ELEPHANT - Gus Van Sant - USA 2003
Elephant is a very dry film. Like a dream permeated by a mood of dryness. Movement down long corridors connecting dry people with dry space. Only once does moistness obtrude into the film(the group vomiting in the lavatories is an evacuation moistness) when we glimpse in a brief shower scene, a kiss shared between the killers. We can see that they are very wet. But we are not part of their wetness, its something we see as part of the ritual of the killers, their decision to shower, to become moist. But that’s it. The rest of the movie is dry as dry as the water in the drinking fountains located at strategic points in the long corridors of corporate America.
As befits a dry film the core of Elephant is its structure. Its structure takes the form of a number of long tracking shots - the film comprises of about 30 (? - didn’t count) long tracking takes mostly shot from behind an individual or group - as the camera follows its characters across the school campus and though the internal space of the school.
The formal structure issues from Van Sant’s perception of the shared cultural features of American psycho geography. The corridors, with their rooms off, linking specialised zoned spaces, such as refectory library sports hall, could be anywhere in America. This is America: whether you work for the City, Hospital, School, College Corporation or Government: this is the geography that constrains life. Its dry.
At first when thinking about the film I found it difficult to see beyond structure. It was all structure. I think that contained within the film’s structure is the idea of ‘re-enactment’ as ethos. Dramatised re-enactment is, after all, a form of ritual: sometimes empty of sometimes replete with emotive involvement. One ritual associated with serious crime is the staged re-enactment of the event by the police. This often involves retracing the victim’s passage to their fate. Police re-enactments are played by non professional actors(often police personnel) who are asked to take on the various roles required by the situation. Members of the public who believe that they might have been in the area traversed by a victim are asked to be present.
One justification (though by no means the only one) for these police simulations is to stimulate the public into recalling things they have forgotten. To jog memory. Typically these re-enactments are depersonalised walk throughs, dry runs, in which nothing hot takes place. The police video recording of these events does not run to music cues or spot effects. Of course the TV crime industry has picked up on these re-enactments and filled them out with hot material such as dialogue and music. Even though filled out, the sparse personal detail released about victims results more in audience sympathy than involvement. The viewing response remains one of detachment. The TV dramatisations retain the character of their police model a high level of detachment and impersonalisation. As the audience already know the outcome narrative tension is low but spacio temporal tension can be exploited. As with the police re-runs, the purported justification of TV recreations is to shake down viewer memory for information about the victim, perpetrator or the crime, etc. But the TV re-enactments also feel like they evoke a collective response to the event. These films are like machines that produce a mechanical reaction of collective horror. Elephant does not do this. In Elephant my response was to be reminded of the normality of the action. The re-enactment, the walk throughs the unending corridors and spaces produced an effect of depersonalised normalisation of the massacre. It didn’t trivialise or minimalise let alone desensitize. It reminded me that in this sort of environment this is the sort of thing that can happen. Even the music - such as the Beethoven Sonata - richly emotive and redolent of Western individual values is dislocated and removed from the events that unfold: the music is like the background to another movie and its emotional charge negated in the context of Elephants re-staged walk throughs. Elephant’s audience have to remember that familiar anaesthetised institutions ferment their own wide awake fantasies.
In structure the film works to richly suggestive effect. The long super real trance like tracking shots one of which opens the film, start exterior to the school and lead us into the school building and enable us to understand American culture as a psycho-geometric setting. The school’s box like interior which with its long connecting corridors and passage ways, cross junctions and 90 intersecting rooms, represent an institutionalised tunnel vision, an angular geometric experience like the rat mazes of psychology departments.
American psychogeography - Elephant’s tracking recreates the living - movement of the institutions of suburban American. From the interior, the vastness of the monolithic buildings controls angle of vision and at the same time excites movement which permits a person to enter a space similar to the one they have left. The environment engenders a continual molecular agitation as the rigidity of suburban sprawled space engulfs being. In the suburbs with their endless monotonous lines of evenly spaced boulevard lawn fronted housing, public space is mostly an interior organised grid that channels through a vast area. People shop, work or go to school/college in vast buildings whose vista is a straight line leading to a dead-end. Passage ways of unending interstitial corridors linking spacial zones.
Part of the justification of elephant’s structure is that these same vistas have a parallel existence in the virtual space time matrix of computer games. In these the psycho-geography of the suburbs is exploited to create the compulsive experiential movement imagery of the kill-or-be-killed game scenario. Replicated and intensified graphically, examples of this world typically comprise tracking shots down narrowing vistas, 90 intersections, zoned space, no-man’s land, enclosed chambers, narrow passageways. These architectural features are exploited for lurk zones, blind spots, misframing possibilities, both to reveal enemies and wild aggressive monsters and to mount ambushes and surprise attacks in which you the player kill or be killed.
The strongest point in Elephant is this layering of the real and the virtual as a movement experience. Its weakness seems to me that although beautifully shot with lots of young people catching the eye and a resonant emotive film score, it is a little thin. Rather dry. Its a bit dead. Like a beautifully lit shot track of a corpse on the slab in the morgue: the stainless steel glints; the marble purrs; and the body has a silky sheen. But the body would be more interesting if alive. Also I think Elephant deviates when it got slow-mo artsy - was Van Sant trying to hint at eternal recurrence a la Exterminating Angel. But what he does do is see something in the American way that few others either see or want to depict. adrin neatrour Feb 2004