Shooting Gus Van Sant's
by Shubha Ghosh
Elephant, the winner of the 2003 Palme d'Or at the Cannes
Film Festival, begins and ends with the image of clouds rolling
onto a palish blue sky. In between, the director Gus Van Sant
shows us the casual lives of several high school students as
their day explodes into a Columbine-style shooting. Some of
the students we see die, some live. We cannot predict which.
The spree killers are shown in various poses: as victim of spit
balls, as dorky teenager with distant parents, as student of
piano, as cruiser of the Internet in search of guns, as random
killer of administrators, staff, and classmates. Bracketing
all this are the expansive skies filled only with clouds, silent,
unjudging. At the end of the eighty minutes we are left with
no better knowledge of the demons we witnessed or the demons
that lurk out there. Movies have charms to depict the savage
breast, but seemingly no ability to tame them.
movie has been described as bold in its uncompromising depiction
of nihilism. One critic has described the movie as "irresponsible"
because van Sant offers no explanation for the event we are shown.
The tone of the movie is flat and unjudging. As a result, we
are forced to recognize the urgent need to fill the void that
Van Sant has displayed and that leaves us empty.
The biggest question of all
is the identity of the eponymous elephant. The obvious reference
is to the three blind men asked to identify an elephant, each
having one handle on the beast, the trunk or the tail or the
leg. Certainly, Van Sant plays with perspective through the
movie, but the point is not to emphasize the relativity of reality.
Instead, we are forced to ask the difficult question, what
is the elephant that we are supposed to be seeing and the director
has chosen to shoot.
One possible answer is that
the elephant is High School. Since most of the movies tracks
the meanderings of actual students through the hallways of an
actual high school in Portland, the director's hometown and the
transplanted locale of Columbine, High School seems a strong
candidate for the elephant. Violence appears in quiet ways
even before the actual shootings. One student is seen dealing
with an alcoholic parent who runs into mailboxes on the drive
to school. A female student is warned about flirting with a
boy because his girlfriend once slapped someone who did. Another
student speaks nonchalantly about her fears of dying in a car
crash. This is not school as envisioned by John Dewey. But we
are not shown Pink Floyd's vision either. The movie does not
say anything particularly new or interesting about high school
life. The point is that these high school lives are so ordinary
and uninteresting while their deaths are so dramatic. If High
School's the elephant, the movie remains sad and depressing,
rather than tragic and cathartic.
Another possible, perhaps more
compelling, answer is that the elephant is the Nature of Evil.
One of the most disturbing scenes for me occurred right before
the start of the shootings. Alex and Eric, the film's equivalents
of Dyland and Eric, are cutting school to watch television.
A movie about the Third Reich is playing. In the background,
we see through the living room window a Fed Ex truck pulling
into the driveway. The driver rings the doorbell and cheerfully
drops off a large packet, which the kids quickly open to reveal
semi-automatic weapons. Nazi rallies play on the television
as the show's narrator recounts the ascendancy of Hitler. Eric
at that point asks Alex the casual and telling, question: "That's
Hitler, right?" The punch line illustrates the ultimate
banality of evil, not to mention the failure of high school education.
It is worthwhile to note that one of the two shooters is named
Alex in the film, perhaps a reference to the protagonist of A
Clockwork Orange, Kubrick's film about youth violence and
society's inability to cure or repress it. Van Sant really
makes no judgment about evil; he just shows it unfold. Evil
is inevitable, he seems to be saying, and its nature is elusive.
While the eponymous elephant
could be the Nature of Evil, a even more compelling candidate
is Fate. To talk about evil is to assert a judgment, and it
is not clear that Van Sant necessarily views Alex and Eric as
evil people. They act out, just like their fellow classmates
are shown acting out, but with far deadlier consequences. The
final words in the film are "Eenie-meenie-miney-mo"
spoken by Alex as he waves his rifle back and forth between two
classmates pleading for their lives. The director, with this
ending, reminds us that these events are random. We can impose
some logic to them after we have seen the movie. We can blame
Alex and Eric for being evil or deviants or their parents for
being neglectful or their school for being alienating. But ultimately
shootings just happen, and a chance decision to go to the school
library rather than to the gym is the sole difference between
life and death.
To see the elephant of the
film as Fate casts light on the aftermath of Columbine and the
spate of high school shootings that preceded and followed.
Parents and victims turn to the court system to find a solution.
Some call it closure; others justice. The Kliebolds and the
Harrises, the school, the police, and even the manufacturer of
an anti-depressant that one of the shooter's was taking have
been blamed for the events. Elephant reminds us that
placing of blame, while demanded by the law, is ultimately empty.
For many, this message disappoints. Perhaps a more appropriate
title for the movie, given its seeming lack of a message, would
have been Oakland.
But Van Sant does have a "there"
in his film. The message is for us, and generations after us,
to see what the horrors of Columbine must have been like. While
legal scholars, social scientists, public intellectuals, and
moralizers will struggle to understand why such spree killings
occur, the point in shooting van Sant's Elephant is to
never forget that they have occurred and could occur again.
The more subtle point of this amazing movie is that perhaps
the best film, and law, can do is make us remember.
Posted December 23, 2003