Elephant in the Room

ElephantI’ve been an erratic fan of Gus Van Sant’s work for years, mostly because the work itself has been somewhat erratic — witness “Psycho” and “Good Will Hunting,” two movies I’d just as soon never watch again. But I was really, really floored by “Elephant,” which I skipped in theaters due to the somewhat uneven critical response it garnered. After two jaw-dropping hours, it baffles me that this film, which is meticulously directed and gorgeously shot, failed to become a sensation in its original run. Then again I think of the deliberate, almost Kubrick-like coldness with which it forgoes any kind of judgment over the characters caught in its Columbine High School-like construction, and it makes a certain kind of sense to me that the public would shun it. We like tragedies written bold in history and reductively in drama, and this movie fits neither of those criteria. It’s subtle and familiar and also deeply frightening.



  1. I was incredibly impressed and moved by it, too. I thought a lot about it afterwards – particularly the technical aspects, like the use of sound, and the length of the shots, but also about the humanity of it – about how Van Sant managed to make deep and true characters of people whose fates were sealed from the opening sequence.

  2. Khoi, I’ve only been coming to your site a short while so I’m sort of backtracking through. As a film guy myself, I pledge to diligently pay much attention to your oft neglected film threads. (and I’m gonna flatter you in saying that I come back to this place because, as a filmmaker, your ideas on format, layout, design, etc. prove useful).

    Anyway, I agree, Elephant is exquisite. I was at its North American premeire, which was in Telluride, CO. I’m sure survivors of Columbine were present. I remember coming out of the theater to people distraught on the sidewalk. It wasn’t sensational for me in that way but I understood their reaction. And you’re dead on about the “Kubrick-like coldness with which it forgoes any kind of judgment over the characters.” Was very surprised to see this scattered among the Batman and Star Wars writeups 🙂

  3. I know you and I just talked about Elephant yesterday, so I figured I’d put my thoughts on the record.

    I was floored by this movie. Emotionally, the “coldness” worked because it removed all the layers of crap that directors typically feel compelled to add between charged events and the filmgoer’s experience of those events and the people involved in them. This movie cut straight to the kids and their weird warm/cold relationships with each other. Their simultaneous bonds to and their isolations from each other.

    Not that it was an omniscient documentary-style, fly-on-the-wall film. Not at all. I’ve never heard anyone mention that this film subtly but to me powerfully plays with time at a fundamental level. Not in that cheap “Pulp Fiction” style, where major chunks of the film are simply reversed (ooh! aah!). Not even “Memento” style, where the timeline itself is merely shuffled up. No, I think this film belongs in the same category of Resnais/Robbe-Grillet’s “Last Year at Marienbad”, where time and memory are undermined by confused perspectives and where truth and reality are blurred.

    There are several places in the film where the same moment is depicted three times, and in some of these examples the timeline of the events leading up to these moments are switched around, sometimes making a chronological paradox. For example in the case of the scene where the one boy takes a photo of the other, which is shown three times, we see the librarian girl walk by only in the third take, not in the other two. Is it symbolic of her invisibility as a nerdy kid who doesn’t register on the social radar, is it simple foreshadowing?

    The sound design is extraordinary. First, the amazing crafting of diagetic and non-diagetic sound: where you hear the sounds of music playing in the hallways of the school mixed with music playing in the omniscient movie-soundtrack level of the film. Sometimes there are many layers of this, ambient dialogue, noises way down the halls, creepy ambient/electronic music, kids rehearsing for the marching band.

    In fact, the other example of muddied chronology is acheived entirely through sound: the moment where the faculty members in the office shout “Surprise!” is depicted several times, sometimes off-camera just through sound. But if you try to reconstruct the timelines using this moment as a common denominator, you’ll find that the timelines make a knot.

    Finally, what an amazing and intimate portrait of high school! It seemed a little dated here and there (high school today can’t be that similar to what it was in 1989 when I graduated, too low tech), but isn’t everything about the physical plant and the faculty infrastructure of high school a generation behind, beat up and old, and a little out of touch?

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