‘We didn’t want to explain anything. As soon as you explain one thing, there are five other possibilities that are somehow negated because you explained it in one way. There was also the issue of finding an explanation for something that doesn’t necessarily have an explanation.’ — Gus Van Sant on the making of Elephant (2003)
Elephant (2003), Gus Van Sant’s fictional look at the 1999 Columbine school shooting tragedy, is a lean, eerily hypnotic exercise in aesthetics and blame assignment that, curiously enough, clashes with Van Sant’s own mission statement about the film.
Elephant observes a handful of teenagers whose lives intersect during a day at school that, unbeknownst to them, is spiralling towards a tragic, violently chaotic end. Knowledge of that outcome hangs over the audience like a slowly ticking time bomb. The narrative parallels the insular daily drama of teenagers — inane flirting, cafeteria lunches, strained family relationships, the perils of gym class, body issues, girlfriends with late periods, the volatility and fleetingness of friendships — with the cold, matter-of-fact preparations of two alienated male teens, Alex and Eric, who conduct a shooter-style assault on the school with duffel bags loaded with semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, handguns, and mountains of ammunition. Time in Elephant (2003) is non-linear; events loop back on themselves from multiple point-of-views and return to specific moments, a structure Van Sant cribbed from Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s eight-hour art house opus Sátántangó (1994).
The film’s visual style, a carryover from Van Sant’s previous film Gerry (2002), is stunning, blending minimally edited, beautifully composed static shots, surreal time-lapse photography, and long floating takes that follow characters through endless mazes of hallways, doorways and classrooms. The intense loneliness of high school and the isolation engendered by large campuses comes across strongly during these quiet moments. The film’s visual style and pace don’t change during the explosions of violence at the end of the film, and it’s a strange and uncomfortable sensation to experience the blazing rat-a-tat of gunfire and slaughter of defenseless school kids through such a clean and passive aesthetic.
Van Sant’s assertion that he offers no explanations for the shootings in the film is misleading. Elephant (2003) alludes to several distinct explanations, some so important that Van Sant breaks the narrative’s day-of-the-shooting timeline to make sure the audience sees them. A key moment is the ease with which Alex and Eric purchase assault rifles over the Internet. Van Sant jumps back in time from the day of the shooting to explicitly show the ordering process, when he could have maintained the timeline by having the delivery truck show up the morning of, or by dispensing with the backstory altogether. Why make this choice other than to stress how easily the weapons are obtained?
Van Sant also alludes to other triggers by showing Alex being bullied by male classmates, and having Eric play a violent first-person shooter computer game with people as targets. There are other moments as well, such as the boys watching a historical Nazi documentary on television, and the presence of a devil sticker on Alex’s car, but compared to the other moments they’re less weighty, perhaps even red herrings. Van Sant chooses not to take his own advice: showing multiple causes, while not necessarily elevating one as a ‘true’ cause, is another form of explanation.
A low budget American independent film called Zero Day (2002), which was completed two years before Elephant (2003), and remains undistributed outside the film festival circuit, is also a fictional take on the Columbine tragedy. The film is an assembly of chilling ‘vérité’ video footage, à la The Blair Witch Project (1999), culled from tapes the shooters left behind in a safety deposit box that documents the months of planning leading to their assault. The film takes a truer approach to cause-and-effect, and even goes as far as having the two boys directly address the audience about how the media and public will crave easy answers, and look for them in the artifacts of their lives and their personal belongings. They stress that there aren’t any explanations for their actions, and a later scene shows them burning their CDs, videos, electronic games, books, journals and other personal possessions in a giant bonfire to drive the point home.
As Van Sant says, sometimes tragedies don’t have easy explanations, and the Columbine tragedy is surely an event we’ll never completely understand.