copyright 2004, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
No. 47

Elephant
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 Bunuelesque 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.

Although in Gerry and Elephant Van Sant employs Bazinian principles more devotedly than most contemporary American filmmakers he also undermines the claim to realism these principle evoke. He revives the principles and demonstrates their limitation at the same time. Bazin advises,

“The camera cannot see everything at once, but it makes sure not to lose any part of what it chooses to see” (Bazin 1972 27).

Van Sant is not so circumspect. On the school athletic field, before Nathan begins his long walk, a football game is in progress. Instead of panning to follow the action the camera remains stationary and the game migrates in and out of the frame. The choice of what to see is partially ceded from the camera operator to the actors.

A more complex dialectic of inclusion-exclusion is created in a meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). A teacher and several students sit in a circle with the camera in the center. The camera pans/rotates steadily from one participant to another in a continuous left to right movement while people talk. But the person speaking isn't always the person onscreen. We hear people talking without seeing their faces and see people just listening. When someone starts talking the camera doesn't pan or cut to them in the manner of a typical documentary interview, but just keeps panning. We have to wait to be able to associate each voice with a face, which we can only partially accomplish. Whether we actually see the person talking is a matter of chance. No matter how much activity a wide angle lens and a mobile camera take in, activity is still excluded. What the camera sees, rather than being “obvious” or “natural,” can be arbitrary (Ray 286).

If the camera offers a rich but a limited point of view, how can a filmmaker depict a complex event such as the Columbine shootings? The traditional answer—innovated in simple movies like The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903)—is parallel montage: cutting back-and-forth between two or more sets of activity that the viewer intuits to be occurring simultaneously. D.W. Griffith perfected this technique in the suspenseful climaxes of films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Way Down East (1920), and America (1924) in which trapped, terrified women are intercut with men racing to their rescue. Eisenstein used this technique for political as well as melodramatic ends in films such as Strike (1924) and The Battleship Potemkin (1925) in which violent conflicts involving large crowds are depicted by intercutting many different areas of action and representatives of different social classes. But if a filmmaker forswears montage, as Van Sant largely has in Elephant, how can he encompass different points of view? Van Sant has set himself a difficult problem and he crafts an unusual solution, a solution inspired by Tarr’s Satantango: he repeats scenes and photographs them differently each time.

In the most-cited example, the camera precedes shutterbug Elias (Elias McConnell) down the main school corridor. He meets his friend John, asks him to pose for a picture, John does so, they chat briefly and continue on their separate ways, the camera reversing itself and following John down the hall and out of the school. Barely noticeable in the background is a long-legged girl in a red shirt running down the hall past the two boys (we’ve seen her previously on the school athletic field, but probably don't make the connection on the first viewing). Sixteen minutes later, without warning, we are sent back in time and observe this scene again. This time the camera follows Elias into the scene and we view the action from the opposite side of the “action line” or 180-degree axis established previously. Again, the girl scurries by, this time away from the camera in the middle ground of the shot. Since the first version of this scene we have actually met his girl, Michelle (Kristen Hicks). But because of her placement in the frame we still might not notice or identify her. When we view this scene a third time the camera follows Michelle. This time we recognize her and know that she is hurrying from gym class to duties in the school library. She and the camera rush past John and Elias without pausing. Shifting the perspective of the previous scenes, Michelle is now the figure of identification while Elias and John are extras just barely visible and audible in the blurry background.

To resolve this dilemma of point of view, to depict the scene thoroughly, to be “objective” in the journalistic sense, Van Sant violates temporal continuity—one of the qualities associated with long takes. There are cinematic precedents for viewing an action from different points of view. Citizen Kane (1941), Rashomon (1950) and JFK (1991) are among the most famous. Wonderland (2003) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) are two of the most recent. In these films characters relate their experience of a person or event and come to different conclusions, demonstrating the subjectivity of truth.

But Elephant doesn't work that way. The action within each version of this unremarkable scene is scrupulously identical, while the visual differences derive from where the camera is, not the subjective interpretation of each character. Van Sant is addressing more purely cinematic questions. From whose point of view should dramatic action be viewed? Aren't characters in the background just as important as characters in the foreground? Shouldn't what leads up to the scene and what follows it be included as well? When dramatizing Columbine who should the camera follow? The killers? The victims? The survivors? The implication is that if a simple event like two people meeting in a corridor has so many facets then an event like the Columbine shootings may be entirely too complex to depict. The issue of point of view is also embedded in the title of the film, which derives in part from the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each man, according to the fable, has an inadequate understanding of what an elephant is because each one touches a different part of the elephant. They're all right but also wrong. Likewise, each version of the Elias-John-Michelle scene is true, but also incomplete.

Van Sant may want to avoid the “false rhythm” of traditional continuity editing but these repetitions yield an even stranger rhythm. Van Sant is reaching back before Griffith and Eisenstein and The Great Train Robbery to Porter’s truly archaic The Life of an American Fireman (Copyright Version, 1903) in which the rescue of a woman from a burning house is shown in its entirety from two different angles that are edited sequentially rather than intercut (Cook 23). In the temporal design of the film as a whole, Van Sant has actually turned parallel montage inside out by crosscutting two sets of scenes (the day of the shooting and the “Alex & Eric” scenes from the previous day) that cannot be happening simultaneously.

The viewer is placed in a state of almost constant temporal dislocation. No punctuation identifying time shifts is provided, various scenes and pieces of action are repeated, and scenes are held in limbo and continued many scenes later. Nathan and Carrie’s hallway scene is “paused” for 88 minutes and resumes when the shooting commences. The scenes taking place on the day of the shooting describe a sequence of events that actually takes less time than the screen time—a rarity in narrative film. The film, then, is a temporal puzzle picture—Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Kansas City (1996), Run Lola Run (1998), Momento (2000), Code Unknown (2000), Amores Perros (2000), Mulholland Drive (2001), Kill Bill (2003-4), 21 Grams (2003), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)—in which the viewer must mentally reassemble the scenes to understand their linear chronology.

While Van Sant acknowledges the limitations of the camera he creates even more frustrating omissions through editing. Van Sant (who also edited the film) deliberately truncates scenes so that the final outcome is withheld from us. Before Michelle is shot in the library Elias, who happens to be standing nearby, snaps a photo of Alex. Alex merely glances blankly in Elias’ direction (perhaps he likes the idea of being documented), turns back to Michelle, and starts shooting. Will Elias be one of the victims? Will he live to develop these photos? We never find out (this question has even provoked a debate on Elephant’s Internet Movie Database message board). Later, Alex bursts into the girls’ bathroom and confronts Jordan, Nicole, and Brittany. Will he shoot? Will he find out about the girl hiding in a nearby stall? Unknown.

The film concludes in the school kitchen. Alex has cornered Nathan and Carrie in the freezer (slabs of meat hang behind Alex, underscoring his own butchery). The terrified couple pleads with and rebukes Alex, who recites a childish lyric and pins them down with his weapon. The camera tracks backwards away from the scene. Cut to the closing titles. We never find out if Alex shoots one or both of them. We never find out what finally happens to Alex. We never find out how many people are killed, who they are, or how the community responds to the tragedy. These omissions frustrate some of our basic film viewing assumptions: when a crucial action is set in motion (such as a stand-off involving a gun) we will be shown the conclusion; the film will provide a summary or overview of events; we will find out the fates of the main characters.

One suspects that these omissions occur in part because Van Sant wanted to avoid turning the film into an action film spectacle which would make audiences eager for violence rather than horrified by it. He doesn't want viewers to respond to the carnage the way Alex and Eric respond to their own gunplay: “Whoa, dude, that was awesome.” Van Sant says of the staged violence,

“It was not heightened and exciting. We certainly didn't want it to be cool looking...” (LaBruce 22).

Van Sant doesn't overwhelm the viewer with brutality in the manner of, say, of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). He practices restraint—a rare quality in mainstream cinema today. The dramatic result of these omissions is to give the climax the feeling of something so swift, unexpected, and chaotic that the film simply can't take it all in, of events so horrifying that the film’s “memory” has repressed them before we have a chance to see them.

Although this withholding of information is at its most extreme during the shooting, throughout the film we are made aware of things happening off screen, as in the football game and the GSA meeting. The first shot of the film (a time-lapse view of a sky changing from dusk to night) is accompanied by the sound of young people playing football (presumably the boys later seen playing on the school athletic field). We hear them but don't see them. Alex and Eric’s entry into the library, where they will begin their rampage, occurs off screen. A medium-close shot of Michelle accompanies the sound of guns being cocked. Michelle turns and glances past the camera with a frown. But the expected point of view shot of what Michelle is looking at is omitted. Instead, the film shifts back to Alex’s bathroom earlier in the day. We must intuit that Alex and Eric entered the library. There is no immediate visual confirmation. Van Sant’s impatience with “the convention of the reaction shot” is evident here.

Many of the adults are only partially viewed, suggesting that adults and teenagers live in the same space but occupy different worlds. In the first dialogue scene, when John takes the wheel of the family car in place of his hung-over father (Timothy Bottoms), the camera pans between the two characters, framing them individually. Photographing two people sitting together in the front seat of a car is a very common type of shot, and Van Sant makes a special effort to keep them separated. They are framed together only briefly (and are visually reunited during the massacre—the only redemptive element in the climax). The scene concludes with father and son talking, but with Mr. Robinson in the center of the shot and John almost completely outside the frame.

Similarly, in the school office Nathan, Carrie, and John talk to administrators who are almost never seen when spoken to. When Michelle walks from the athletic field to the gym the PE teacher who scolds her drifts in and out of a tracking shot that favors Michelle. In the breakfast scene Alex’s mother and father speak but their faces are framed out of the shot. Later, the driver who delivers the gun is off-screen when he speaks to the boys.

This isolation of characters is also effected through selective focus. When John makes a phone call to his home the principal, Mr. Lewis, (Matt Malloy) enters the shot in the background, which is out of focus. But rather then shifting focus back to Lewis when he speaks the focus remains on John in the foreground and Lewis remains a just-recognizable blur (he is additionally obscured by a plexiglass panel that juts into the frame). Not all the tracking shots use depth of focus. In many shots the space beyond the characters is a blur (rather unlike Welles’ and Kubrick’s deep focus tracking shots). The characters often seem to be moving within a sort of bubble (as in the hallway tracking shot following Michelle cited earlier), the world around them glowing but ill-defined.

When Michelle changes clothes in the girl’s locker room the camera views her from above in a medium-close shot. We hear voices muttering derogatory phrases, presumably about her. We can see some girls out-of-focus in the background but can't identify them or be completely certain they are the ones talking. Since Michelle is changing clothes sitting down, and was ordered earlier by her gym teacher to wear shorts instead of sweats to PE, we suspect that she is shy, perhaps embarrassed, about her body. This tight shot effectively conveys her social isolation and desire to hide herself from the world. The off-screen ridicule demonstrates her justified paranoia and the type of bullying which motivates Alex and Eric (Michelle and the killers are linked editorially several times in the film).

These exclusionary techniques often produce a disjunction of cause and effect. At the beginning of the “Alex & Eric” sequence, the camera begins on a science teacher speaking at the front of the class. The camera pans to students asking questions. One male student with a crew cut (one of the “dumb-ass jocks” the shooters despise) turns around and throws something towards the back of the class. The camera pans over to Alex, who is splattered with spitball particles. The standard way to render this scene would be to show the jock throwing, cut to Alex being hit, then cut to reaction shots of the jocks and other students. But Van Sant shoots it so the jock appears to be throwing something at no one in particular and Alex appears with the mess already on him (the behind-the-scenes documentary of the film suggests that this was how the scene was staged). Then, more glop flies in from off screen and pelts Alex. But was it thrown by the crew cut or by the boy in the letterman jacket next to him? (which appears to be Nathan). Thus in one shot we see a character throw something at an unseen target and see another character hit with something thrown by an unseen assailant. Cause and effect, action and reaction are split. Each party—the teacher, the jocks, Alex—are part of the same shot, the same continuous geographic space, but are visually isolated through framing, existing in separate worlds. This suggests disunity, discord, and disconnection that contradict the wholeness—the Bazinian-humanist assumptions—communicated by the long takes and wide-angle views.

These unexpected repetitions, deliberate omissions, and departures from the continuity style of classical Hollywood cinema move the film away from the nominally “realist” long-take tradition of Bazin-Renoir-Welles and closer to the modernist, anti-illusionist theories and practices of Bertholt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard. Godard has made the denaturalizing of film language—the split of cause and effect—his life’s work. Contempt (1963) concludes with a car crash that kills the central couple. But it occurs off screen, the crucial moment omitted, like the unseen crucial moments during Elephant’s shootout. Godard invented the deliberately disjointed shootout in his first feature film, Breathless (1959). Godard has described his early film practice as “research in the form of spectacle” (Milne 181). Van Sant describes Elephant as investigation in the form of drama:

“I knew there would be no dramatic coverage of the event because of the way we think of drama as entertainment and not as investigative...My reaction was, why not? Why don't we use drama to look into something like this?” (Said 16).

The relationship of photography (and by extension, cinema and all modes of representation) to “reality” is addressed in a sequence shot in which Elias, walking to school with his still camera, asks a young punk couple if he can take their picture. They consent, but he doesn't “document” them in a neutral or objective manner. He directs them the way a film director would, telling them where to walk, how close to stand together, and directing them to kiss. Photography—once considered a purely mechanical, even inartistic, art—is just as subjective as any other art form. A metaphor for Van Sant’s use of Columbine as subject matter is suggested. Just as Elias “finds” the couple and then manipulates them for his own purposes, Van Sant found a pre-existing subject and shaped it to suit his own interests. The subsequent photography lab and darkroom scenes show how much work actually goes into making a photograph and how the results can be manipulated further in the printing stage. Images don't just “happen,” but are laboriously and consciously crafted.

Elias can be seen as a director surrogate in this and other scenes. Like Van Sant, he casts unknowns and documents outsiders. Elias and the punk couple engage in improvisation, just as Van Sant did with Elephant’s actors. Although Elias uses a still camera, he walks ahead of the couple in the manner of the tracking shots so abundant in Elephant. The punk boy is eager to do a nude scene, but Elias vetoes the idea, just as a film director might veto an over-eager actor’s suggestions. (This indirectly raises the question of who suggested Alex and Eric shower together—the actors or the director?)

The amount of time the film devotes to the process of photography can also be read as a comment—even complement—on Van Sant’s shooting style, which relies less on post-production manipulation of the image than most Hollywood productions today. The lingering shot of Elias dutifully rotating a film-developing canister in his hands as if it were a talisman makes film-based photography a process of almost medieval artisanal patience. Van Sant’s old school impulses are confirmed by the fact that Elephant was edited on film, a method becoming just as rare as the film bath. Just as Elias cuts his processed film with scissors, Van Sant cut his movie with a splicer. In the age of the digital image and the posthuman narrative, Elephant adheres to a 20th century cinematic ideal.

A larger, related question of signification (how objects and actions are invested with meaning and how those meanings are read) is raised in the GSA discussion group. The topic is whether or not you can tell if a person is gay based on appearance. “How can you tell?” asks the teacher. “Can you tell?” (The viewer may also be tempted to try to “tell” which students are gay and which are straight.) There is no consensus. “Dyed pink hair” and “wearing tons of rainbow paraphernalia” is conclusive for some students, but not for others. One straight student wears rainbow gear as a sign of solidarity. Another student hypothesizes that a straight person could wear rainbow gear just for the heck of it. In true postmodern fashion a sign and its referent are separable. Markers of identity can be adopted at will. The reuse and re-motivation of signs is also referenced in the television documentary. It describes how Hitler “stole” imagery from Hindu symbology (the swastika), Ancient Rome (the standard), and Mussolini (the fascist salute) for the Third Reich (thus Hitler becomes the first postmodern appropriationist).

These discussions resonate throughout the film. How can you spot a potential schoolyard shooter? Do the now-accepted “signs” (violent entertainment, access to guns, bullying) really tell us anything? Van Sant surrounds Alex in particular with a variety of personal, cultural, and social markers that point in different directions. Alex is associated with artistic creativity and gun culture, two things not usually allied. When we first seem him dappled with spitballs he is drawing in a journal and drawings decorate his basement bedroom walls. There is a graffiti art canvas on the wall as well. The word “Arte” is legible in the painting, suggesting the marriage of fine art and street art, and perhaps the mixed nature of Alex’s identity.

Gangsta rap and hard rock are the current musical signs—some say the causes—of youth violence. But then what do we make of Alex playing Mozart and Beethoven on the piano? Isn't classical music a sign of cultivation, the best Western Civ has to offer? (Stanley Kubrick used classical music ironically as a sign of youth violence and the decadence of modern civilization in A Clockwork Orange). Alex wears a faded Arc d' Triomphe t-shirt throughout the film, enhancing his link with European high culture, suggesting that he has either visited Paris with his parents or with a school group.

Bullying, a common explanation for the schoolyard shootings of the last decade, is obviously a motivation for Alex but not for Michelle. She doesn't turn against her fellow students. In fact, she works in the school library, serving the very community that pressures and ridicules her. And we aren't the only ones looking for signs of troubled teens. According to Jordan and Brittany, their mothers not-so-secretly search through their possessions for signs of misbehavior (drugs, presumably). The closest thing the film has to a “goth” (which the Columbine shooters were incorrectly identified as) is the retro-punk couple Elias photographs. But they are just nice kids, certainly more admirable than the more outwardly “normal” Alex and Eric. Just as “rainbow gear” doesn't necessarily indicate homosexuality, punk gear doesn't necessarily indicate alienation, rebellion, or street-life poverty.

Physical homosexuality is the most troubling sign Van Sant introduces into the story. If “rainbow gear” doesn't “prove” someone is gay, does Alex and Eric’s kiss prove they are gay? If Eric has never kissed anyone then presumably Alex has never kissed him either. Are they acting on a whim? Is their sexual acting out a sign that they are too “into each other?” Gay or not, does this have anything to do with their subsequent violence? Placed after their Hitler-viewing and gun firing and just before the killings their kiss is positioned as additional evidence of aberration, leading critic Todd McCarthy to call the boys “gay-inclined Nazis.” Scott Foundas of the LA Weekly strongly criticizes Van Sant for thoughtlessly adopting early, unsubstantiated (and now largely discredited) rumors that the Columbine killers were gay. Van Sant claims to have not heard such rumors before he made the film. (Foundas, 4, LaBruce 18)

Van Sant is sensitive to criticisms of this scene. He asserts the boys are not gay, likening the boys’ behavior to warriors before battle, (homosociality rather than homosexuality) and confesses dissatisfaction with the scene, claiming that Eric’s line about never having been kissed was an awkwardly placed “disclaimer” to prevent the very objections that have been raised (LaBruce 18). Even if you assume the boys are gay, they are certainly not representative. The GSA discussion group has several and they don't seem to be killers. One critic sees the kiss as a humane gesture,

“...Van Sant uses Eric and Alex’s sexuality as a way to make them human, as a way to make us like them.” (Cummings 100).

Either through miscalculation or willfulness, Van Sant dares us to examine what homosexuality is a sign of in this context.

The most persistent sign in the juvenile delinquency/crime genre is social environment; a matrix of economic status, physical surroundings, family structure, and sundry cultural influences, usually popular music and drugs. Until the 1970s American cinema usually adopted a liberal, Rousseauist perspective:

“Bad kids...were victims of society, and the causes of delinquency lay out there, in the environment. Since human nature was good, kids were essentially okay” (Biskind 198).

Delinquency is a result of nurture, not nature. The basic narrative of the genre describes how ineffective, incomplete, or absent parental authority causes or allows teens to create substitute families (often gangs) and homes (a crash pad, squat, or drug den). These ad-hoc families are just as dysfunctional as the biological families the kids are escaping and usually disintegrate through a combination of lawlessness, internal conflict and external pressure from society. Occasionally, good kids can be peeled off from bad kids and reintegrated with society, sometimes with the help of a surrogate parent: a social worker, teacher, or police officer.

In the 1930s Warner Brothers Studios emphasized the environmental causes of crime in its gangster films and related juvenile crime films. In Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933) loyal, self-sacrificing Andy Hardy-style youths are driven to petty crime and open revolt by Depression hardships. The parents are equally victimized by social conditions and are blameless for their children’s waywardness. Shots of factories and smokestacks in these films appear with “desire to escape” implicitly stamped all over them.

The movies’ equation of juvenile delinquency and popular culture was established in the opening title sequence of Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955), which is scored to Bill Haleys’ “Rock Around the Clock.” Rock 'n' roll implicitly exacerbates environmental influences. Blackboard Jungle pointedly contrasts a crime-ridden urban high school with an idyllic suburban high school where we hear the national anthem instead of rock 'n' roll. Suburbanization is presented as a social cure-all.

At the same time low-budget exploitations films geared for drive-in theaters with lurid titles such as Teen-Age Strangler (1965), The Bloody Brood (1965) Teen-Age Gang Debs (1966) and Just For the Hell of It (1967) presented delinquents as out-of-control gangs bent on rape, pillage and plunder. Although these films were not meant to be taken seriously, they clearly posit a turbulent teen nature, rather than environment, as the cause of delinquency.

But what happens when the economic explanation for delinquency doesn't apply? How do you account for delinquency in the midst of prosperity? Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) is the transitional film of the juvenile delinquency genre because emotional, not economic poverty is the cause of delinquency. Rebel is the model for liberal, ameliorative films such as Ordinary People (1980), Lost Angels (1989), crazy/beautiful (2001), thirteen (2003), and Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000). In these films adults are as messed up as the kids and need to get their own acts together before they can set youth on the right path.

The first killer kid movie, The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956), is something of an anomaly because it insists on heredity rather than environment as the reason for a young girl’s scheming murderousness. In fact, several characters engage in a nature vs. nurture debate. Spokesmen for criminology and medical science confidently dismiss the heredity thesis, but are proven wrong when the girl’s mother learns that she is actually the offspring of a murderess. Although the film tries to keep the environmental thesis off the table, the father is absent from the home during most of the action (he’s a de facto deadbeat dad) and the family lives in a duplex rather than a house, which in American cinema is a sign of a family in peril.

The rise of the youth counter-culture of the 1960s transformed juvenile delinquency into heroism—or more accurately, anti-heroism. Young people escape from or attack their social environment in If... (1968), Zabriskie Point (1970), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Massacre at Central High (1976), and The Warriors (1979). In these films nurture means conformity and repression and should be resisted in favor of an uninhibited youthful nature. Demonic delinquency films such as The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978) cite the devil or supernatural powers as the problem. Although The Omen’s Damien is evil at heart, The Exorcist’s Regan (who has an absent dad) is a good girl possessed by an evil spirit that can be exorcized.

One of the most disturbing and poignant films of this apocalyptic youth cycle is Over the Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979). Based on a true incident, bored and ignored middle school teens turn to insubordination, drugs, guns, and vandalism. A frustrated police officer shoots a 14 year old and teens go on a vengeful rampage, trap their teachers and parents in the school auditorium and trash the school. Shot on location, the desolateness of suburbia is vividly felt for the first time in the genre. Reversing the pro-suburbia terms of Blackboard Jungle, open space is not an antidote to crowded slums, but a sign of social disconnection and spiritual emptiness, a vacuum waiting to be filled by delinquency.

During the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s counter-culture was out and adult authority was back in. This shift is reflected in films in which delinquents—often punks or hip hop youth—are dealt with forcefully by school officials: Class of 1984 (1982), Lean on Me (1989), Class of 1999 (1990), The Substitute (1996). The parental substitute is now a vigilante figure (in the Substitute films, he’s a Rambo-like ex-mercenary). As in Blackboard Jungle good teens are peeled away from the irredeemable. Reversing the liberal environmental perspective, bad social environments do not create juvenile delinquency, juvenile delinquents create bad social environments.

In the gangsta/hood films of the 1990s the forces that undermine the delinquent gang are pulling an entire community apart. The poor African-American neighborhood is far more isolated and violent than the ethnic enclaves in the Warner Bros. films of the 1930s. Unique to these films is racial despair, a bitter sense that in America blackness is both a curse and a license for self-annihilation. “It’s tough being black in America,” counsels a parent in Menace II Society (1993). “The hunt is on. And you're the prey.” But since these films are also gangster thrillers the brutality and nihilism are counterbalanced by the lively depiction of urban slang, charismatic criminality, youthful high spirits, the satisfactions of revenge, and the glamorousness of the gangsta lifestyle.

The juvenile delinquency/crime genre is now in its sociopath phase. Although youth crime, teen childbirths, and certain types of drug usage are statistically lower now than in the previous decades, highly publicized events such as the Central Park jogger attack, the Spur Posse, the pre-Millennial school shootings, and continuing gang violence in large cities have given young people their worse reputation ever. The latest moral panic—the most salacious yet—involves a supposed “epidemic” of oral sex in the nation’s middle schools, documented by no less a literary luminary than Tom Wolfe. When commentators discuss urban “superpredators,” a “lost generation” of African-American youth, executing juveniles, “Pavlovian dogs” addicted to consumerism (Tyre 44), or the Columbine massacre as paradigmatic of youth today, they are saying that nurture is ineffective in the face of a corrupted—or at least easily corruptible—nature.

Like the girl in The Bad Seed, movie teens are seen as “born without pity.” The characteristics of antisocial personality disorder (ADP)—egocentrism, sadism, lack of empathy, inability to feel remorse—are depicted as inherent to youth, like measles, not as aberrations. Rather than argue with parents and take out their rage on a repressive society teens exist in isolated tribes and victimize each other, while the sources of their rage and oppression are ill-defined. The male characters in particular seem to be driven by fears of powerlessness, victimization, and humiliation that propel them to extreme acts. The orgiastic violence that seemed exaggerated in 1950s exploitation films is now—in the age of “wilding"—depicted as a real-world possibility.

We could understand, and to varying degrees sympathize with, the rebellious youth of Rebel Without a Cause, A Clockwork Orange, and Over the Edge. But the troubled teens of That Was Then This is Now (1985), River’s Edge (1986), Permanent Record (1988), Kids (1995), Pups (1999), Boys Don't Cry (1999), George Washington (2000), Bully (2001), All About Lily Chou Chou (2001), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Home Room, Mean Creek (2004) and Elephant are mysterious, their crimes inexplicable or merely vengeful. The liberal environmental critique has been modified by an implicit conservative moral perspective: kids go bad because they are too independent, too wealthy, too mobile, too sexual, and too free. Dr. Laura has replaced Dr. Spock.

River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986) is the locus classicus of this phase. High schoolers in a small California town, out of peer group loyalty, fail to report the murder of one of their classmates by her boyfriend. The grimness of the premise (based on a true event) is leavened by black humor, Crispin Glover’s showy turn as the slightly crazed ringleader, a “good” teen romance to balance out the “bad” teen romance, and a thriller climax in which Keanu Reeves is able, 1950s-style, to “get through” to his angered, gun-wielding half-brother (essentially an optimistic reworking of the climax of Rebel Without a Cause in which Jim saves Plato). But the characterization of the killer is still chilling: a misogynistic grunge oaf who snuffs out his girlfriend with the indifference of a bratty child squishing a bug.

Sexuality is one of the major differences between contemporary youth films and pre-1970s films. In Rebel Without a Cause James Dean and Natalie Wood managed only some light kissing. Promiscuous, adulterous parents implicitly pave the way for teen sex and violence in Pretty Poison (1968), and Last Summer (1969). In comedies like Animal House (1978), Porky’s (1982), Risky Business (1983) and American Pie (1999) sexual satisfaction is a youth’s natural right, irrespective of parental example. In delinquency/crime films the more sexually active youths are, the more violent they are, while sexuality is tinged with brutality and humiliation.

At the height of the destruction in Over the Edge Michael—a fugitive hero among the teens—stands with his arm around his new girlfriend while a trashcan fire blazes in the foreground. Sexual and destructive teen ids have been released simultaneously. The killer in River’s Edge gets the same feeling of power and control killing his girlfriend as he did having sex with her. In Kids, a relatively innocent skinny-dipping session contrasts a later rape scene. Bully depicts one of the most brutal killings in the genre and the most sexualized teens. Sexual deception leads to rape and multiple murders in Boys Don't Cry. The only non-virgin aboard the rowboat in Mean Creek precipitates the drowning death of the bully. This sex-violence connection is confirmed by the fact that in non-violent films such as Clueless (1995), Ten Things I Hate About You (1999), Bring it On (2000), Love Don't Cost a Thing (2003), You Got Served (2004) and the John Hughes films teens are improbably chaste.

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, 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 sociopathic 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?

Notes

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,
http://archive.salon.news.com/
news/feature/1999/journal

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

Elephant Official Website,
http://elephantmovie.com/
production/6photo.html

Scott Foundas, “Elephant Boys,” LA Weekly, October 24-30, 2003
http://www.laweekly.com

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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