The vastness of Watt High School...

... and the vastness of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel.

John in a strangly barren and expansive school lounge is photographed very similarly to ...

... ghostly twin girls in a strangly expansive game room in the Overlook Hotel.

Visual beauty

Trouble in paradise is indicated by this high angle long shot of bad driving on a beautiful street.

The park is a state of nature, through which Elias walks to school.

As Nathan walks back from the athletic field, the schoolyard is shot like a greenbelt within the city.

During the massacre, John walks around outside the school building, with the imagery emphasizing natural beauty even then.

Gunplay and the disjunction of cause and effect

Eric shoots at an unseen target. The camera pans left...

... and the shot continues as a woodpile is pelted by gunfire from a now unseen shooter.

Looking out from the GSA meeting room, a student receives a hit from an unseen assailant.

In the library, Alex keeps shooting, while his victims remain out of focus in the background.

In the cafeteria Alex sits and talks to Eric off-screen. The camera pans left ...

... and the shot continues, as Eric looks screen left and talks to Alex off-screen, when suddenly ...

... Eric is shot without warning. The shot continues as ...

... Alex walks through the same frame previously occupied by Eric.

A cloudscape from the end credits: Elephant has made nature itself unreliable.


Settings, social and natural

Elephant is clearly in the post-Rebel Without a Cause, prosperity-isn't-enough mode. The wide-angle views of Alex’s spacious, immaculate, warmly colored (if stylistically dated) living room tell us that material lack is not the problem. Critics disagree on whether the film’s primary setting—Watt High School—is convincingly drab or too beautiful. Foundas calls it

“...a carefully composed dreamscape of high school, in which every floor is meticulously waxed, every shaft of afternoon sunlight unerringly placed, and where the autumn leaves are forever falling from mighty oak trees.” (Foundas 3)

But for Peter Ian Cummings,

“...the minimalist strings of sterile lockers and granite floors is [sic] recognizably threatening.” (Cummings 100).

There’s truth in both positions. The school is aged (it was closed when filming occurred) and Van Sant occasionally presents it as vast and underpopulated, like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). Michelle’s alienation is visually rendered by a wide-angle shot showing her as a dot within the empty gymnasium. The large, carpeted room in which Acadia (Alicia Miles) kisses a tearful John is strangely barren and seems to extend upward into infinity. But overall the school doesn't come off too badly. The school officials and teachers are refreshingly free of caricature. During Nathan’s lengthy stroll from the athletic field through the school we see or hear a football game, girls’ calisthenics, Frisbee tossing, a guitar player, a break dancer, a choral practice, and a class lecture—signs of a diverse, active, creative student body, an educational peaceable kingdom.

But Foundas is also right. Is the film merely prettified or does visual beauty function in a meaningful way? The second shot of the narrative proper is a high angle tracking shot of a white Mercedes driving sloppily down a tree-lined residential street. The leaves are radiant autumnal orange, red and gold. The car sideswipes parked cars and almost runs over a kid on a bike. The contrast between natural beauty and human recklessness suggests Trouble in Paradise as the film’s theme. It’s also one of Van Sant’s basic themes since the same fall foliage appears in Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). A park near the school, where Elias photographs the punk couple, is carpeted with leaves and is free of trash and graffiti (compare this to the weedy fields kids wander through in Over the Edge).

The school building is in the unloved mid-century, late-Brutalist pavilion style, but is almost always framed with green grass and trees while sunlight warms hard, impersonal corridors. Even during the shooting, as John darts around the parking lot, luminous fall foliage fills the background. Like Douglas Sirk, Stanley Kubrick, and Terrence Malick, Van Sant uses architectural order and visual lushness ironically. Beauty—man-made and otherwise—lulls the viewer and belies an oppressive and violence-prone social order.

In the delinquency/crime genre social and class signifiers are used very systematically. A flat-top and letterman jacket always signify “jock bully.” Rich parents are always snooty, demanding, and expect leniency for their delinquent children. Van Sant uses familiar signifiers with more complexity than usual. Alex’s father is the “NASCAR dad” of contemporary punditry. He informs the boys: “Gerritt’s got the poll this week, Eric, and track record.” The father wears a baseball cap and an un-tucked denim work shirt, suggesting outdoor or manual labor. Alex refers to his shotgun as his “shottie,” suggesting that he shoots regularly, presumably with friends or family. So, is Alex a product of Middle American, blue collar, “red state” NRA Republicans? Or is he a sexually ambiguous, culturally cosmopolitan, sensitive artistic type? Dissolving such easy oppositions is obviously Van Sant’s point. Alex’s family, however, isn't the only one associated with guns. In the first scene John and his father (who looks very much the white-collar, Volvo-driving “blue state” yuppie Democrat) talk about hunting with grandfather’s gun. The transmission of gun culture from one generation to the next is not restricted to Alex’s family and its attendant socio-political characteristics.

Elephant shares with Bully the depressing suggestion that even intact families are powerless to prevent youth violence. In both films families have meals together. Fathers and sons have interests in common (or at least the fathers assume they do). But this type of interaction, which is assumed to produce healthy kids, is not enough. Alex’s basement bedroom-studio can be seen as the equivalent of the hide-out/crash pad common to the delinquency genre—a space where teens can be themselves but also hatch dangerous schemes. Unlike Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955), and The Substitute there is no parental figure—surrogate or otherwise—looking out for the boys. Adults and teens are too completely segregated for such a relationship to develop. When Mr. Lewis tries to engage Eric the way Ray (Edward Platt) engaged Jim in Rebel Without a Cause, it is much too late: the killing has already begun and Mr. Lewis is cowering on the floor under Eric’s gun.

Elephant is muffled about the connection between teen sex and teen violence, in part because Van Sant has always been more interested in sexual and gender fluidity than sex as the gateway to violence. None of Elephant’s characters are overtly driven by lust. Carrie’s possible pregnancy raises the old hygiene film theme of the Wages of Lust, but Nathan and Carrie aren't the problem; the virginal Alex and Eric are. The least sexualized characters are the most dangerous. Alex and Eric’s kiss can be seen as a reflexive gesture to fulfill the sex-leads-to-violence formula common to the socioopathic teen mode.

The film leaves the old nature-versus-nurture question unanswerable. Or perhaps unasked. Films in the sociopath-delinquent mode tend to ignore the normal-abnormal, nature-nurture binaries in favor of depicting delinquency as an existential condition: youth transgress because they are and they can. Binary categories might also be replaced by bipolar personalities: the bully in Mean Creek is by turns brutal and child-like. His duality is finally sentimentalized as a sublime-tragic incarnation of warring adolescent impulses. Nature-versus-civilization has been replaced by human nature divided against itself. Perhaps the current phase of the juvenile delinquency/crime genre equivocates on the nature-nurture issue because the current definition of sociopathology acknowledges genetic, biochemical, and environmental causes. It can be nature and/or nurture.

Elephant engages this theme by making nature itself unreliable. The science teacher confidently describes the activity of electrons, which move predictably between orbitals based on energy stimulation. In the GSA meeting students discuss the problem of “gay rams”: sheep ranchers purchase expensive males for breeding purposes that sometimes grow up to be gay and therefore, for the rancher’s purposes, useless. Rams and electrons are equally parts of nature, but not equally predictable.

When Alex and Eric drive to school and enter the campus armed the various temporal strands converge (much like the time-divergent strands in Altman’s Kansas City and Minghella’s Cold Mountain [2002] gradually “synch up") to create a single (mostly) linear narrative. Van Sant uses continuity editing techniques (reactions shots, eye-line matching, reverse shots, dead-spot cutting) to quicken the pace, create suspense, and suture the viewer more tightly to the narrative.

Perhaps inevitably for an action climax, Van Sant employs Griffith-derived techniques and situations: parallel montage (John’s movements outside the school and Benny’s [Bennie Dixon] walk through the school are intercut with the killers); family reunification (John and his father); a woman paralyzed with fear (Acadia); siege-confinement (the GSA students struggle to escape the building, Alex traps Nathan and Carrie in the meat locker); captivity-rescue (Benny helps Acadia out of the GSA meeting room).

But Van Sant doesn't completely abandon temporal discontinuity. The shooting starts twice: on-screen in the library, then off-screen (via sound effects) in the GSA meeting (and perhaps a third time in the girls bathroom). When Benny walks up to the GSA meeting room we hear glass breaking. If this is the same window we heard broken earlier, then the film has jogged back slightly in time again.

The shootings, as I suggested before, are also depicted in an untraditional manner. Gunplay in movies is usually depicted in rapid, precise editing between the shooter and his target. The relationship between action and reaction is very clear. Van Sant adheres to this convention in the shootings of Michelle, Mr. Lewis, and Benny, where assailant and victim are linked via editing or framing. But other shootings are photographed like the rest of the movie: in single takes. We see either a shooter or a victim but not in the same shot or even sequentially.

When Alex and Eric fire their new gun in Alex’s garage, the camera shows them firing screen left at an off-screen target. The camera then pans left to a stack of firewood splintering from bullets while the shooter is now excluded from the shot. As with the spitball throwers we don't see assailant and target in the same shot. A boy in the GSA discussion group goes into the hall to see what the commotion is all about. He is felled by a bullet but the shooter is off screen. When the rampage shifts to the cafeteria we enter the scene with several people (including one of the kitchen workers observed earlier) already dead—the entire scene has occurred off screen. The camera tracks with Alex in close-up as he strides through the library shooting students. Van Sant doesn't intercut Alex shooting and the students running. We see panicked students in soft focus fleeing and falling in the background beyond Alex. In a clever reversal of the close-up of Michelle in the locker room, this shot suggests that Alex’s social isolation and self-absorption are the preconditions of his heartless cruelty—the loner as victimizer rather than victim. The fuzzy blobs that ridiculed Michelle are now the dehumanized objects of Alex’s moral myopia.

When Alex shoots Eric, Alex is completely off screen and blood explodes out of Eric’s back. We're just as surprised as he is. Compare this to a similar scene of betrayal in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) in which Barnes (Tom Berenger) shoots fellow soldier Elias (Willem Dafoe). Intercutting carefully describes the evolution of the encounter and each character’s change of expression—especially Elias’ transition from relief at what he assumes is his rescue to dismay when Barnes aims his gun at him. What Alex might be thinking or feeling when he kills Eric is withheld from us. Barnes’ motivation for killing Elias has already been established. Nothing equivalent is established between Alex and Eric and we can only guess at Alex’s motivation.

In the last shot of the narrative proper Alex recites “eeniee, meeniee, minee, moe...” as he swivels his gun between the terrified Nathan and Carrie. This rhyme is a randomization device used by children, a way of landing the finger of fate on a person by means of chance. Or rather, a psuedo-randomization device. As every child knows, you can alter the phrasing of this rhyme to produce any outcome you want. Alex cruelly pretends Nathan and Carrie’s respective fates are up to chance, but this whole situation is entirely his choice (It may also be a reference to Quentin Tarantino, who used this rhyme in his scripts for Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers [1994], films which specialize in “cool-looking” violence)

So was this tragedy a result of chance or choice? Accident or fate? Eric provides his own answer as he lectures the terrified principal in dialogue seemingly borrowed from the TV movie Helter Skelter (1976): “You know there’s others like us out there, too. And they will kill you if you fuck with them like you did me and Jerry” (why Eric says “Jerry” instead of “Alex” is unclear, other than as a reference to Gerry). In other words, it was both fate and chance. It didn't have to be Alex and Eric at Watt High School (chance) but it did have to happen somewhere, sometime (fate). Eric seems to be promising an uprising on the scale of The Warriors. Is that boastful nonsense or is he right? Since reports of teens hoarding weapons and making threats continue to this day, he seems terribly right.

The final shots of the film—vast cloudscapes behind the end credits—ask us to consider the story within a larger cinematic and mythic context. Time-lapse shots of skies and landscapes have been a part of Van Sant’s filmmaking practice since his teen years (Parish 15). In Drugstore Cowboy high-speed cloud formations accompany the protagonist’s drug euphoria. In My Own Private Idaho landscape shots (both high- and regular-speed) represent the dream state of the narcoleptic protagonist, Mike Waters (River Phoenix). In Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) the Fordian western landscape—a crucible for American frontier values—is used for multicultural rebellion and sentiment. In Gerry the stark but beautiful landscape seems to punish its two lost, wandering protagonists for their complacency, casual tourism, and removal from nature. In all of these films humans seem not quite capable of living up to the promise of the wilderness (a theme Van Sant shares with Terrence Malick).

While the use of landscape in these films is fairly clear, the role of the skyscapes in Elephant is more ambiguous. From whose point of view do these shots originate? Do these low angle shots implicitly respond to Michelle gazing up dreamily at the sky while on the athletic field? Are they adjacent to the school (as the opening titles shot seems to be) or could they be anywhere? Like the dreams of Mike Waters, are these Eric and Alex’s dream of another world, the heaven they hope to ascend to but probably haven't? Are these the clouds Holly (Sissy Spacek) stares at in the last scene of Badlands? (1973, another movie about opaque killers). Or are these the “spacious skies” (Idaho features a sardonic, country-muzak version of “America, the Beautiful”) of a vast, prosperous nation living in a self-willed dream, its head in the clouds, in which “others like us” go about unrecognized until it is too late?


André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of the Cinema” in What Is Cinema? (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967).

André Bazin, Orson Welles, A Critical View (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, (New York: Random House, 1983).

David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film (New York: London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981).

Dave Cullen, “Kill mankind. No one should survive.” Salon.com, September 23, 1999,

Peter Ian Cummings, “Two boys kiss. And then a school massacre.” XY Magazine, 41 Holiday 2003.

Elephant Official Website,

Scott Foundas, “Elephant Boys,” LA Weekly, October 24-30, 2003

Bruce LaBruce, “Interview with Gus Van Sant,” C International Contemporary Art, 79, (Fall 2003).

Tom Milne, Godard on Godard (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972).

James Robert Parish, Gus Van Sant, An Unauthorized Biography (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001).

Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

SF Said, “Shock Corridors,” Sight & Sound 14, no. 2. February 2004.

"The Power of No,” Peg Tyre, Julie Scelfo, Barbara Kantrowitz, Newsweek, September 13, 2004

Tom Wolfe, Hooking Up, Audio CD, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000)

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