Glimpse of Van Sant’s Elephant

Because I cannot for the life of me stick to resolutions, I haven’t gotten around to writing the million and one things I said I would. Tumblr was right. I spend most of my time talking about writing instead of writing. At the moment, I’m working on a critical film analysis for Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) for my intro to film class (ugh why did I sign up for this), which I did try to watch way back when Lords of Dogtown (2005) just came out and may or may not have been a little obsessed with John Robinson (he was adorable as Sam’s best friend in Transformers). And I’m going to try to work through my thoughts here so that I can make some sense of the film and organise them in a somewhat logical manner in my essay.

I think the film was revolutionary in the way that they really try to inject a sense of realism by reveling in the mundane and having it primarily comprise of scenes of a bunch of ordinary high school kids going about their typical day. Moreover, we see the backs of their heads a lot more than the front since the use of tracking shots pretty much define this film. You’d think it’d be boring, since it’s seemingly plotless, but there’s this sense of foreboding that’s really gripping as we’re aware that for many of the characters shown, this would be their last day. These events that are traced by the camera all lead up to the gruesome school shooting orchestrated by two senior students. The camera not cutting away suggests how every minute is precious, especially for these students. It also shows how despite this, the reality is that life can be taken away just as easily as it was given, and there’s no big, blockbuster-worthy dramatic scenes that build up to it.

What I also like about the film is that it’s causality is ambiguous. We’re not given a concrete reasoning for the shooters’ motivations and instead, Van Sant plants several visually-suggested causality such as the video game, the bullying, gun culture and homosexuality. These are all not given very much prominence and is rather left to the viewer’s interpretation at what ultimately led to the killings. Even at the end, there is no neat resolution, even though in the real-life Columbine killings, our knowledge tells us that both killers end up taking their own lives. In the film, we end abruptly right after one of the shooters, Eric, points the gun at one of the couples we’re introduced to earlier on.

Just some thoughts about Elephant and why I enjoyed it. I really like that they didn’t try to make it this big spectacle with fancy editing, cinematography and instead, it’s filmed at this almost languid pace that allows us to live this final day with these characters. I guess this would be a film that you’d either love because it’s so ordinary yet unconventional, or hate for exactly the same reasons.


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