November 23, 2003
10 Thoughts on Gus Van Sant's Elephant


1. For eighty minutes, a camera walks through a high school. A camera walks at the same slow pace of adolescence, where even the football players only gain a few yards at a time. Everyone is on their way from somewhere to somewhere, which is the essential nature of adolescence, and for eighty minutes there’s a camera behind them.

2. Not with them, not in front of them, the camera stays behind their heads, with a depth of field so shallow that only those heads stay in focus. The rest of the world – insofar as high school is world – blurs out and drifts in. There are overheard conversations and colors and general figures, and they never quite resolve into focus. Keywords: Parenthesis, periphery. Blur and hum.

3. This camera comes at the same scene from different angles at different times, so certain fragments repeat over and over, somehow different each time. The same fragmented conversation, reconsidered and redefined. It’s not a question of context; it’s that the thought is different because it's repeated. More is different.

4. Sometimes lingering. Following a lifeguard until he leaves the camera, and then lingering on the hallway that a lifeguard leaves behind. In the remainder of the shot, we see the janitor mopping, just past that horizon of blur. Sometimes lingering, and then other times cutting off, cutting short. A man enters a room and his colleagues shout “surprise” for his birthday, but the camera isn’t interested in that, and the only surprise really is that this bright moment is just as peripheral as any other.

5. These qualities – the speed of the camera, the human head in focus and motion, the cutting off and staying on, the repetition of phrases and motions – these qualities make the movie an echo of the act of thinking. High school as a human brain, these kids aren't archetypal but rather, andogenous, these are the kids inside you. Not the inner child, but all the inner kids, all the different raw impulses that we associate with teenagers. Teenagers not because these impulses fade, but because the freedom to express them fades.

An exercise in the act of thinking. This high school is the human brain with all its raw ideas and impulses, the way we repeat conversations over and over again in our heads, even the ones we never had. Especially the ones we never had.

6. Every impulse expressed at once, even the opposites, the insecure girl, the jock, the nerds and queers and homeboys. Every compulsion, every instinct we all of us have inside ourselves. Even the darkest ones, the instincts we have towards violence and vengefulness, even the darkest impulses, these are embodied in this high school, brought to life, in teenager form.

7. When three girls vomit in the bathroom, it feels like an essential and universal failure brought to form, or flesh, or viscera. When a girl stops to just breathe the air and look around, it feels simply like those moments in the day where we realize we were thinking of nothing at all.

And when two boys gear up in camo and start shooting everyone with automatic weapons, these too feel as familiar as the thoughts we have every single day. Every one of these kids feels familiar, not because we recognize them, but because we house them somewhere inside, and it’s no less true of the ones who are shooting, as it is of the ones who get shot.

8. There’s a scene where the camera is following a photographer around, an echo of an echo. At one point the photographer enters the darkroom, he removes his film from the camera and loads it onto spools. Parts of this scene, to the sound of the film rolling to spools, occur in total darkness. Few films that are this generous with a certain kind of space.

9. Some of the most important scenes of the film are the scenes that refuse to advance narrative. Because playing the piano is narrative, as is walking the hallway. Because slowly opening a locker is narrative, as is breathing air, and in the end, lighting incendiary devices, getting shot in the head, these things are simple narrative as well.

10. There are ten thousand ways to suicide, and some take seventeen years.

Posted by kevin slavin at November 23, 2003 12:09 AM

Just saw the movie. My girlfriend failed to find the purpose in it, but I found it extremely purposeful. Not only did I admire the methodical way in which it was carried out, but I loved the fact that it had just about as much of a message as the two kids with machine guns had. It made me feel nauseous, and that was good too.

Is this the first movie to ape not the content of a videogame but one of its unique formal strategies, namely, the third person shooter? (I don't know about your screening but ours at the Angelika was preceeded by a 9 minute French film that was, in many respects, a driving game without the interactivity (Rendez-Vous was the title).) Even the perspective at which the sky and clouds pass by at the opening and closing reminded me of what you see after you've been shot up in Quake or Unreal or some other such game and you're just lying there -- the only moments of peace you get.

To me, in the end, it was a response, like this blog, to saturation, the saturation of everything that came after this event to ruin any real contemplation of what the hell it all meant.

Posted by: tmonkey on November 24, 2003 02:20 AM

I'm columbine surviver mark taylor...most people who saw michael moores movie"bowling for columbine" often reconize mefor being in his film I played the part when me and the film maker went to k mart...anyways cant wait tell I see elephant.

Posted by: mark taylor on April 28, 2004 03:25 AM

In 1989 the BBC showed a horrific film made by the late Alan Clarke and a very young Danny Boyle, it was also called "Elephant".

The Newton's Cradle of Northern Ireland's "the troubles" : a wordless encapsulation in 40 minutes of 18 killings.

Posted by: Dunsterville on June 12, 2005 08:13 AM
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