Every single film ever made is a manipulation of time and space, regardless of its subject matter. They are the foundations of reality; one cannot exist without the other; and they do not need us to observe them in order to be. The specific manipulation of temporal and spatial limits is what changes from film to film. A day can be slowed or quickened. Time can be reversed. Infinity can be feigned to feel a little closer.
Elephant (2003), directed by Gus Van Sant and winner of the Cannes Palm d’Or 2003, takes these basic building blocks of reality to compose an unsettling, unpatronising and oddly detached account of a day in the life of an American high school, and is partly based on truth – on the Columbine school massacre of 1999, an event that we have sadly seen repeated (apparently again and again) in more recent years. What makes Elephant so unique is its desire to take a major event and refuse to water it down into a feat of mainstream entertainment. No effects, no gratuity – just take some unknown young actors, a school, some guns and some improvisation, and there is everything you need for a potentially disconcerting story.
The first hour is dedicated to your blending into the school environment, invisibly following behind students and listening into idle conversation. There is no rush and no sense of purpose, and unless you already understand where the story is going, you may begin to wonder if there is a ‘story’ at all. The physical space of the school, shaped with rigid lines across the floors, up and down the windows and across walls with lockers, somehow enhances the clinical objectivity with which these characters are introduced.
The most important narrative device is the consistent looping and retelling of scenes. The viewer as ever is a direct omnipresence, seeing the same interactions from behind the eyes of various different students. Naturally, the unique experience, past and worldview of each different character colours in its own way the retelling of each scene.
We are introduced to John, who aimlessly walks through the lengthy and eerily empty corridors of the school. We follow in complete real-time with no cutaways or editing whatsoever, and throughout this fluid walk he remains centre screen, the only object of focus. He occupies only a small amount of screen space. The empty space increases an already looming awareness of separation between the students, even when they do briefly interact.
John meets photographer Eli and they exchange mundane small talk. Later we continue on with John, remaining a few steps behind. As this two minute scene progresses we steadily move in closer to him, until he meets two boys outside. Rather than adjusting our gaze immediately to them, we only see a close-up reaction shot of John who appears to have become scared and anxious. Pace doesn’t speed up but something alters on the surface of the character and the entire film becomes anxious, waiting for something – in inevitable. (Wolf, 2004-05) Retrospectively viewing this scene allows you to fully appreciate the literal forewarning happening in the composition, as the boys dressed in black and camo appear in the distance and move closer.
These meetings with Eli and the boys (who we discover to be the killers) are replayed several times during the second third of the film, from the point of view of not only Eli, but impersonal gazes such as through windows.
By delivering this overarching sense of deja vu with minimal editing and lingering takes (which become near on excruciating before anything has even happened) give it a strange verisimilitude to real life. Normality is this indeed this monotonous task, everyday life is repetition; and within this closed school environment that realist attitude is accentuated. At no point is any of this outwardly explained or even foreshadowed, and it is only when we see the first loop repeated that we understand it as something we’ve seen before. The detachment of character from audience is complete; once we see time rewound and retold and understand this, we become active participants in the manipulation of the film diegesis. These loops blur the temporal perimeters of the film, forcing our view to change blindly somewhere that may or may not be sequential at any given moment. As voyeurs we may feel disorientated as the equilibrium is skews.
Van Sant’s most clear visual hallmark, not only in Elephant but particularly in Paranoid Park (2007) (also focused around deaths at the hands of strangers) is his use of a very shallow depth of field that is deployed throughout, continually supporting the concept of teenage alienation and detachment. Shallow depth of field is underscored yet more so during intimate close-up shots, but any intimacy created is shattered by mumbling and unclear dialogue.
The final 15 minutes of film are everything we’ve been led to anticipate. The scenes that had become established beforehand and effectively been left at a “to be continued” are now extending forward, and finally we are able to grasp some sense of time again. We begin to see where everyone is. A metaphorical fog begins to clear.
During the planning phase of Alex & Eric’s massacre, Eric is seen playing a simple first person shooter game at home. Disturbingly, this game aesthetic is recreated during the killings. It’s painful be told so plainly that the two boys, particularly Alex, view this as a game. The method of detachment through careful screen composition and shallow DOF mean we aren’t invited to see or decipher what their motives may be, and thus no empathy can be realised. The camera refuses to linger on any bloodshed and death, many bodies obscured from view. Our focus now demanded by the killers.
Although I cannot be sure what Van Sant is trying to achieve by presenting such brutally objective and unemotional deaths (no matter how shocked and upset we may be), it could perhaps be read as an impulse to be faithful to real life events such as the Columbine killings – and these are events that most of us will remain on the periphery of. Rather than attempt to give these events reason, we must accept that such things can never be certain. For human nature, ambiguity rules the day.
The pacing and sequential ordering of Elephant keep us rooted in a world thats consciousness matches very closely our own. Slow pace and prolonged gazes force upon you a sense of disquiet and uneasy expectation, and the minimalism of screen space then becomes a social commentary on the existential disconnection inevitably experienced during adolescence.
Further reading mentioned:
Wolf, D. (2004-5). Elephant by Gus Van Sant. Film Quarterly, 58 (2), p. 46.