Gus Van Sant's Elephant is a creative re-imagining of the tragic murder spree by two teenagers at Columbine High School in America. We see this devastating event only in the final minutes of the film. The rest of it is about what, in some sense, leads up to that moment – the period of hours in which parents take their kids to school, staff arrive, classes begin, people move from one room to the next, and so forth.
It is not a film which, in sociological terms, sets out to explain anything about this horrible event. Indeed, in a move confounding to some viewers and reviewers, Van Sant includes references to phenomena such as violent video games and neo-Nazism precisely to flag that they explain nothing whatsoever. Instead, the film uses a particular and specific power of cinema, what I call descriptive power: it shows, it traces, it unfolds a certain space and time.
'Space and time' in Elephant are not just theoretical or formal words. Shot after shot, Van Sant shows us kids just walking down corridors, turning and saying 'hi' to each other, going from one zone of the school to another. We get, absolutely hypnotically, a physical map of the school. Many of the shots are in Steadicam and slow motion: the images float. And the sound is just as remarkable, going in and out of different ambient noises, snatches of music, strange unidentifiable and unlocatable sounds. As we keep watching, we realise that odd things are going on in the time structure of the film. We keep looping back, over and over, in a way that is hard to fit together with precision: someone you saw from this direction five minutes ago greeting this person is now seen doing the exactly same thing from another direction. The lines of the space and the lines of the time keep criss-crossing, accumulating like a Cubist portrait.
There is a plot in Elephant, a very tiny plot: a day at school that ends in a massacre. And there are characters, in fact many characters, many of whom come vividly alive for us in just a few minutes or moments or even seconds on screen, thanks to the Van Sant's extraordinary casting of non-professional actors from the local teenage population, young people with amazing and haunting presence. But this movie is not, in any conventional or recognisable or familiar sense, plot-driven or character-driven. It is a mysterious film, a 'typical art film' (some would say) in the way it keeps its secrets and does not overtly tell you what it is about, or what to think about what it is about, beginning with its cryptic title. Yet it is, at the same time, completely absorbing, a modest but significant commercial success in many countries (it ran for months in Melbourne, for instance), and it is a film that really gets people thinking and talking and reacting afterwards. What drives this Elephant?
It is neither plot-driven nor character-driven, but I would say it is event-driven, spectacle-driven, and form-driven. Let me explain these new-narrative terms to you. The film does not tell a story, it describes an event: it looks at this event (the event of the massacre), circles it, comes at it from different angles, turns it over and contemplates it in different ways. Van Sant's main inspiration was a Hungarian film called Sátántangó (1994) by Béla Tarr which keeps describing (you could even say attacking) one, single event. That film is almost eight hours long.
Elephant is spectacle-driven: what I mean here is that the film preys on a certain kind of dread-filled suspense created within us as spectators. Having an inkling of what is to come at the end means that every footstep, every slow-downed second, every turn of someone's head or odd explosion of noise, creates an incredible, growing atmosphere of low-level (and eventually high-level) anxiety. Here again, Van Sant is exploiting, in a masterful way, one of the most basic and powerful properties of cinema as a medium: cinema not only gives us things to see, it plays on our mounting desire for this spectacle to at last deliver itself to us. One consequence of this is that when we talk about things like suspense or tension in movies we do not have to be talking about a specific, personalised hero in danger or a central, fictional conflict. Suspense and tension can come purely from the movement of a camera, the rising arc of a sound, a gradual change in the colour palette of the screen, the choreography of a body. All clever filmmakers know this, at least intuitively.
This leads to the third idea: Elephant is form-driven. Not just on that micro, moment-to-moment level of the camera angles and sound effects, but on an overall, macro level. The large-scale form of Elephant, the central formal idea which drives and generates the whole film and its unfolding logic, is in that literal and conceptual action of circling: walking around and around in space, winding back and forth and time – all of this contemplation and description traces a shape that forms itself in your mind as you watch the film, what critic Nicole Brenez calls an architectonic form, a form with stresses and balances, energies and intensities.
Many great movies create their own distinctive architectonic shapes, which may have nothing whatsoever to do with established shapes like the three-act structure derived from theatre. This is hardly a new idea: back in the 1950s, after the first time Éric Rohmer saw Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), he immediately intuited that "its figure [...] is that of the spiral, or more specifically, the helix" (1) – a figure not only to be seen in the images but, more profoundly, sensed across the shape of the story's unfolding and its poetic concatenations of space and time.
In a larger cultural sense, filmmakers need to invent new architectonic forms precisely when, as in Van Sant's case, they are trying to find another way of representing something (such as a tragic school massacre) that has, in a sense, already been congealed within the sphere of representation, whether in sensationalist blockbusters or tabloid TV current affairs reportage. They crave a new form to approach and explore a difficult content.
© Adrian Martin August 2004
1. Éric Rohmer (trans. Carol Volk), The Taste for Beauty (London: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 171.