But nobody mentions it.

Elephant (2003)
Dir. Gus Van Sant
Starring Alex Frost (Alex), Eric Deulen (Eric), John Robinson (John), Elias McConnell (Elias)

Tuesday night’s movie was the Gus Van Sant film “Elephant”, the title of which refers to the expression “the elephant in the room”, meaning an obvious truth that everyone ignores, much like an elephant in a room that nobody mentions. It was tempting for me, as a kind of joke, to not write this post and in doing so make “Elephant” the very elephant that the title refers to. But I don’t think my grades would appreciate my sense of humor.

In a nutshell, “Elephant” is a fictionalized version of the Columbine school shootings that took place in 1999. Names have been changed and certain facts altered, but the connection to Columbine is obvious to anyone who knows anything about the events that occurred.

Before I get into my thoughts on the film, I’d like to address a question that Farah posed in the comments section of my previous post. I’ll re-post it here:
“After seeing elephant, do you still think it was intentional for this movie (Battle Royale) to come out a year after columbine shootings?”
The answer is simply: yes. I still think that the similarities between the subject matter of “Battle Royale” and the Columbine shootings are completely intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Because Columbine occurred in the United States and not in Japan, and because of the widespread media coverage of the shootings (more on that later), the international political climate was perfect for a film about high school students killing each other. It may seem rather morbid to suggest that international audiences were looking for more death in a high school setting so soon after the Columbine killings, but consider the amount of attention the Columbine school shootings received. As was mentioned in Tuesday’s lecture, television news networks were completely saturated with the latest breaking coverage of the events at Columbine. Terms like “Trench Coat Mafia” were coined specifically to be associated with the shootings, and people tuned in by the thousands, nay, the millions, to watch the grim events unfolding before their very eyes. People are undeniably obsessed with death, and even the most well-meaning of us has a certain morbidity at his or her core. This is why horror movies and the works of such authors as Edgar Allan Poe have always been, and will always be, popular. Now, I’m not a psychology student, so I couldn’t tell you much about why this is, but my theory, and remember that this is speculation on my part, is that people are fascinated by death because it is one of the few great unknowns to us. Nobody knows what happens after death, and we’re both curious and terrified of it. How many times have you seen a line of rubberneckers slowing down their cars to look at an accident? The same goes for “Battle Royale”. Once Columbine was over and the buzz had died down, where were people going to get their sick thrills in seeing high school students killing one another? Enter Kinji Fukasaku.
I hope this last paragraph hasn’t shaken anybody’s views on humanity. I, for one, love horror movies, and think that a little morbidity can actually be healthy because it keeps us in touch with our most primal of fears: the fear of the end of our existence. But now I’m getting away from “Elephant”.

Some heavy shit's going down.

Some heavy shit's going down.

The first thing that struck me about “Elephant” was how it was shot. Van Sant employs very long takes through much of the film (we’re in the middle of one in the photo seen above), which give the film an almost documentary kind of feel. These long shots also serve to give the audience a sense of space. Students walk across soccer fields, down hallways, through different rooms, all in a single take, showing the viewer that this school is a real place and not a studio set, and in doing so, grounding the film in reality. Something I found interesting about these long takes, too, is that we’re shown a few scenes multiple times from the perspective of different characters. Because the film is told in a non-linear fashion, these intersections where the characters (and their respective stories) converge give the audience a sort of frame of reference and make it easier to understand which events occur alongside one another. Something to note about these intersection scenes is that we never see cameras following around the other characters, making the camera seem less like part of a documentary film crew and more like a sort of invisible observer, following these students through a horrific day of their lives.

John goes about his day, unaware of what is about to unfold

John goes about his day, unaware of what is about to unfold

Another thing that struck me was the character of Benny, whom I couldn’t find any pictures of. We are introduced to Benny in the midst of the shootings that occur in the film’s final act, having not seen him before anywhere else in the film. Benny walks through the corridor, silently taking in the chaos, death and destruction around him. He enters a classroom and helps a girl out a window. We’re then shown a title card with his name on it, introducing him in the same fashion as the other characters. Shortly thereafter, he is shot and killed. I thought this was a brilliant move on the part of Gus Van Sant. By telling us Benny’s name, even without giving him any lines of dialogue, we become more emotionally invested in the character, and as a result his death is that much more shocking to us. I consider this to be truly effective filmmaking.

As usual, I find myself running out of time with tons more to say about the film, and so I shall bring this post to an end. Remember: don’t be afraid of your own morbid nature. It just means you’re human!

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~ by sosayeththewatcher on June 11, 2009.

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