Van Sant: Elephant (2003)
Elephant was the second film in Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy, though in many ways it feels more like a spiritual sequel to My Own Private Idaho. Like that film, it’s predominantly preoccupied with the precarity of queer bodies in space, although this time around Van Sant examines a very different venue: a school shooting modelled on the Columbine massacre. At this point in his career, Van Sant was entranced by the long tracking-shots of Bela Tarr, and most of the film consists of these sequence shots, which trace a series of trajectories in the twenty-four hours before Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) open fire on their classmates.
From the opening scenes, Elephant brims with the same tremulous sense of space that we see in My Own Private Idaho, which Van Sant now converges with the precarity of a high school world on the cusp of mass shootings. Like so many of Van Sant’s films, it’s shot in autumnal Portland, a world thick with fallen leaves, and cast in melancholy blue light, thanks to Harris Savides’ gorgeous cinematography. The plot is at once non-linear and hyper-linear, affective and spatial more than character or event-driven, apart from the overarching event of the shooting itself. Yet even this is removed to a distance, as the title indicates by referring to the ancient Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. This oft-repeated story details a group of blind men who all feel different parts of an elephant, and so build a powerful sense of its composite parts while failing to conceptualise or visualise it as a unified totality.
The same applies to the spatial scheme of Elephant, which takes place as a series of tracking-shots that frequently intersect, but never truly overlap. Each student at the school has their own private trajectory, almost their own spatial profile, and while Van Sant shoots the same junctures several times, they all involve separate takes. Even (or especially) when the tracking-shots overlap, each person is sequestered in their own private channel of space, making it impossible to get any wholistic sense of the school, especially since the backdrop is usually blurred or obscured by the sheer prominence of the figures we’re following. No matter how many trajectories crisscross this space, it’s impossible to get any real sense of the overall direction of any one path, allowing Van Sant to evoke the sheer contingency of where each student is situated on the day of the crime in a remarkably eerie and resonant manner.
From the outset, then, Elephant situates itself at a weird cusp in physical space, which is suddenly more fluid but also more splintered than ever before. To some extent, this is associated with video gaming, but it’s more like gaming is a symptom of this broader spatial shift, rather than its main motor engine. Insofar as the shooters have a motive, it stems from their desire to rein in this space, and render it navigable again. Yet the closer we move to the day of the shooting, the more Van Sant falls back upon his perennial pillow shots of sped-up cloud formations, which take on an especially digital tint against the white noise of this particular film. These composited clouds suggest that school is being invaded by a specifically digital form of space, the uncanny experience of the last generation of students before widespread social media, although the film mainly registers this as a fracturing and multiplicity of physical trajectories, rather than through the intrusion of digital devices per se.
Having established this unsettling spatial scheme, Van Sant quickly uses it to calibrate what has changed in queer embodiment since My Own Private Idaho. In an early scene, the camera takes us into the school’s Alliance Group, where a collection of queers and allies are questioning whether you can tell someone is gay just from seeing them walk down the street. Twice in the film, the tracking-shots return to the Alliance Group as they debate these signifiers (pink jumpers, rainbow bracelets, lilting walk), evoking a world where queer bodies have become more visible and more invisible, more normalised but more scrutinised. The Alliance also generates the second component of Van Sant’s signature – a series of circular pans that start with the camera moving around the ring of club members, before heading out.
Once we return to the corridors, Van Sant’s tracking-shots queer every character, rendering them both more visible and less visible than in conventional cinema – as invisible and omnipresent as the camera itself. We mainly see the back of character’s heads, suggesting a queer identity that is newly visible, but not permitted full subjectivity either. This digital and partial subjectivity is pointedly contrasted with analog production, which in turn is associated with heterosexual visibility in the early stages of the film. We start with a straight character taking photographs of a straight couple, and shift to him preparing the film in a dark room, in the stillest shot in the film, which is positively meditative compared to the tracking sequences.
As the film proceeds, Van Sant gradually hones in on the two shooters, presenting them as a queer couple attempting to come to terms with this new visible invisibility. The circular pans, which emphasise that even the tracking-shots always loop back to the same point, culminate when Alex and Eric meet on the night before the shooting. In the longest pan of the film, Van Sant tracks round and round Alex’s bedroom, while Alex plays the same endless loop from Moonlight Sonata, and Eric arrives, lies down on the bed, and starts playing a first-person shooter. The looping camera, music and shooter all coincide with the longest shot of the back of a head (Alex’s head), cementing the emphatic queerness of this domestic scene precisely because of how thoroughly the two men involved in it are both defacefied and desubjectified.
Scenes like this evoke a cusp in queer politics in which a certain kind of publically-sanctioned queer flamboyance has made queer domesticity even more unthinkable, at least for high school students. To live simply as a gay couple becomes an act of terror for Alex and Eric, who can only glimpse this possibility on the evening and morning before the shooting. Eric falls asleep next to Alex, whose parents leave so early for work the next morning that the two young men have the house to themselves. After a time lapse of clouds, and a burst from the Great Plains of Idaho, they shower together, and prepare themselves for the crime to come.
Their last piece of preparation occurs almost incidentally, as they turn on the television for a documentary about Hitler, acknowledging the role that neo-Nazism played in the imagination of the Columbine shooters (and school shooters ever since). In Van Sant’s hands, however, Nazism is less about overt ideology and more about an alliance between suppressed homoeroticism and analog media. It’s not Hitler per se who fascinates the shooters here, but the image of a Nazi film camera, framed by the pointedly antiquated oak panelling of Alex’s television. In possibly the eeriest shot of the film, Van Sant pulls back from this unholy alliance between subsumed queerness and mass media to a UPS truck pulling up outside, and Alex runs out to sign for a package that turns out to be the automatic rifles for the shooting. Despite being ordered online, these guns are the duo’s last assault on imminent digital space.
No surprise, then, that rifles ordered on the internet can’t stave off a digital world that was spearheaded by the internet at this point in time. The shooting only takes up a very small part of the film, and emerges as a natural extension of Van Sant’s spatial scheme, rather than as a genuine challenge to it. Eric and Alex’s exhilaration fades quickly, despite their efforts to cement it in an older analog world by taking a photograph before they leave home. This is the one point that Elephant fleetingly feels like a “normal” film, precisely because the space and time of classical cinema is what the two shooters are trying to recover. Or, rather, it’s what Alex is trying to recover, since he shows no compunction about shooting Eric as soon as he starts to wane, and then taking two victims into a freezer for the brutal climax to his own film.
This involves singing “Eeeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe,” as he waves his rifle from student to student, in order to decide who to kill first. In another film, or another time, this would indeed be a traumatic climax. But in Elephant it feels impotent, too hammy, an indication that Alex’s plan has failed, as Van Sant indicates by cutting abruptly, just before he chooses his victim, to a final time lapse of clouds, as the credits roll against the endless loop of Moonlight Sonata. For all that some critics panicked about the film’s supposed vision of a generation trying to gamify life, Elephant is fixated with queer lives trying to wrest their way out of an imminent digital life that promises to embody them further, even as it sets new limits to embodiment.
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