Visually suggested causality: video games

Eric plays a video game.

Real violence matches video game violence.

Visually suggested causality: Nazi Germany and contemporary gun culture are united in a single composition.

As a gun is being delivered to Alex, television features a documentary on the Third Reich.


An ordinary high school movie. Except that it’s not.

by John P. Garry III

The major post-Columbine film and television productions—Bang Bang You're Dead (2001), Home Room (2003), Bowling For Columbine (2003)—fervently seek cultural, historical, and psychological explanations for the 1999 tragedy and other school shootings. These productions are verbally explicit, melodramatic, and visually conventional. They aim for a measure of redemption and narrative closure and employ familiar genre conventions (the stage play, the docudrama, the investigative piece).

Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), also based on the Columbine shootings, takes a different approach. Van Sant changes the setting of the story from Colorado to Oregon (where the director lives), omits or changes many details of the shootings and created an art film—what he calls “a song or a poem” about the event—rather than a docudrama (Said 16). The film avoids simple melodramatic appeal (although the film does have drama) and is visually ambitious and distinctive. It employs conventions of the high school, juvenile delinquency/crime and suspense/thriller genres, but in unconventional ways. Van Sant offers explanations but he isn't overly interested in them.

When shooters-to-be Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) watch a television documentary about Nazi Germany, Eric asks, “That’s Hitler, right?” suggesting that they are too ignorant of the subject for it to influence them. On the morning of the shootings the boys shower together and kiss. There is a long cinematic tradition of associating fascism and homosexuality: Spartacus (1960), The Damned (1969), The Conformist (1970), Salo (1976), JFK (1991), Nixon (1995). But since Van Sant is gay and has created sympathetic gay characters in his films, he couldn't possibly intend this as an explanation—Alex and Eric as the new Leopold and Loeb. More likely the kiss is a David Hockneyesque fantasy and a genuine expression of sexual innocence. Eric says, “I've never even kissed anybody, have you?” fully aware that this is his last chance to do so.

Van Sant places more explanatory emphasis on violent video games and guns. The cartoonish point-and-shoot video game Eric plays is, in part, an intertextual joke, visually modeled on Van Sant’s previous film Gerry (2002). But in another way it is no joke at all: a point-of-view shot of Alex firing down a school corridor at fellow students—the gun extending into the bottom-center of the shot—visually matches the video game.

During the shooting rampage the sounds of a bustling wilderness rise obtrusively on the soundtrack (a sound effects score called “Doors of Perception” by Hildegard Westerkamp). Are Alex and Eric reenacting their hunting experiences? One wall of Alex’s garage is covered with a stack of chopped firewood while an animal skull and antlers hang on another wall, hinting at an outdoorsy, rail-splitter type of family. When the boys make their internet gun purchase, the website listing for “Texas Guns and Ammo” includes the keywords “cowboy” and “19th century gun,” linking the school massacre to American history. Is Van Sant suggesting that this tragedy is a logical outcome of America’s frontier heritage—Richard Slotkin’s regeneration through violence/gunfighter nation theses? An intriguing possibility.

A connection between Nazi Germany and American gun culture is quietly but chillingly suggested when the truck delivering the gun purchased online by the boys rolls into the background of a shot in which the television playing the Nazi documentary fills the foreground.

Van Sant omits the (now-discredited) Goth/Trench Coat Mafia angle as well as the killers’ expectation of celebrity status. It’s clear that jocks will be a favored target, and Alex is a victim of jock bullying, but it isn't severe or prolonged enough to provoke murder. When planning the attack Alex says, “Most importantly, have fun, man” (a quote from the Columbine killers). How their sense of fun got so warped is not clear. None of these explanations—either individually or together—satisfactorily explain how the boys made the leap to murder.

In addition to addressing the challenge of how to represent a violent tragedy (which it does well) and how to depict the motivations of killers (which it does partially) Elephant explores the capabilities and limitations of cinematic representation itself. A parallel is made between how film depicts “reality” and how we try to understand a complex event like the Columbine shootings. The film uses style as metaphor. It uses form to make us rethink a question of content.

The form of the film is extraordinary. If cinema verite documentarian Frederick Wiseman (who made two films about high schools) and Stanley Kubrick (master of the corridor tracking shot) collaborated on a film it would look like Elephant. The film is composed primarily of lengthy, single take, sequence shots employing a mobile camera and a wide-angle lens. Scenes are rarely “covered” from multiple angles and then edited together in the conventional master shot/close up A/close up B manner. By using the full Academy aspect ratio of 1:1.33 instead of the usual “masked” wide screen ratio of 1:1.85 the images contain more information than the average movie, resulting in as much detail, clarity, and brightness as the 35mm format can deliver. The film was shot this way because it was intended for cable television, although Van Sant claims an allusion to Frederick Wiseman and 16mm educational films seen in high school (Elephant website). This is one of the few films in which it is recommended to watch the full screen rather than the letterbox DVD transfer.

The long takes depict dialogue interactions but also activity—such as walking from one part of the school to another—that would normally be edited out of a film. In two shots Nathan (Nathan Tyson) walks from the athletic field into the school, down a long corridor, meets his girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea), with whom he walks and talks. Rather than starting the scene with the couple meeting, or omitting the uneventful section of his walk (almost three minutes without dialogue), Van Sant maintains strict continuity, even if it is excessive and tedious by traditional narrative film standards—an approach he took to an even greater extreme in Gerry. The suggestion, of course, is that on a day like this, a day in which Nathan may be murdered, every moment is precious. And rather than being experienced as “uneventful” these passages contribute to a panoramic view of the school as a vast, thriving, honorable—if aged—institution, unlike the satirized schools common to teen comedies.

To complicate matters even more the camera often switches subject mid shot. Just before Nathan meets Carrie in the corridor the camera swivels over to observe three chatty “in crowd” girls (which, I have learned, are called “plastics”)—one of whom has a crush on Nathan—and then pans back to Nathan. In one particularly long shot (5 minutes 21 seconds) the camera follows the three girls—Jordan (Jordan Taylor), Brittany (Brittany Mountain) and Nicole (Nicole George)—down a corridor into the school cafeteria, breaks away from them to follow a server into the kitchen, observes two workers sneak away and light up a joint, follows a dish washer back into the cafeteria, and returns to the girls. The camera pans to the window to catch a glimpse of John (John Robinson) outside playing with a dog, then pans back to the girls, who bicker and leave the cafeteria. While the girls exit the camera tracks over to a conversation with a girl concerned with her singing ability and then tracks back to the three girls as they exit the cafeteria and go to the girls’ room. All in one shot.

In scenes like these Van Sant is practicing the mise-en-scene, depth of field, sequence shot or long take aesthetic favored by French film critic/theorist Andre Bazin (1918-1958) and practiced by filmmakers such as Robert Flaherty, Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Orson Welles, Jacques Tati, Andrei Tarkovsky, Miklos Jansco, Andrei Sokurov, Rob Tregenza, and Bela Tarr. This style emphasizes the continuous shot and the orchestration of multiple characters and objects within the frame. The long take contrasts with montage—the creation of meaning through the editing of dissimilar shots, whose seminal practitioner and theorist was Sergei Eisenstein. It also differs from the continuity style—the dominant mode in Hollywood filmmaking—in which the mise-en-scene of different shots is coordinated to create unobtrusive or “invisible” edits and create a fictional space by linking numerous, often static shots rather than exploring space in a continuous moving shot.

For mise-en-scene critics like Bazin composition in depth allows the viewer greater participation in the creation of meaning and coincides more closely with how we experience the visual world while editing artificially imposes predetermined meanings on the viewer. The long take creates meaning within a single shot. Montage creates meaning between shots. Continuity editing seeks to render the transition between shots invisible. Most films use a combination of approaches.

Bazin asserts that the illusion of reality that most films strive for is based on a “fundamental deceit” because reality “exists in a continuous space, and the screen in fact presents us with a succession of tiny fragments called ‘shots.’” (Bazin 1972 80). Van Sant agrees with this theory:

“Since 1915, when people started to use editing to tell a story, we've had the convention of the reaction shot: I say something, then we cut to your reaction...But life is a continuous thing with a rhythm of its own, and when you cut to adjust that rhythm to suit the dramatic impact you create a new, false rhythm.” (Said 17).

For Bazin, depth of focus implies

"...a more active mental attitude on the part of the spectator and a more positive contribution on his part to the action in progress” (Bazin 1967 35-36).

Van Sant concurs and uses Bazinian rhetoric to describe the film:

"You just watch and make associations for yourself, as opposed to having the film-makers impose ideas on you,” (Said 17).

This approach is especially well suited to dramatizing Columbine because officials investigating the tragedy use the same rhetoric of open narrative construction. “We deal with facts; we present facts,” says Jefferson County Sheriff Division Chief John Kiekbusch regarding the 2000 final report on the massacre.

"We'll make a diligent effort not to include a bunch of conclusions. Here are the facts: You read it and make your own conclusions” (Cullen 2).

Van Sant is very open about his inspirations and cites Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s Satantango (1994) as a major influence on Elephant (Said 17). This seven-and-one-quarter hour, black-and-white film depicts a rain-sodden, isolated rural village whose joyless inhabitants follow a self-appointed messiah who turns out to be a government spy. Ambitiously and expertly crafted, the film has a stark Tarkovskian vision of muddy fields and vast plains, extremely long takes in the tradition of fellow Hungarian Miklos Jansco, and a Buñuelesque desecration of the Christ-Apostles story. Far more obscure and difficult than anything a mainstream American filmmaker could make, Van Sant derives from Satantango long, mobile shots of characters moving through space (often without dialogue), an ensemble cast, multiple, seemingly unrelated story lines, intertitles, mysterious music, one-sided dialogue scenes, and an observational tone.

Continued: A realist style that undermines realism

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