Sublime Anarchy in
However, we aren’t even able to pin the adult characters as the bad guys: they are more often than not portrayed as pitifully inept. We see them depicted as irresponsible (John’s alcoholic father); disconnected (Alex’s parents, whose faces we never see, and who speak to one another in flat and loveless tones); and patronised (Mr Lewis, the school principal, who persecutes John with a comically disappointed look). The adult characters are revealed from the start as impotent.
The opening scene begins with a high-angle shot of a Mercedes Benz lurching down an autumnal tree-lined street. John’s Dad is drunk again. With a resigned air, John insists on taking the wheel and drives himself to school, where he runs through what the viewer learns is routine: car keys are deposited at the office, safely out of Dad’s hands; then John phones his brother to come collect their father. John is then bailed up by the principal, who seems to enjoy this little power game with the always-late-to-school student.
John briefly takes refuge in an empty room where he sheds a few tears. His friend Acadia enters, asking, “Did something bad happen?”, to which John replies, “I don’t know.” She simply kisses him on the cheek and leaves. There it is: nobody is in control, nobody is watching out, and nobody knows how to deal with the consequences. We have the Elephant.
With this opening scene, Van Sant presents a slice of the social issues familiar to many adolescents. There is also a comment being made on the inherent hypocrisy of those with authority. The scene presents a culture in which the organising social principle is unworkable, but also unquestioned.
Elephant depicts a world untethered from certainties and authority, and in this way it can be seen to reflect postmodern anxieties. Slavoj Zizek’s comment offers a relevant critical perspective. The quote cited at the beginning of this essay, taken from an interview at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2001, is Zizek’s response to a question about his concept of “foreclosure”: the idea that contemporary society prohibits a real articulation of the subject.
According to Zizek (and philosopher Alain Badiou, from whom he borrows the French term), the “foreclosure” of the subject has an inevitable flip-side: “la passion du reel” or “the passion of the real”. (7) Elephant demonstrates some of the implications of Zizek’s notion, and through its poetic strategies affords the viewer an opportunity to piece together some of the elements in the bigger picture. We might regard the killers Alex and Eric as embodying the disenfranchisement that many teens (and not just in the US) feel. Viewing their apparently left-field violence in this context reveals a failure within society to deliver a secure place for their emerging sense of identity.
In the same interview, Zizek compares the idea of foreclosure and its implications with the Nietzchean opposition of active and passive nihilism. He describes passive nihilism as that state of apathy resulting from “living a stupid self-satisfied life without great passions”, which invokes the opposite form of conscious self-destruction. (8) Zizek argues that freedom in contemporary society is devoid of the more “radical dimension” of true democracy, existing instead as the watered-down freedom to choose lifestyle. (9) Zizek also sees in the pervasiveness of virtual realities (such as the Internet) a further disconnection from authentic experience.
In Elephant we can roughly align the characters according to the idea of active and passive nihilism. The adult characters present varying forms of apathy or disconnection; their lifestyles – particularly Alex’s parents, as revealed through the lifeless atmosphere of the family home – suggest an arrival at an unquestioned comfort zone, or passive nihilism. We see Alex and Eric attempting to break out of their transparent, but nonetheless prescribed realities: a bid for active nihilism.
The pair succeed (or at least Alex, as the mastermind behind the assault, does) in an act of self-destruction that draws attention to their plight. However, the way in which they go about it, with the attack mimicking a sniper video game, points in a way to their ensnarement in a form of virtual reality – and perhaps to the impossibility of true freedom (or, as Zizek might say, “articulation”) within that paradigm. The video game æsthetic is reinforced by the cinematography of the final scene: the colours lose their naturalism as Alex moves through the strangely lit corridor, while the soundtrack becomes one of jungle sounds and bird calls. At this point, Alex seems to become absorbed in a “heart of darkness”-style fantasy, wrestling not only with his personal demons, but enacting a cultural myth.
While these cultural tensions are embedded in the narrative, Van Sant continues to propose an alternative viewpoint: both a sublime æsthetic (the impossibly vivid colours of the natural environment; the extended shots of the sky that punctuate the narrative), and an impersonal (or perhaps transpersonal) perspective. We are cued to an omniscient point of view right from the opening time-release shot of the sky as it turns from day into night. The human voices of the soundtrack are very much in the background, while the sky darkens ominously. The foreboding is momentarily relieved as the next scene opens with a high-angle shot of a sunny, tree-lined street. The autumn tones of the leaves are a striking contrast to the vivid light of day. This, however, is not a big-picture which Van Sant presumes to fit neatly together for us by the film’s conclusion, but underscores an enigmatic disconnection.
While the high school mise en scène with its attendant themes is possibly overworked in cinema (and especially that of the US), what is remarkable about Elephant is its delicate treatment of such sensitive material, and its poetic rendering of the day-to-day life of the students. The characters, however, reflect an ennui that is veiled somewhat by the dreamy æsthetics. It is not on the surface of things, in a social realist way (in the way director Mike Leigh might employ it, for example), but is interwoven into the fabric of the mise en scène. (10) As Van Sant himself says of Columbine, “the causes have already happened” (11).
Tony McKibbin argues that Elephant’s narrative centres on a drive towards self-realisation which ultimately results in psychosis. (12) While Elephant demonstrates the adolescent desire for social integration, it refuses to draw neat conclusions as to the motives of Alex and Eric. We see the kind of paradoxes inherent in freedom, individuation and peer pressure, and the various characters present the typical array of teen issues. Of these, “geekdom versus cool” is an understated but prevalent reality which each student must negotiate, and some (like Elias, the photographer, and Nathan, the jock) seem to cruise through effortlessly. The social codes which delineate ways of being within the high-school environment are transparent: the proverbial “elephant”.
Each character bears a stoicism which never quite plunges into resignation. We see this even in characters like the self-conscious Michelle. In one of the film’s most poetic scenes, she moves into the frame on the sports field, turns to look up at the sky, her breath clouding the air in front of her face, and then moves off. The soundtrack is of cheerleaders and football players practising over Beethoven’s delicate Moonlight Sonata. The scene moves in slow-motion – another moment where Van Sant delivers us back to the Big Picture.
An omniscient point of view is reinforced throughout the film by a combination of visual motifs (shots of sky, clouds and high-angle compositions), and by detaching the viewer from the characters’ interiority. Characters aren’t organised against the event in the way that a conventional Hollywood narrative would dictate. We are not privy to characters’ real motives, conflicts or desires. Instead, we see effects. One example is the three girls, Brittany, Jordan and Nicole, who chat, bitch and gossip over lunch, and then go together to the bathroom to throw up.
Elephant doesn’t present the classic narrative of individuation, or rebellion against authority. The characters simply don’t have that oppositional space. In this postmodern school environment, freedom does exist, albeit it as the right to wear what you like, or leave school with your boyfriend (as Carrie and Nathan do), as long as you say when you might be back. There is irony, too, in the early scene between Elias and the punk couple he photographs. The couple – who are dressed in tastefully ripped shirts, combat boots and matching hairstyles – are an æsthetic touch against the autumn-hued campus, a benign image of young love. This is postmodern punk: unhinged from its original context, depoliticised and appropriated as a fashion statement.
Alex, who will emerge at the film’s climax toting a machine gun, cops a barrage of spit-balls in science class. He calmly wipes them off in the bathroom. Later we see him casing the cafeteria, presumably planning his attack. The only cue to his internal conflict is the sudden and dramatic increase in the noise level, with Alex indicating his sense of being overwhelmed by holding his head in his hands. Alex and Eric appear as equally innocent and blank-faced as their victims, though it is apparent that Alex is the instigator, while Eric tags along for his own unspoken reasons. When plotting the day’s shooting, Alex appears excited, rather than full of hate (“And most importantly”, he says to Eric, “Have fun man!”), while Eric, looking a little worried, concentrates as if he were about to do a difficult exam. The level of disconnection is creepy – not because these are the clearly defined bad guys, but because it says so much more about the world in which they (and, by extension, perhaps we) live.
While poetical reference suspends literary reference and thereby appears to make language refer only to itself (as the structuralists argue), it in fact reveals a deeper and more radical power of reference to those ontological aspects of our being-in-the-world that cannot be spoken of directly.
Richard Kearney, “Ricoeur and the Hermeneutic imagination” (14)
Richard Kearney’s comments on the power of poetic language to articulate liminal spaces within human experience is widely recognised by any practitioner of the arts, and the film medium’s visual and sound tracks contact the more intangible dimensions of our perception. If we regard classical Hollywood cinema as structured according to certain rules of narrative and film form, then the alternative must be a cinema that seeks to gesture beyond convention, breaking rules through stylistic or thematic innovation. In doing so, this less entertainment-oriented style of cinema has a radical dimension, and this is manifest in Elephant by its dreamy, contemplative pace.
Antonin Artaud’s quote, cited at the start of this work, reflects an avant-gardist’s concern for interrogating meaning via the production of radical art. In “The Reinvention of the Human Face”, Donald Gardner has written of Artaud:
What makes him unique to my mind is his genius not just in wresting something from disaster but in actually turning it inside out and making of it the very substance of his work as though disaster and nothing less was a sort of touchstone for reality and truth in a work.
Donald Gardner (15)
Though Artaud wrote in the context of theatre, his comments still have relevance for understanding the power of poetics to address contentious issues. Artaud uses the term “poetry” to refer not only to language, but a broader range of creative expression with anarchic potential. It is Donald Gardner’s notion of Artaud’s ability to “wrest something from disaster”, and use it to produce powerful, authentic art that I see paralleled in Elephant.
Artaud reads the visual in a way that reveals the underlying metaphysics, or poetics, of the work. Though film is in many respects quite a different medium to theatre, it can be regarded as an aspect of visual art, and Van Sant has capitalised on this through the striking visual harmony of Elephant’s mise en scène. There is also a continual gesturing beyond the frame in each scene, with shots of the sky, or unusual angles that emphasise a non-human (or non-character) perspective. This is a constant reminder to the spectator of a larger vision. In an essay titled “Production and Metaphysics”, Artaud examines an example of visual art in terms of the “ideas” it contains, finding broad themes such as “chaos”, “the marvellous” and “balance”. (16) Considering Elephant in this way reveals the ideas of ‘the sublime’ and ‘anarchy’.
We shall consider narrative to be a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space.
Bordwell and Thompson, Film Art: an Introduction (17)
Van Sant’s brand of naturalism eschews the classic narrative convention of order leading to climax and denouement (as Bordwell and Thompson suggest), and instead positions the viewer as self-conscious voyeur to the unfolding events, following characters around the school corridors in endless tracking shots. The camera narrates, creating not a sense of surveillance, but of a bigger picture being unravelled. In this way, the conventional codes of causality are brought into question. There is a concept called “kakataliya” described in an ancient Indian text called the Yoga Vasishta (18), which I think sums up the kind of point of view proposed in Elephant:
Suppose a crow lands on a cocoanut [sic] palm tree and at very moment a ripe cocoanut [sic] falls. The two unrelated events seem to be related in time and space, though there is no causal relationship.
The camerawork in Elephant constantly brings self-consciousness to the spectator’s experience. Van Sant makes use of both high- and low-angle shots throughout, playing with the viewer’s positioning and, together with the long tracking shots, continually calls into question the notion of causality. One example is early on in the film, when the camera follows Nathan from the sports field and across the campus to the school building. The camera has been keeping up with the back of Nathan’s head, but then, as he reaches the building, it suddenly remains stationary – as if someone who has been following him stops. We see a similar tactic in the film’s chilling final scene, when Alex tracks down Carrie and Nathan in the cafeteria’s cold-room, where they have been hiding out from the shooting. As Alex points a gun at the pair, playing “eenie-meenie-minie-mo” the camera pulls away, removing the spectator from the action.
Elephant retains many seemingly “blank” seconds of film time as the camera follows characters, sweeps around a room as if taking in detail, or rests on the image of the changing sky. There are very little conventional editing techniques, but the result creates a significant sense of spaciousness. As Ron Burnett says:
to edit a film is not primarily a way of ordering recalcitrant elements but a way of discovering their own inherent significance.
Ron Burnett (19)
Elephant is filmed entirely in fluid long takes and sequence shots. There is none of the standard shot/reverse shot editing during conversations; a convention based upon reaction. Van Sant’s panning from face to face, and scene to scene, creates a fluid and hypnotic momentum. In the scene between Michelle and her sports teacher, the camera moves with the pair as they walk from the sports field and inside – again, the sense of events carried on a steady current, the spectator is hostage to a pending inevitability. Time is also manipulated by the rhythm set up: a single day seems endless, bracketed only by shots of the changing sky.
Dialogue is minimal in Elephant; it’s as if communication between the characters occurs more as an aside, rather than a device to move the narrative along, or to reveal particularities of character. As Van Sant says:
It’s a suspicious fabrication within cinema that words are meant to entertain us, like we’re at a cocktail party. The dialogue in Elephant is anti-entertainment because it’s trying to teach at something that’s lifelike. (20)
Much, however, is revealed in the casual exchanges. When, for example, the gym teacher gently chides the self-conscious Michelle about why she wears long pants instead of the required gym shorts, Michelle replies, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Meaning is conveyed through these kind of oblique perspectives on character (via the cinematography), rather than having characters voice their inner realities.
The open-ended conclusion to Elephant places the critical emphasis with the spectator. Van Sant has wisely declined putting forward his own moral perspectives, a criticism of many reviewers. While some critics have tended to draw simplistic conclusions about the reasons behind the boys actions, others, like Eric Snider (below), have criticised Van Sant’s inclusion of details such as Alex and Eric’s viewing of Nazi propaganda, without making more of such details:
[…] to simply drop those details into the film without exploring whether they are causes of the boys’ urges, effects of them, or unrelated altogether, is irresponsible. It would seem Van Sant is suggesting they are causes, which would be a lame oversimplification. (21)
The paradox is: while at the simplest level it is possible for the viewer to draw a neat connection between Alex’s victimisation and the later attack he unleashes on his classmates, there still appears to be a loophole. It simply isn’t enough of a motive. Alex’s characterisation is complex enough to include scenes where he plays Beethoven’s Für Elise on the piano, before joining Eric in a violent game on his laptop; then they browse the web for guns. (22) The only cinematic cue to promote tension is the following shot of a darkening sky as storm clouds roll in. This shot lasts for several minutes more than is apparently necessary, increasing the viewer’s sense of events orchestrated by larger, impersonal forces. By not lending the boys’ internal realities any more emotional weight than any of the other characters, Van Sant insists on promoting detachment, and also a certain compassion.
What is flagged for the spectator and critic alike is the film’s play on audience expectation and the desire to make meaning: the human “need to know”. In his 1994 article, “Movie Pleasure and the Spectator’s Experience”, theorist Carl Plantinga has described this phenomena as a human adaptive function. (23) Perhaps by suspending his own judgement, and focussing on the very ordinariness of the students and their day at high school, Van Sant forces the viewer to become aware of their own position, and their readiness to draw – what are, finally – uncertain conclusions.
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