Gus Van Sant’s Elephant

Gus Van Sant’s 2003 Palm D’or winning effort Elephant begins with a electric poll at dawn. Van Sant attempts to establish the importance of light as being the source of the film. The film on the 2001 Columbine killings starts with the morning of the day of the killings, then has a brief flashback to the night before as the killers prepare themselves for the next day following which the film plays out with the central event occurring. In other words, the film has a middle-to-middle structure (that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari may pronounce a rhizome), as the shot of the light poll is repeated half way through the film, instead of having a clear start, middle and end structure.


The film uses the image to capture the location-space but uses chapter wise headings to suggest the importance of the narrative-space. In other words, the location emerges from an understanding of the real, whereas the intertitles emphasize the storytelling and the false nature of the construct. Van Sant uses the steady cam to capture a space in perspective emphasizing the source of light in the shot but holds the shot for long periods of time to stretch time and imply that cinema is primarily a temporal and not a spatial medium.


The mise-en-scene of the film is structured such that the shot is in the interval between two shots, just like the film has a middle to middle structure. Van Sant emphasizes this interval by using the steadicam forward moving shot and the circular pan to emphasize a projected movement that is juxtaposed with a criss cross movement which in itself is the cell that is the interval-shot. Later in the film he has a character play Beethoven’s Fur Elise with the piano being placed in the same place as the characters to emphasize the diagetic nature of the music produced. In other words spatial correlation in the film brings out its documentary aspect.


The film does not, as the intertitles would suggest, study characters. Instead it creates an impressionist location-space where the images suggest microfascisms in the space. The non-actors are used to emphasize the documentary nature of the violence, as if the actors are playing themselves but yet becoming the character (isn’t this the classical Deleuzean becoming?) With a minimalist use of the voice, this aesthetic recollects a single location-space version of Bresson with the relationship between space being extremely definite.


This definite construct of space clearly emphasizes the difference between in interior and the exterior. The school is the Borgesian labyrinth with spaces outside leading up to the maze that is the school. Within the shot itself, the character speaks off camera thus referring to the space outside the frame. In other words, like in Godard, the inside points to the outside, with sound becoming a chaotic or dissonant element in the image. Perhaps Van Sant wants to suggest that the image itself is a violation resonating with the microfascisms that the character-actors perform. As in Bresson, sound comes before the image to point to the imagination. Similarly the act of photography (in the park evoking a Whistler painting) is again referred to as a process referring to the act of film-making more as a process than as an end.


The film also echoes the aesthetic of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon as different perspectives to the same central event are represented. Unlike Cubism the film is not a spatial collage but a temporal collage as similar events in different series overlap so that the audience is able to understand the minimal difference between two representations. The film in this way juxtaposes two time lines: one timeline that consists of the event and the other leading up to the event. Van Sant adds this collage with images from another medium i.e. video-gaming (in the same way that Fassbinder uses the theatre and Varda uses photography).


The temporal nature of the film is brought out as the key event in a series is often left out to emphasize the elliptical nature of the forwarding bringing out tensions beneath the surface that find their climactic moment in the shoot out sequences. Van Sant achieves this by cutting away from the shot when the chief event in the sequence occurs so that the film is a delay of events and the audience has to be in the process of awaiting the final event. This delay finds its reflection in the representation of off-screen space as the camera documents people listening to conversations instead of participating in them (a technique taken to its brink in the films of Abbas Kiarostami) .


The film is anti-causal. One could argue that the use of the culprits playing video-games and the footage of Hitler and Nazi Germany suggest the motivation for the heinour crimes. However I would argue that the use of such references is a post-modern referent, a quotation for the quotation that adds to the various levels of information in the film.


The film can be categorized according to Gilles Deleuze’s taxonomy in his cinema books as a time-image i.e. one in which movement is ruptured so as to produce a direct image of time. Whereas Deleuze refers to the Second World War, a historical event, that causes the crisis in movement, Van Sant seems to be referring to the gross American violation that is individualism that causes a rupture in movement. The slow motion sequences early on in the film bring out this ‘direct image of time’ and they rupture conscious processes of cognition so that the subconscious can be addressed and the meeting point between history and myth can be attained. The sequences at the beginning where Alex is with his father in the car, reverse the Hollywood formula to represent the car as a medium of slowness instead of one of speed thus setting up the temporal exploration that is the film.


The name of the film, borrowed from Alan Clarke’s 1989 short film with similar content, refers to the elephant in the room. Van Sant also borrowed the title of the film from the Chinese story in which five blind men catch different parts of an elephant, thus referring to the misrecognition of the whole when the different parts of the construct are known. The film uses the everyday to survey motifs and countermotifs, so that the ordinariness of a profane act can be acknowledged.


In this way, Elephant dissolves the profane in an ordinariness that provokes in a quality of attention that gradually dissolves representation through affect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s