Elephant (Review)

Statistics are the triumph of the quantitative method, and the quantitative method is the victory of sterility and death.

(Spoilers)

Part of the reason for this success is because Gus Van Sant doesn’t
use characters and story as an excuse to give a message. In films
like Philadelphia or The Accused, I was not interested in the
characters or the story. These films make you feel like they are
about characters and a story, but they’re only there as a pretense
for some social message. Zan Sant, on the other hand, does not do
that. He doesn’t leave you with an impression that he’s trying to
tell a story about characters. Indeed, many of the scenes have a
documentary feel to them, and these scenes are put together in a way,
not to tell a story or develop characters, so much as to make a
social comment.

That sounds rather unappealing, but he does accomplish a rare feat
by making this an interesting and sophisticated commentary. He avoids
explaining the behavior in the film or the causes. He avoids the
burlesque characterizations of the teenagers and melodramatic
situations we often see in even serious teen movies. It may even be
misleading to say that Van Sant wants to deliver a message. Like a
good documentarian, Van Sant wants the film speak to us, without the
filmmakers intrusions. And like a good documentary, the film evokes explanations and a response from the audience. And yet, he does shape the film creating a kind of poetic-essay.

Here are some other observations:

I liked how he used sound, or the lack of it in this film. The film
really seems quiet to me. The scenes seem more quiet than is natural,
creating a feeling of loneliness and desolation. There is almost a
dreamlike quality to it, but in a subtle way.

The way he shoots the film also creates these effects. You see many
shots of the individual characters following a character or shooting
from the perspective of the individual character. Some of the shots
seem very narrow and closed which further creates this sense of
isolation. He also shoots the school environment in a way that makes
you feel that characters are isolated. (I kept feeling like there
should be more kids at this school; and there should be more noise
there, too.) There are moments when I thought of Antonioni*s
L’Avventura. The isolation, alientation and quiet.

I liked the subtle depictions of the various problems and
difficulties that teenagers go through. This is a middle to upper
class school. The kids do not look poor and the school buildings look
well maintained. And yet, there are these problems. Not the dramatic
problems such as, drugs, overt violence, etc. It’s a son who can’t
rely on his father; girls who worry about their weight; the
insensitive boyfriend; being teased in subtle and not-so-subtle ways,
and the adults not really noticing these things and doing something
about it.

5 Responses to “Elephant (Review)”


  1. Grace

    Here’s my take on “Elephant”. I wrote it before reading Reid’s posting.

    I’ve puzzled over “Elephant” for a long time now. I’ve finally concluded that I liked the film because it provoked me into exploring my own process of trying to make sense of a horrifying event. “Elephant” was more about seeing through different frames of reference, about examining one jigsaw piece at a time, about trying to comprehend the whole from the pieces than about just telling a story or explaining who was the hero and who was the villain.

    In “Elephant”, there are no voiceovers, no intricate dialogue scenes switching from one close up to another, no linear progression in time from one scene to the next. “Elephant” is really a set of separate vignettes following individual students through the same, seemingly boring, ordinary day at school. There are intersecting places and moments and conversations as each student walks around the campus. I found these depictions different and yet achingly familiar with my own experiences of high school. Those moments of rushing to class, hiding yourself in an emotional moment, gossiping with friends at lunch were convincingly authentic to my eye. And somehow and somewhy and somewhere in these ordinary moments, an event crystallized in horror and in destruction.

    There is one scene I found particularly poignant. Eric, one of the two shooters, tries to practice playing Beethoven’s Fur Elise on the piano at home. Eric struggles to play the right notes and to flow through the ascending and descending chromatic runs, but eventually abandons his practice in frustration and in boredom with a crash of discordant notes. It seemed like a metaphor for abandoning any further effort in acquiescing and conforming to the established, structured ways of the world. After the horrifying event, the film ends with a time-lapsed shot of some clouds in the sky accompanied by a well-practiced rendition of Fur Elise with all the right crescendos, diminuendos and phrasing. The music emphasized the enormous gap between where Eric gave up and where we collectively assume people should automatically be striving to reach.

    In the end, I’m reminded about the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Having never seen an elephant, each of the blind men touches a different part of the elephant and deduces something different about the nature of the elephant. And then they proceed to debate endlessly about the nature of the elephant. I don’t really know why these kind of horrifying school shootings occur. The filmmaker doesn’t know why either. Maybe we all should be more aware of the ways in which we are blind.

  2. Reid

    That’s an interesting obeservation about the piano scene, Grace. I hadn’t thought of that.

    I also think the title of the movie could refer to the “blind men and the elephant” parable. I think the title also refers to the phrase “an elephant in the bedroom.” We should be aware of what we don’t see, on one hand, but, on the other, there are things that should be so obvious.

    For me, I think one of the things I thought of was the failure of adults. The kids are going through all these difficulties, but they don’t have any kind of guidance or support from the adults. The kids seem be living in isolation. Again, Van Sant doesn’t clearly spell this out, but that’s part of the beauty of this film: it evokes or provokes a response and an explanation for what happened from the viewer.

    Grace, if you had to come up with an explanation for why the tragedy occurred, what would you say?

  3. Grace

    Reid,
    I don’t really know why these kind of horrifying school shootings occur. I prefer not to have to come up with an explanation for why these tragedies occur because after thinking about your question for a couple weeks, I don’t have a meaningful, substantive insight to offer.

    I agree that “Elephant” is subtle and has a documentary feel.

    I disagree that social messages are obvious in “Elephant”. For you, “Elephant” clearly reinforced the idea that adults today are not guiding children and are not connecting with children as in the past. For me, that idea is not obvious. It’s true that “Elephant” does not include a vignette from the perspective of an adult and that “Elephant” contains few interactions between adults and students. But does the lack of a scene with a meaningful guidance interaction mean that meaningful guidance interactions do not exist at this school? I can see how that assumption may seem probable. I’m not ready to make that assumption, though.

    At this point, “Elephant” almost seems like a form of a Rorschach test.

  4. pen

    I enjoyed reading the thoughtful comments expressed here. I agree w/ Grace…I also feel like Elephant is like one of Rorschach’s ink blot tests. Different people will see the movie in different ways. It’s like a piece of art, too, where you need to bring something of yourself in order to “analyze” it and discover what meaning it has.

    I think that’s part of the reason why you both liked this movie. It actually demands that you bring something to the party and if you decide to sit as a passive observer, you lose something of what the film was trying to convey.

    I do not think there is one answer to why these tragedies occur. I believe it’s layer, upon layer of reasons; however, I believe several things contribute. Reid’s comment about alienation and loneliness I believe are factors. So are lack of strong adult role models and lack of communication. Some of it is societal in nature, where we live in a fast-paced, peer-oriented, consumer environment. Some may argue that it’s a lack of connection to the society as a whole. Something that a strong sense of family, church, and community used to provide. Perhaps it is video games and suppressed hostility. It is clear to see that there is a whole laundry list of factors out there, plus some other things we’ve probably yet to figure out.

    One jarring note in the movie for me was the shower scene w/ the 2 shooters. I mean, why did they need to add that? Like homosexuality is a contributing factor to mass violence? They already had the video games, reading Hitler, watching KKK stuff, etc. I think I didn’t like it because the rest of the film was more subtle than that so it really stood out for me.

  5. Reid

    Grace said:

    For me, that idea is not obvious. It’s true that “Elephant” does not include a vignette from the perspective of an adult and that “Elephant” contains few interactions between adults and students. But does the lack of a scene with a meaningful guidance interaction mean that meaningful guidance interactions do not exist at this school?

    Well, there are scenes with adults interacting with the students, and they don’t seem very positive. The most blatantly negative occurs between the kid with the haystack hair and his drunk father. Clearly, the father is not fulfilling his role as a parent. The son has to become the parent.

    When the same boy comes in late, he meets with the principal, and while the boy looks troubled the principal doesn’t really talk to the boy to find out what’s troubling him. I also think the fact that Eric’s parents seem oblivious to what’s going on at school with Eric is a significant sign of neglect or at least the parents letting him down.

    Obviously, I bring my own experiences to this film, and if that’s what you guys mean by Rosharch test, then I agree. I guess, I see so many parents not putting in the time and energy to raise and guide their kids. I’m not saying this to condemn or judge parents. It’s tough being a parent, but I think there are serious consequences to raising kids in this way.