Film / Elephant

Elephant is a Gus Van Sant film made in 2003 which tells the story of a high school shooting similar to the Columbine High School massacre. It constructs the story of a single day from the viewpoint of different high school students, including the two shooters themselves. While many possible explanations are offered for the actions of the shooters (violent video games, neo-Nazism, bullying etc.) the film deliberately does not make their motives clear.

Gus Van Sant based Elephant on a short film made by Alan Clarke of the same name that was broadcast on the BBC in 1989. Clarke's film dealt with The Troubles in Northern Ireland and was largely composed of tracking shots following gunmen as they assassinate targets. The title refers both to the old Jain parable of a group of blind men who each touch a different part of an elephant and then disagree on what they are feeling, and the idea of the Elephant in the Living Room (in this case the elephant being Columbine and the true reasons for it).

The film is noted for use of long tracking shots, and extended sequences with little or no dialogue, giving it a disconnected and ethereal quality.

This is the second film in Van Sant's ''Death Trilogy''. The first was Gerry and the third was Last Days.

This film provides examples of:

  • Round Table Shot: In the scene with the gay-straight alliance, which is held in a discussion circle, the camera is centered in the middle and spins around to capture the different students and teachers reactions/contributions to the conversation.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: Most conversations had by the teenagers aren't to do with the shooting. Justified as they aren't aware of what's to come.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: Benny's part. He gets focus by having a chapter named after him but his story amounts to nothing. See below.
  • The Stoic: The camera follows calm, muscular Benny as he helps Acadia and goes looking for the shooters, setting up viewer expectations that he can thwart them only for him to round the corner and be shot point blank by Eric with no fuss or fanfare
  • Teens Are Monsters: Played straight with the bullying of Alex, and the actual shootings, but also shown to be inaccurate regarding the majority of students, the purpose of Elephant being to try to go deeper than clichés.
  • The Unreveal: Although many reasons are given (bullying, media, political affiliations) we ultimately don't know what Alex and Eric's motivations are.
  • Violence Is Disturbing: Since the film is comprised of many long cuts with minimal editing, we see the carnage as if we were really there.