Capturing the Elephant

By Asu Aksoy

elephant-gus-van-sant.jpgElephant, 2003

Listening in on a group discussion of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant

Gus Van Sant has said that, when he made his film Elephant, he had in mind the old parable about the five blind men touching different parts of an elephant, none of them actually having the big picture. Van Sant is a filmmaker who wants to touch on the psychotic core of mundane, banal American life. He asks us to reflect on the crazy enigma of American society, as acted out here in a lunatic student rampage through a leafy, ordinary, unsuspecting American college.

But the film is a complex and deliberate provocation. It has no intention of providing easy answers to the nightmare beneath the American dream. Van Sant did not intend his film to be a sermon: ‘hopefully there are as many interpretations as there are viewers’ (Guardian Weekend, January 24, 2004). He gives us only frozen, distant images, polaroid-style shots, bereft of dialogues, and with no clear directorial guidance or point of view. The audience is offered only the weird shock of incomprehensible catastrophe within crazy banality.

Recently, Elephant was shown at the Rio Cinema in Hackney, London and I was told that a group of Turkish teenagers would be seeing it and then holding a discussion about the film. This was a very good opportunity, I thought, to hear the views of students of a similar age to those in the film, but from a very different context and background. These teenagers were on a 12-week introductory video course, run by Project Bizim, a Hackney-based arts education initiative serving young people from Turkish-speaking backgrounds. What would teenage Turkish viewers in Hackney find in a story about a killing rampage at a high school in the United States? Would the film connect in any way with their experiences in London’s inner city schools? How would they react to the story and the way it is told? There were five students in the discussion, all of them male, between the ages of 14 and 17, and all except for one had come from Turkey as young children.

To my surprise, their immediate reaction to the film was one of boredom. For them, nothing was happening in the film; it was simply depicting the everyday life of students in an American high school. ‘Long takes, slow motion, just shots of the students taken from different angles. I wish I hadn’t come,’ said one of them. So they were thinking that nothing happened in the film? How could that be possible? They were reminded that this film took its story from the Columbine high school massacre.

The Hackney lads were pushed. Was there nothing at all striking about the drama that the film was portraying? Were they really saying that the film didn’t have any significance for them? One or two ventured motives for the killings. One suggested that ‘they were gay, the two boys were gay.’ Another commented on how easy it seemed to be to get hold of firearms in the United States. Bullying was mentioned – one of the boys who did the killings was being bullied. But the point is that there wasn’t any agreement or disagreement on these proffered explanations. The discussion was erratic, disconnected; the speculations had a groundless and empty feel about them. At this early stage, the participants were evidently disinterested, and what they were saying was not at all convincing – to themselves, or to me.

The clue as to why the conversation wasn’t taking off became more apparent a little later, when one of the boys commented on how he didn’t like the film’s murderous ending. ‘The scenes where they did the killings happened very quickly, there were no feelings… As if the killers had no feelings.’ He couldn’t make any emotional connection to the characters or to the motivations for the killings. ‘If I was filming it,’ said another, ‘I would also film what happens afterwards.’ There was agreement on this. ‘Yes,’ added another, ‘what happens to him?’

The viewers were searching, frustratedly, for ways to deal with the irrationality, the opaque madness, of the events taking place in the film. They were looking for emotions, clues, information, a moral perspective that would help them to deal with what they were witnessing. They needed some kind of rational comprehension of the slaughter. Why had these dreadful events taken place? And how would justice be carried out?

These young Turks were very uncomfortable with Van Sant’s absolute refusal to offer a way into understanding the events and the characters. His film was not interested in explaining the circumstances leading up to the central events, and it was not going to offer any resolution to the tragedy. All the students could feel they had were their own blind speculations about the reasons for the rampage. Bullying, homophobia, exclusion, revenge… but which one, in reality? And somehow, all these explanations seemed partial and inadequate; far too removed from the American context where the tragedy happened. The group discussion, at this point, wasn’t really going anywhere.

The turn in the group’s conversation came when the attention turned towards a discussion of Van Sant’s filming techniques. The members of the group were interested in the particular documentary look that Elephant has, the look that made them feel the camera was not creating an eerie fiction, but in fact recording an even more eerie reality. They noted that Van Sant’s camera was shoulder-held, looking at the world from the vantage point of the students he is tailing about the campus. But the camera is also positioned slightly behind them, so that their backs are also in shot. ‘His camera is like a stalker,’ said one. These shots gave the film the feel of reality, ‘as if this was a documentary.’

This particular look actually has a powerful rhetorical impact. First, it makes the audience feel that it is present at some real happening. But it also makes it feel uncomfortable, because of voyeuristic present tense. And it also works to make the ‘reality’ of what is apparently happening feel obscure – we find that we are standing uncomprehendingly before a murky reality. The look of the film is highly discomforting, then. At the beginning of our discussion, the group could not comprehend this style. Later, however, they came to recognise that the look of the film contributes to what Van Sant is endeavouring to convey: that the ‘reality’ we are beholding is profoundly disturbing, and disturbing because it is fundamentally opaque.

This sense of discomfort was heightened by Van Sant’s insistence on treating the characters as alienated figures. ‘From the beginning, the film is focusing only on individual students, individuals passing one another by,’ said one of the boys. Students walk alone, occasionally they meet one or two friends, a small exchange takes place, and then everybody goes their own separate way again. Another participant remarked that, even when Van Sant films groups of students, he is not interested in their relationships. The camera never registers those moments where some closeness may develop. It is more interested in the distance between the characters.

And even as he dwells on individuals, we are made to feel that he has no interest in trying to capture their individuality. The cinema audience never gets to see the students in close-up. The camera never seeks out the faces, the eyes, the expressions, of the characters. The students are more like passers-by wandering in their own daydreams. This made the mood of Elephant detached and ‘cold’, as one of the boys remarked. There was something chilling at the heart of the seemingly ordinary. What we see is a world of the alienated, the alien even. This is a world devoid of social and psychological logics.

The film invokes the existence of the elephant. But it also makes it very difficult to understand the nature of the elephant, since there is so little to work with. The audience can only blindly touch this American reality show as portrayed by Gus Van Sant. Certainly, there were attempts in the group to understand what was going on in American society and the American psyche. There was a sense in the group that Van Sant’s America was a strangely autistic world. ‘Everybody is in their own private world, their own room, their own individual world. Maybe this is the American way of life, said one participant, ‘But there isn’t anything around them to make them happy, no relationships, no community.’ ‘The problem is with the people who inhabit these spaces,’ said another, ‘It’s as if they have very boring lives, that they are not happy. And maybe the two who did the killing, that’s how they were, too – not able to integrate into society.’ The members of the discussion group were looking to understand the truth of the elephant. And, at the same time, they were frustrated at the impossibility of ever reaching it. They were unable to come to terms with the solipsistic vision of the film – the solipsistic imagination of a solipsistic world.

Interestingly, one of the participants drew attention to a character in the film who is into photography, observing that he was ‘doing it in such an obsessive way, as if there is no life beyond it. All he wants to do is take pictures. People don’t matter, whether they are dead or alive. They are just photographic objects, and he is there to take the pictures,’ said another. And maybe we can see Gus Van Sant in a similar light? Is Van Sant illuminating the reality of contemporary America in some way? Or, is he just another participant in this American dream gone wrong?

Asu Aksoy is a researcher at Goldsmiths College, London.