Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Elephant (2003)

Gus Van Sant is an interesting filmmaker for sure. He can make fairly accessible “Hollywood” type films that still retain his signature (“To Die For”, “Milk”, “Good Will Hunting”) but in recent years has been going pretty far out on a limb in and making these slow moving visual poems that are definitely not designed for the masses. Some of these work better than others. His film “Gerry” I found to be painfully dull (and I LOVE slow pacing), I also couldn’t sign-off on his Kurt Cobain film “Last Days” (although I do think about it a lot and it has a lot of powerful moments while not adding up to a cohesive whole in my opinion). “Paranoid Park” I absolutely loved (and will hopefully get to discuss in greater detail in a future blog) but the one that marked me the deepest was “Elephant”.

There’s not much to discuss in terms of plot detail. This is basically a “day in the life” at an average high school that ends with violence and tragedy. We get introduced to a series of characters through sequences that cleverly establish a timeline of where they are physically in the building in relation to each other as well as the various archetypes they are meant to represent. It is a bit of a cliché for high school movies to have “the jocks”, “the burnouts”, “the quiet kids”, etc. That idea has been beaten to death ever since “The Breakfast Club”. But those clichés exist for a reason and are absolutely rooted in reality. By casting real kids, who use their real names and largely improvise all the dialogue we are sucked in to this fly on the wall perspective of the raw emotional state that is adolescence. None of them feel like caricatures. You may roll your eyes listening to a group of teenage girls giggle about a cute boy walking by, but, in the way it’s shot and through the use of improvised dialogue, it (for once) doesn’t feel like an adult trying to write dialogue for teenagers (don’t get me started on the realism of the teenage dialogue in films like “American Beauty” for example). Van Sant uses a lot of very slow tracking shots throughout the film and this does wonders for creating the sort of languid, everyday feel I’m describing.

This is all part of what I call the “slow burn” in regards to pacing and mood. A great many films from “Eraserhead” to “There Will Be Blood” take their time getting where they're going and I just love it when it works! It hypnotizes you and helps put you into the world the filmmakers are trying to create. I think the reason for the slowness in Elephant was to bring out the normalcy of the day and the characters. The fact that there was nothing special or particularly eventful happening just permeated the picture with a sense of dread for me (I recently noticed Van Sant employ this technique brilliantly with Dan White's long walk from the mayor's office to Harvey's during the climax of “Milk”).

I recall reading that the title of this film is a reference to the “elephant in the room”, an obvious truth that no one wants to discuss. “Elephant”, along with the aforementioned “Gerry” and “Last Days” is Van Sant’s “death trilogy” and this film centers on the idea of death at the hands of a stranger. It is easily the creepiest and most emotionally draining of the bunch. Something about the calm within the killers is just incredibly upsetting. Even the camera work at times suggests the perspective of a first-person shooter video game, and while I’m not going anywhere near the censorship train, I still feel like it is logical to assume that prolonged exposure to violent imagery, whether in films or in the more vicarious realm of video games, numbs us as individuals and as a society and teenagers have never and will never have the perspective to know that high school is not the end all be all of life on this planet. I remember in the “Bowling For Columbine” documentary when Matt Stone and Trey Parker (of South Park) made a simple statement that stuck with me. Basically, they were shaking their heads at how Dylan and Eric (the Columbine shooters) were seniors in high school just weeks away from graduating and how if they would have just hung in there for a little bit they would have realized (as we all do eventually) that the petty bullshit and drama of high school means nothing in the real world. You can reinvent yourself and make your life anything you want it to be and to quote my father from a memorable exchange he had with my sister when she was upset over being picked on for her gymnastics skills long ago, “No one in the real world will ever care if you can do a forward roll”. So, at risk of oversimplifying the themes of the film, I think that the Elephant in the room is the emotional vulnerability of these kids and the inappropriate outlets (or sometimes lack of outlets) they have. There is of course also an element of tragedy (going back to the “death at the hands of a stranger” theme) as we get a sense of the loneliness, hopefulness, ambition and love within these varied characters, only to see it all disappear with the sound of gunshots. This is the cinematic equivalent of a gut-punch!

The slow burn is a powerful technique, especially when it ends in frenzy (true of Elephant, Eraserhead and There Will Be Blood). It makes the climax more scary and powerful to me if you've taken a long route to get there. Some folks, even passionate film buffs, really only like to be "entertained" by movies and that's their prerogative. Elephant is not for those people... Grade: A-


  1. Another great-sounding movie I haven't heard of! Great blog site : ) The analogy to the walking scene in Milk (which I have seen, and recently) is intriguing enough to make me want to watch this one.

  2. *sigh* Elephant. What a heartbreaking film. Of the three in Van Sandt's "death" series, I have seen all but Gerry, and concur with your thoughts on Last Days. But Elephant... wow. A punch in the gut is right. Not sure you'd like this one, momma! The realism is poignant, and not over done, just as you described, Bri. This is one I'd be curious to watch again in appreciation of its finer art qualities, but not sure my heart feels the same.

  3. The slow, poetic nature of the film also makes the high action scenes (namely the gunshots) harder to bear. It seems that when a film presents life as average (unlike action films which keep us in a high energy state), we take to heart those gunshots, and instead of basking in the excitement of the action, we cringe.

  4. You've said it very well Garrett. I've been really trying to wrap my head around my reaction to violence in films in general and this one is a great example. It's odd to giddily enjoy the mayhem of a Bruce Willis or "Ahnuld" movie while being practically sick to your stomach from the gunblasts in Elephant. Odder still to find merit in a film like the original Hostel while being utterly repulsed by it's kissing cousins like Wolf Creek or House of Wax or especially The Hills Have Eyes.

    Garrett - Have you seen Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" by chance? It is an excellent companion to Elephant in my opinion and just a masterpiece in general!

  5. I watched Paranoid Park today, and I agree with you that the movie goes well with Elephant.

    What really amazes me about Van Sant's work is how well he contrasts the average life of teenagers with the horridness of death. He shows the sheltered innocence of students, and then brings the intrusion of death into the picture alongside the miniscule teenage drama (e.g., relationships, sex, classes, and parents). During a conversation in Paranoid Park between Alex and Macy, Alex showed his understanding (spoken in the words of a teenager) of the bigger problems in the world outside of the sheltered bubble of school life when he said, "I just feel like there's like something outside of normal life, outside of teachers, breakups, girlfriends, like, right out there. Like, there's like different levels of stuff." Alex appears distracted throughout much of the film, and rightfully so. He had to face the biggest problem of death and suffering while he was supposed to be sheltered and protected. He had to face the "different levels" of problems in the world, and all too quickly.

    I also feel that these films really help to explain (as you stated) the reaction to violence in films in general.

    A big difference I found between Elephant and Paranoid Park is the degree to which we attach ourselves to the characters. In Elephant we meet each character with almost equal time. Because we learn at least some backstory of each character, seeing them die is very painful. We invest so much into the character, and to see them die so quickly, without proper resolve, must be where all of our (as viewers) pain comes from. In Paranoid Park, we hardly feel for the dead (instead our focus remains on Alex), because we do not know the character who dies. To the same degree, Alex and Macy talk about the war in Iraq and starving children in Africa with a lack of understanding, because they simply have not become attached to any of the people dying. I believe that between these films, we can begin to understand why we care so little about violence in action films, and deaths of large quantities of people. The amount we care about death simply depends on our proximity to it. When we cause it directly (Paranoid Park), or see it happen to someone we have become acquainted with (Elephant), the impact is immense. But simply reading about it, or seeing an image of the dead (as the skateboarders did when passing around the picture the detective handed out in Paranoid Park) does not affect us a great deal.

    Thanks for the recommendation Brian! I really enjoyed seeing Paranoid Park and being able to compare it to Elephant (I feel as though they were meant for this).

  6. Garrett - I was so glad to see your thoughtful reply. I strongly agree with your insights into both film and the topic of viewer reaction to violence. You reminded me actually of something I touched on in my American Werewolf piece, the horror movie template that says you have to spend 20 minutes getting to know all the characters that are going to be brutally murdered over the next 60-70 minutes. I know it's manipulative and cheap and yet, sometimes, the performances and writing are such that it works on me still and it makes their grisly fate very hard to "enjoy".

    Anyway, this kind of exchange is what I had hoped for in starting the blog and I'm so pleased that you feel you've benefited from it as well.

    I hope you'll sign up to be a "follower" of the blog so we can continue! I'm working on a piece on Terry Gilliam's Brazil that should be up in the next day or two!

  7. I hated Elephant... :/... I love slow-pacing as well, I can sit through long movies, no problem, and I appreciate a good build up, but this was utterly painful and pointless to watch. It was like watching paint dry. I don't know. I think that I 'get' it you know? It was supposed to represent just any other normal day in a highschool and then shock us with the violence that occured in real life. To compare it with There will be blood which I consider a fine film is a travesty. Elephant offers nothing but a feeling of watching real life unfold and that doesn't equal a good movie IMO. I may see it again eventually, cuz I know some people think highly of it, you certainly do, I'm just not there yet.

  8. Sergio, first of all, your comments on my two posts this morning are a much appreciated reminder that I must get back to developing this site, so THANK YOU! :)

    Next, regarding Elephant, I can't find fault in your comments at all! Something like Van Sant's Last Days or Gerry (the other 2 portion of his "death trilogy", left me similarly bored for the most part. I think part of what struck me about Elephant is being in high school still when Columbine happened and retaining a certain fascination and fear of the many school shootings that have happened since. There's something so deeply sad and tragic about school shootings that gets under my skin.

    I guess my point is that I found it much easier to "fill in the blanks" with Elephant, if you know what I mean.