November 9, 2014

Queer Review: Elephant (2003)

Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Matt Malloy, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Alicia Miles, Ellis Williams

Tackling a controversial subject matter is never an easy task for a filmmaker, but Gus van Sant manages to create a exploitative motion picture about the Columbine murders that provides a clinical analysis of how such an event could come to pass.

Through long takes, the story of several high-schoolers is told as they go about an ordinary day. One has to take the wheel from his drunk father as he is being driven to school. Another takes pictures of a couple in a park. One young women refuses to change for gym class and is reprimanded for it. Meanwhile two friends draw up plans to murder as many of their classmates as possible before engaging in mass carnage.

The Queering
As someone who has spent many hours pouring over data regarding violent crime as part of an academic research project, it's difficult for me to separate my own work and views on the subject with the story told by Gus Van Sant. So forgive me if I end up talking too much about my own research here a bit.

Our cultural rhetoric on violence consistently posits violent acts as an externalized phenomenon. That is, as something that comes to us from outside our families and our communities. This in spite of the reality that most violence occurs either between family members, intimate parters, or between people who are otherwise known to each other. Our focus on sensational events such as school shootings is one method by which we externalize violence as something that comes from the outside, particularly in the way that it allows us to blame everything from violent video games to absentee parents. Furthermore, such events can be depicted as dramatic inter-group conflicts, such as jocks vs. nerds or the outcasts vs. the preppies. What such framing ignores is that most violence really should be thought of as a phenomenon that occurs within groups, and not solely as the result of conflict between groups.

While Gus Van Sant arguably comes close to perpetrating externalization by making school shootings the subject of a movie, he manages to avoid it many ways within the film. The most common explanations are indeed thrown out there. The shooters are shown playing a violent video game that involves shooting people in a desert like setting, watching Nazi propaganda, being bullied, etc. But none of these explanations feels adequate or complete when we watch shots of the teenagers walk nonchalantly down school hallways shooting their classmates as they go, almost as if Gus Van Sant is mocking the superficiality of anyone who would propose any of the aforementioned hypothesises.

There is one extremely problematic element I have to comment on, namely a shower scene where the two shooters shower together and even share a kiss. While one could argue that this is merely another explanation that Gus Van Sant is trying to mock, it doesn't really help that it means that we have yet another film on our hands where queer identity is overwritten onto historical individuals who committed horrible misdeeds.

Once again I have to say it: The best way to come out in history is to have committed terrible crimes against humanity; the best way to remain closeted was to have been good.

Ultimately though, Elephant is atypical in terms of it's structure. The plot is both elliptical and recursive, with long camera shots following characters as the walk through hallways, only to show us a scene we saw before but now from a different angle. Most of this is Cinéma vérité or slice of life type material. It is not until the end that those members of the audience who might have been unaware of the subject matter, will find that this story is spiraling towards tragedy.

The title of Elephant has two possible interpretations, one is of a parable about a group of blind folks trying to understand an elephant by touching different body parts and limiting their analysis to only those parts that they can feel. Each individual comes to a different conclusion based on which part of the elephant they are touching and none realize that they are touching a large animal. The other interpretation has the title referring to "the elephant in the room" or the obvious subject that no one wants to talk about. Both perspectives can provide viewers with insight into what Van Sant is trying to say.

Many other reviewers have claimed that Gus Van Sant offers no explanations for why incidents like Columbine happen. As someone who has spent a lot of time studying violent crime statistics (much of it involving what can be considered original research) I do not think that violent crime, even incidents as disturbing and shocking as Columbine are incomprehensible. As a film reviewer I do not think that Gus Van Sant himself intended for his film to be given such a nihilistic interpretation. Instead he offers up what should be obvious, that to commit such a horrifically violent act requires a person to experience extraordinary alienation.

Many might assume that people commit horrible crimes against humanity fail to see other people as fully human. That may be so, but many of the cases of violent crimes I found myself studying involved the perpetrators themselves being highly self destructive. The Columbine shooters after all were not arrested or shot by police but instead died at their own hand. Since this is a pattern that repeats itself over and over again, the better question I think is this; do the most violent people amongst us see themselves as human? Maybe this is just me reading my own ideas onto the film, but given how Van Sant approaches his subjects, I cannot help but think that this may have been the connection he wanted viewers to make.

For those interested in a film on such a sensitive subject matter, this is one Elephant in the room that is worth discussing in order to understand entirely.

The Rating
3 stars out of 4


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