There is a scene in Gus Van Sant’s elegiac and controversial Palm d’Or winner Elephant where two teenagers stay home from school, waiting for the weapons they’ll eventually use to wipe out their teachers and classmates. On the television: a propaganda film that addresses the Nazi party’s uncanny ability to feed its captive audience predetermined and biased information. In the end, Elephant has about as much to say about the media’s manipulation of high school shootings than it does about the motivations of teenage killers like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine, Colorado. But Van Sant’s Gerry is to Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies as Elephant is to Almanac of Fall: an ethereal evocation of life under siege by the enigma of high school violence.
According to Van Sant, the film’s title is a reference to Alan Clarke’s 1989 35-minute BBC film about the violence in Northern Ireland, which compared the chaos in the region to a “metaphorical elephant in the room no one wanted to recognize.” Van Sant spots said elephant but chooses to summon the motivation for the film’s violent last act using seductive absences. The closest physical approximation for this metaphor is the rotunda in one of the high school’s hallways the characters repeatedly circle throughout the film. Van Sant’s graceful camera doubles back on the same action, but this isn’t a gimmick he uses to reveal plot points unknown to the audience during a previous swell of the camera, but to evoke the fiber that connects the high school’s collective student population as they spiral menacingly into a hollow and unforeseeable void.
Van Sant is fascinated with the innocence of the adolescent ritual, whether it’s a lengthy stroll down a locker-lined hallway or girls cheerleading and boys playing football. Just as a series of thunderous clouds threaten the light of a sunny day, the director has a subtle way of encoding the “whys” of the film’s violence in his mise-en-scène. A discussion between members of a gay-straight alliance speaks volumes about perception (it’s as if Van Sant is forcing us to pick out the gay boy in the room, using the lisp in the boy’s voice, as his camera circles the group), and because this is a more provocative and mysterious exchange than the controversial kiss shared between the film’s killers inside a shower stall, the tenderness and mystique of Elephant is often betrayed whenever Van Sant moves too far from the implicit to the explicit.
One of the film’s killers plays Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the piano on the morning of the slaughter, a far cry from the Marilyn Manson CDs right-wing zealots blamed for inciting the Columbine massacre. By subversively inducing terror in a Beethoven sonata, Van Sant deflects attention away from the wrong elephant and subsequently points to our fear to look beyond the surface of that which is in front of us. The other killer trains for their murder spree by playing a shooting game that brings to mind the director’s Gerry. This in-joke (the boy shoots at two men walking in suspended animation across a white landscape) is a funny one, but the movement of the characters within the video game also chillingly parallels the suspended step of the film’s Gerry-walkers. The film’s victims are easy targets not because they move so slowly, but because they’re so self-absorbed. They’re powerless and oblivious because they can’t see the world of hurt that lies beyond the stretch of the camera Van Sant uses to imprison them.
Elephant has been criticized for not offering enough justification for its violence when, in actually, it seems to offer too much. This is why the film’s gay kiss is so problematic. Because Van Sant remains relatively unconcerned with assigning blame throughout the film, the kiss comes off as a preposterous, last-ditch attempt to contextualize a crime that should have been evoked with the same kind of mystique as the scenes that lead to the final bloodshed; either give us more context or none at all. As such, more interesting than this wet kiss and the relaxed, straightforward final minutes of the film is how Van Sant can so easily summon a world of hurt with as little as a boy taking over the control of a swerving car from his drunken father.
And far scarier than the violence that closes the film is how Van Sant’s camera charts the school’s topography (what with all the bizarre noises and nature sounds that drown the film’s soundtrack, what else can it be called?) and sets up the film’s characters as sitting ducks. By the time the two killers lay out a map of the school on top of a table, the audience is already too familiar with the layout of the school, not to mention its potential safe zones: the photo department’s darkroom, the kitchen’s meat locker, and the girl’s bathroom. However disconcerting and seemingly sadistic Van Sant’s approach may be, that these zones are not as safe as the director leads us to believe that the elephants in our rooms must be confronted.