Elephant the movie
Gus Van Sant’s Elephant was at once critically praised and denounced by both film reviewers and filmgoers alike. The cinematography takes you on a waltz throughout a seemingly typical day at an unnamed high school, stopping through the journey to focus on the stereotypes of school. The jock, the quirky artist, the cliqued girls, the skateboarder, they are all represented and representative of his film. Van Sant created a film, seemingly without a staunch opinion on the horrors of the Columbine shootings. The movie seems distanced from the actors and their actions: an unaware participant from the tranquil introduction to the gruesome climax. His seeming lack of a purpose, lack of a reason for the creation of this film, is exactly the impetus that drives its core meaning. The high school was as stereotyped and typical as possible, a campus where everyone swears they’ve visited once in their life. The visceral climax is at once both slowly built up to inevitability by the characterizations of the assailants, yet it also strikes the school suddenly and without warning. Van Sant’s film is a series of seeming contradictions and paradoxes that create the illusion that he has no stance on the Columbine shootings. His stance, however, is given away in the purposelessness of the film; the idyllic simplicity of the school, and its subsequent destruction, has no purpose. The Columbine massacre had no purpose. Gus Van Sant’s aestheticized school builds up a world that seems tangible to most students. He carries every right to create his own world and tear it back down. It is this beauty that he creates that makes the film so much more shocking when it ends.
Aesthetic realism is the concept of accepting reality as unchangeable; therefore, one must find the beauty that is inherent in everyday life instead of attempting to create beauty. The idea is that aesthetic realism “sees all reality including the reality that is oneself, as the aesthetic oneness of opposites,” (Siegel). In other words, life is at once changing and the same. For example, someone is the same person when they wake up in the morning and the same person when they go to sleep at night. They haven’t changed. However, there have still changed as a person throughout the day, at least minutely. Change and stability both occur simultaneously. At the same time, Siegel states that it “sees the largest purpose of every human being as the liking of the world on an honest basis,” (Siegel). This is taking a moment of time, accepting it for what it is, and then seeing the beauty that is inherent in it.
Van Sant’s film aestheticizes the reality of high school, focusing on its beauty and character, and ignoring the underlying grime inherent on most campuses. The halls and yard of the school are kept in immaculate condition, staying unnaturally clean, almost sterile for a school. Despite this seeming glorification of the building, the hallways are kept as a constant secondary to the sharply focused characters the camera constantly follows. It takes the focus away from the bare walls and empty hallways and places it solely on the students. The film isn’t about the location that it occurred, but the people that it happened to. The focus is on the students of the film, both literally and figuratively. The camera seems to never stop moving, save for brief pauses that seem to rest the viewer. There is little extraneous distraction from the characters as they walk down the hall; the only time something distracts from the center of attention is when it is repeated again as the film goes through its several cycles that repeat scenes from different points of view.
The film intertwines the lives of its multiple points of view. They all seem to be unrelated, but they ultimately tie together in a cohesive storyline that unravels into its unavoidable conclusion. Each person follows his or her own timeline until it reaches the point moments before the rampage. As one timeline concludes, the next one begins tangent to the previous, overlapping slightly, but otherwise telling another unique story. Each story is a vignette of someone’s day, each time slowly followed by the omnipresent camera. The stories of the characters, while somewhat interesting from a voyeuristic sense, do not create a particularly shocking film. Were it to end moments before the climax, it would have ultimately become a remarkably different film. However, it is the routine nature of their life that the viewer can relate to, and it is this connection that grows between the viewer and the film that makes the conclusion so tangibly terrifying.
What ultimately creates the feeling of how disturbing and ultimately visceral the film is can be the commonality that exists between all of the characters. It is possible to feel as though one has vicariously lived a segment of their life through the abused Eric, the maltreated John, or the universally loved Elias. The halls have a feeling that the school could be anywhere; the students are stereotypes that exist at every high school. The subtle details, from the janitorial push mop to the balding principal all exist at both the school in Elephant and “your” high school. Even the music, primarily Ludwig van Beethoven, is universal. Everyone knows the melody of Fur Elise or the rhythmic beats of Moonlight Sonota, if not the name of the composition, and it resonates to the viewer as something instantly recognizable.
The film builds up with each high school stereotype building upon the last. John is the pretty boy, the skater or surfer; it doesn’t matter in Van Sant’s world. John is good friends, or at least good acquaintances with Elias, the universally loved artistic male. Nathan and Carrie are the two high-school lovers, living in their own world, separated from the lives of others. Michelle represents every verbal abuse that anyone has taken throughout his or her teenage life. When Alex and Eric indiscriminately go through the school, killing each person we were so caringly introduced to during the first hour, the despondency and purposelessness come to full circle. To us, Michelle was the pain we had felt when we were alone. To Alex and Eric, she was simply another target, without meaning. Even Benny, whom never says a word, and never relates to the audience, is blown away without explanation. Each death lacks reason, culminating in Alex’s surprising murder of his compadre and cohort Eric as Alex shoots him mid-sentence.
Critics denounce Van Sant’s seeming worthlessness, claiming it weakens the movie with its lack of opinion. Scott Foundas sees the school where “every floor is meticulously waxed, every shaft of afternoon sunlight unerringly placed, and where the autumn leaves are forever falling,” (Foundas 3). He finds it a critical erring of the film that it focuses so clearly on the exceptional, the unique, the varied students. Foundas wishes that the film were more realistic, more tied to reality. Likewise, he denounces Van Sant’s portrayal of Alex and Eric, claiming that he embellishes their history, “they were not neo-Nazis. . .and they were. . .not gay,” (Foundas 4). Foundas’ arguments do carry some merit; as stated previously the characters in Elephant ARE stereotypes. Especially Alex and Eric, whom carry every theorized possibility that was created about the Columbine shooters, and had nearly every theory transplanted into their characters. The students live in a perfect, idealized school that seems almost unnatural.
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However, it seems as though Foundas has forgotten that Elephant is at once both a commentary on Columbine, but also a movie, made for entertainment and the director’s own reasons. One of the fundamental purposes of movies is to entertain and enlighten. Foundas is overly critical of Van Sant’s beautification of school, the overwhelming stereotypes, and the somewhat-unnatural aura the entire film emanates. It is these tenants that help to create the tangibility of the film to the viewer. The stereotypes are what can be easily related to; they wouldn’t be considered stereotypes otherwise. The beauty that is created during the first hour, which is denounced by Foundas as unrealistic, is subsequently destroyed in the climax. To create and destroy mediocrity would not be as stirring a rendition as Van Sant’s recreation of perfection coupled with his systematic disposal of it.
Gus Van Sant has created a world of high school that has every stereotype. He manifests a sense of beauty in every shot he creates, with the slow arcing camera shots combined with the loving caricatures of the students. He finds the aesthetic realism in high school, the elegance inherent in aspects of campus life, and constructs a film around it. It is his own right to create his own view of high school, and while critics can disagree, they should not debase. The initial purposelessness should only be taken at face value; it is the lack of purpose in the beginning of the film that makes the lack of purpose in the massacre more obvious. There was no reasoning behind the Columbine shootings, they were a tragic occurrence that had little logic behind it. However, Van Sant’s film had purpose underneath its exterior.