hand over the keys to his son. John is this son and it is clear that his father is an alcoholic. So, maybe – you think – this child, John, is from a broken family. A father who is drunk and drives down the road, hitting other cars. Maybe it is John who is the killer – it would make sense. But again, this is clearly not the case as we track John doing, what could be, a daily routine of ‘dealing’ with his drunk father. He is spoken to by a truancy officer (maybe? or the principal?) – someone who has seen this situation many times. Inevitably, halfway into the film, we see the two killers walking into the building telling John to get out in passing. John has some link with these boys – but is clearly not as screwed up.

The second-half of the film focuses on the killers themselves – Eric and Alex – showing a range of possible reasons for their crime. The ease of getting hold of guns? The apathy of the parents – parents we do not see. The homosexuality? (Not that the boys were necessarily homosexual – merely an understanding that they would kill themselves and that they wanted to have kissed someone before they died… but why naked? in a shower? That seems quite gay to me) The frustration of the noise and sounds that surround them? – the annoying banter of high-school kids? We are not told, and there are many more possible reasons highlighted, what the reason is – it is simply a case of deeply-felt hatred towards people from both Alex and Eric.

The Computer Game Influence

I think there is a huge focus on computer games. The first thing Sarah mentioned to me when we began watching this film was that the shot of the car at the start, driving down the street, is shot from the same angle of a computer game – namely Grand Theft Auto. This was initially, merely a negligible point – but the plot thickens. We see, near enough, all the characters from behind – akin to a shoot-em’-up game – throughout the film. Think about when Benny walks the hallway, searching them out – from behind, akin to a game.

Additionally, when we see Eric and Alex at home, they play computer games – shoot ’em ups and what not. And, to add a further link to the Columbine Massacre, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, were huge game-players themselves, playing Quake and Doom until late into the night. This became such a big issue, that the victims families of the Columbine Massacre even attempted to sue the game makers!

Strangely, in an example of art imitating life, and the life imitating art again – a game (this is truly messed up) was created called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! But, back onto the film…

To some extent, Eric, additionally, appears to dress like Eminem … this is not specified (Alex plays Beethoven…) so, a pop-culture reference and another ‘potential’ reason for their killing spree. Imitation.

Film as Entertainment

Fact is, is this entertainment? Personally, I reckon that you are supposed to watch the film knowing the ending. You won’t know who and how things happen – but you know that it is about a massacre by two boys in a high school. If you do not know this, then you are waiting for a long time – I’d be surprised if you’d even wait that long because nothing happens for most of the film. The cutting between characters is to tease you – moving away from one character to expose another one shortly before the massacre. You know whats coming, so it purposefully stalls it by highlighting a different pupil. An ordinary child just going about their day. The only word Nicole manages to say is seconds before being shot. The photographer, having created some beautiful works of art, inconsequentially shot – he means, or more importantly, his entire life (dreams and ambitions) – means nothing to these killers. We know they are full of hate – but the group of girls with their own bulimic issues, mean nothing. This is the tragedy. This moving, back and forth, between stories – created a disjointed progression is part of the experience, and surely makes the film watchable on multiple viewings.

To top it off, the only ‘credible’ actor is Timothy Bottoms: an actor who was the lead in an important teen movie of its time – The Last Picture Show. Maybe Elephant will become a historical teen film of this period because it really is an incredible film.

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12 comments

  1. You're a trooper for buying this one mate. I remember watching it at TIFF 2003 and being deeply moved by it…but thinking that I couldn't watch something like this very many more times.

    (And I'm the guy who owns THE PIANIST!)

    One thing that I'll always remember from the post-film Q&A is when someone asked Gus Van Sant about the title. He said it refers to “The elephant in the room…”

    Make of that what you will.

    Oh, one last thing. Your enjoyment of this film might prompt you to track down the other two volumes in Van Sant's Walking Trilogy (GERRY and LAST DAYS). Don't do it! This is the most fully realized of the three films by far, and you'll hate yourself for sullying its memory by watching the other two thumbnail sketches that are its bretheren.

    Great post – very in-depth look at an underrated gem from the 00's.

  2. You liked it? Color me shocked. There was enough stuff here for a 15 minute film, but I found it hard to know or care who the camera was following, even though it followed them for several minutes. Then characters who I hardly knew or cared about got shot and I still didn't really care. Props on the careful analysis, but I was neither moved or entertained by Elephant.

  3. I am now a Screen Insight convert. This was truly insightful commentary and I am impressed.

    Will I rush out and buy this? No.

    Will I ever watch this? No.

    But I will stick around and read more of your reviews and learn a bit along the way. I love movies and I certainly love learning.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog today.

    Michele
    SouthernCityMysteries

  4. elephant's awesome! have we spoke about this before?? i watched it when i was living with George, during a lil Gus Van Sant phase and loved it, it really got under my skin!
    Loving the review, and made me think about things differently (computer game reference!) so nice one. Glad u watched it anywho, we should converse soon 🙂
    ps- the photographer guy is completely you at college! 😛

  5. @Hatter – I shall take your advice. Gus Van Sant, as I'm aware, is touch and go … only if something, such as Elephant, perks my interest will I hunt them down. There are many more directors I am not so in-the-know about that precede Gus Van Sant

    @Alfindeol – I think its one of those observing films – akin to, say, 4 months 3 weeks 2 days – a very slow film with beauty in merely observing. Opposed to strongly narrative-driven films – where you need something to pull you from one scene to the next.

    @Michele – welcome! i've followed your blog for a while and only recently responded to a post! feel free to take part in our discussions on cinema and, hopefully, you'll enjoy the podcast!

    @Bangor Rep – ha ha! i did hope there was some correlation there – he was a mighty cool artist. A Gus Van Sant 'phase' you say! tell me more about this 'phase' you went through!

  6. It's been a good while since I've seen this and it's high time I gave it a refresher watch. Need to have me a Van Sant marathon one of these days, itching to see My Own Private Idaho again.

  7. The most controversial thing about this film is how boring it is.

    I probably owe it a second watch, but seeing Last Days just confirmed for me that I was probably right about Elephant. I don't want to be a hater here, but I found both films to be pretentious masturbation.

    Gus Van Sant is a very frustrating filmmaker for me. I like/respect him in the abstract, but most of his films have seemed to me to be either too obtuse or too mainstream, as if he doesn't have any choice but to visit one extreme or the other. And both extremes seem to be kind of an “f you” to the audience.

    Or maybe I am just remembering the message about him in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back too clearly. 🙂

  8. @Aiden R. – I havent seen My Own Private Idaho, strangely enough, the only other Gus Van Sant film ive seen is the remake of Psycho, which wasnt really Gus Van Sants skill…

    @Vancetastic – boring? as i said in my post, i reckon if you're not keen on seeing where it all leads or, potentially, you may not know where it leads, then I can appreciate the boring-ness – personally, it is situations as crazy as Columbine that are ideal to put under the mircoscope and just observe – the beauty of life as it progresses… according to Mad Hatter, Last Days is renowend for being weak.

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