Trading Sight for Sound in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant

“We wanted the students to see that the school part, the building part, was back to normal.”

— Trent Lovett, the superintendent of Marshall County School District in Kentucky, where 2 high school students were shot January 23, 2018

“They’re just not the same. You can tell, just from the way they’re talking, they’re just not the same.”

— Ethan Trieu, 17-year-old senior and survivor of the Parkland school shooting, Valentine’s Day 2018

In/Security

The New Jersey high school I attended, between 2003 – the year Gus Van Sant’s Elephant won the Palme d’Or at Cannes – and 2007, was built according to something sold to us as the “California model.” Supporting a population of over 2500 students, the campus consisted of nine essentially disconnected one-story buildings, six of which were arrayed in a semi-circle around an administrative core, bookended by larger buildings dedicated, respectively, to the arts (and the gyms and cafeterias) and science classrooms. There was also one “traditional” two-story cinderblock plunked like a prison behind building’s 400 and 500, a self-contained little world apart where the other subject-specific buildings sent overflow bodies. A single covered walkway served as a spine connecting the vertebrae of the classroom buildings, while the back walkway was entirely exposed to the elements. Before Columbine, detractors questioned the practicality of a single-season campus serving an all-seasons environment, given the number of students, faculty, and staff who routinely found themselves drenched, snowblown, or mud-spattered moving between buildings over the course of any given day. After Columbine, detractors questioned the practicality of a campus whose greatest virtue was exposure.

***

The Steadicam tracking shots that comprise Elephant‘s most distinctive visual hallmark give the lie to Foucault’s old chestnut about the school being modeled on a prison. Generally, as a disciplinary space, prisons try to restrict the number of ways in and ways out of the building, serving as a container that neatly demarcates inside from outside. But the first few sequences of Elephant give us a chance to see how many ways in and out there are to the Oregon public school where the incident ultimately occurs.

“Slacker” John (John Robinson) arrives at the school driving his drunk father’s car, walking up to what we gather must be the main entrance, although because of how tight the shot is on the back of John’s head, it’s hard to tell. We can glimpse part of the school’s name on the wall, a fairly large doorway, and then a payphone he uses to call home, to get someone to pick up his dad (Timothy Bottoms). Out of the soft focus of the background, one of the film’s other major aesthetic commitments, an older man’s face approaches semi-clarity. John follows him through a haze of beige and red, only the presence of several adult bodies cluing us into where we are: a main office.

Eli (Elias McConnell), a lanky aspiring photographer, floats toward the school across a distant field and demos Van Sant’s cinematic formula for us. He encounters a young punk couple playing hooky and asks to take their picture for his portfolio, allowing them to walk around and maintaining a constant distance in front of them, shooting away. Van Sant positions the camera behind Eli’s head as he leaves them and approaches the school, taking a side entrance, perhaps near the cafeteria given the discernibly massive windows in the blurry arrière-plan. He makes a beeline for the darkroom, eager to develop his new material.

On the lawn, pockets of students take advantage of recess, as the first movement from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata plays in the background. The jocks, including Benny (Bennie Dixon)and Nathan (Nathan Tyson), play touch football. A group of girls in the distance does aerobics. Michelle (Kristen Hicks), stopping momentarily at the center of the frame to stare up at the sky (it looks like rain), worries she’s going to be late for gym class and rushes off. As the game dissolves we focus on Nathan, haunting his footsteps as he walks past stoners, a guitar-player, scattered couples talking, and enters through yet another door. The hallways of the school are brightly lit with natural light, and he even passes through an open-air courtyard between two major wings of the building, a few B-boys working on their hip-hop skills on a makeshift platform. He finds his girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea). They talk about nothing, loop back to the main office, sign themselves out for lunch, and get ready to leave.

The morning of, Eric (Eric Deulen) and Alex (Alex Frost), our shooters, huddle over a computer-illustrated map of the school, on screen for a grand total of five seconds. It’s long enough for us to see several symbols indicating explosion sites for their homemade bombs, places to stake out and snipe students (“pick em off, one at a time,” as Alex puts it), and multiple color-coded routes that Alex explains as the shot moves to the perspective of the map, the camera craned up at the two boys’ faces, serious and pensive, calculating, until the last second. “And have fun, man,” Alex grins.

***

Tracing the paths these young people walk occasionally necessitates pulling back, taking the long view, allowing the whole of their bodies to occupy the center of the frame. In doing so, Van Sant allows our paranoia to develop from a different perspective – quite literally – and emphasizes the school’s long corridors, sunlit straightaways with infrequent intersections. Eli and John are never in a rush. These walks take time. You can see someone coming from a mile off. And you have to wonder: will they be able to run fast enough?

***

When I first saw Elephant in 2005, I couldn’t stop thinking about a scene that takes place the day before the shooting. Alex stands in the cafeteria, near the lunch line, with a small steno pad in his hands. He looks everywhere – toward the ceiling, the door, the windows. At everything but the people. “What are you writing?” a nameless girl asks him. “Oh, it’s my plan. You’ll see,” he replies.

A little later, as three “mean girls” (Brittany [Brittany Mountain], Jordan [Jordan Taylor], and Nicole [Nicole George], who share virtual anonymity and an eating disorder), we glide from the lunch line into the industrial kitchen where the food is prepared, watching the adult staff light up a joint in a small nook, haul trays from the dishwasher, close the freezer door, before we are dumped back among the cafeteria tables. It completes Van Sant’s visual reorientation project, helping us to see the school as body-filled but also as a space, an infrastructure, with inevitable weak points.

Despite having spent four years there, I have no idea how many doors there were at my high school. Let alone how many windows. Van Sant’s characteristically tight, hard focus on the heads of his subjects prevents us from seeing the school as a whole, from conjuring the same cartographic fantasy that might allow for its defense rather than its invasion. But from this paranoid perspective, what work can we actually accomplish? What kinds of feeling does the need to feel secure eclipse? What other high school insecurities do we become blind to?

Sound, Off

Van Sant’s alternative is to subsitute another sense for the paranoia of total vision, a way of hearing things. In the critical buzz around Elephant, many were quick to praise the movie’s obvious citation (exploitation?) of the Steadicam method first employed by Alan Clarke in a short film of the same title for the BBC made in 1989 about North Irish terrorism. Others saw the documentary influence of the work of Frederick Wiseman, whose seminal High School (1968) profiles a day in the life of a few students at a Philadelphia public school with a signature detachment and focus on the moment that distinguishes his oeuvre. The measured reserve of the camera’s movements – here a gentle swivel, there a slight tilt, but never handheld and more often than not part of a painfully long take – coerce viewers into believing that what they are seeing is the practically unmediated experience of young people about to encounter terror.

But the sound design for Elephant is truly something else, working in curious conjunction with the chilly gaze of the ghostly floating eye lingering a little too close to the backs of these students’ heads. The disjunction between sight and sound is apparent from the opening titles, a time-lapse shot of an ultramarine sky punctured by a streetlight. The ambient noise of a schoolyard are the only soundtrack, snatches of conversation barely discernible, as the image accelerates toward nightfall, the sky becoming criscrossed with vapor trails that trace and retrace the same paths, intersect the same point hours apart. So too are the paths traced by the various students bathed in a wash of omnipresent chatter, heedless of the darkening day.

***

In the first library scene, we follow Eli, who picks up a photography magazine and walks past Michelle, reshelving books, over toward the back of the room and turning around. Then we cut away.

In the second library scene, we follow Michelle, who is diligently reshelving books for all of three seconds when she hears what we have all been waiting for: the massive click of a cocking gun. Then we cut away.

The timeline advances a half a second. But what a half a second.

***

Van Sant continually confronts us with anomalies in the aural landscape of the school, impressionistically calling into question the rigidity of the mental map we are meant to be constructing as we watch. As Eli walks toward the darkroom, the chorus of voices he hears upon entry fades into a dull whisper, supplanted by a bit of melody (sitar, saxophone, some snare drum) and punctuated only by the greetings of people who address him directly and his quick replies. The walk is an exercise in selective listening, in tuning out, that anticipates Eli’s calm as he settles into his routine, getting his work station together while humming to himself, his nearly subaural take on “Deck the Halls” magnified for us at the expense of the bustle of the numerous other students gathered around him.

Michelle’s locker room experience affords us a similar kind of characterization by way of sound design. As the camera tightens on her seated figure, changing self-consciously on the bench (she has refused the requisite shorts in favor of baggy track pants, despite the possibility of being penalized by her gym teacher), the blurry background shows us the toned legs of three other girls. Out of the quiet of the scene – already odd, as the showers are in use – we fret with Michelle about the contours of their conversation, a lilting singsong that registers subliminally except for a few punctuated phrases: “granny panties,” “what is she,” “loser.” She runs out for the library, passing Eli and John talking in the hallway.

***

My memories of high school involve washes of ambient noise, too many conversations to focus on, too many people trying to rush to the next place, too many private snatches of everyday chatter, beyond any specificity but leaking through doors, walls, becoming a sea of noise.

Silence was precious and strange, yet here are these students, trying to carve out silent spaces from the noise to process their own problems: an alcoholic father, bullying, bulimia, and – for Nathan and Carrie – the barely suggested possibility that they’re leaving school to take care of an unexpected pregnancy.

***

The sound sometimes becomes a means of passing the baton as Van Sant builds his narrative vapor trails, allowing his audience to reexperience the same moments from different perspectives, sketching in different parts of the timeline in the hours leading up to the shooting. As Nathan and Carrie enter the main office to sign themselves out for the afternoon, their dialogue is barely audible over the rustling of paper and of bodies, and the announcement of a surprise for one of the teachers. As John leaves the principal’s office later, the balance of the sound is entirely shifted, foregrounding Nathan and Carrie’s request as everything else fades into the background while John rushes for an empty room to cry and collect himself. And Van Sant presents us with the conversation between Eli and John, their brief encounter and John’s goofy mugging for the camera, no fewer than three times (once for each of the characters in the scene, including a harried Michelle), with the sound balanced differently each time.

Van Sant’s philosophy of intensified aurality even manages to lend a portentous sheen of dread to the vapid nattering of Brittany, Jordan, and Nicole. Defying us to judge them for their gabble over the cafeteria table about who can go shopping when, who wants milk and who wants a Capri Sun – judge them despite the fact that we *know* what will happen before the day’s end – the conversation en route to the bathroom allows for a few words to spike. The context is utterly benign: they don’t want one girl to drive, and she protests “I’m not gonna kill you!” They can’t wait to leave school: “Start the countdown, right?” In Elephant, we have to treat such snatches of dialogue with great care. The words of the dead, overheard by no one, signifying nothing, but the best we have to go on to humanize these young people – humanize them enough, Van Sant seems to say, at least to concur that they probably should not be killed.

***

For Alex, standing in the cafeteria, the inverse. From the relatively silent cocoon of his notebook, the human din escalates to such volume that he stands alone, his hands over his ears, the center of no one’s attention.

Feeling Familiar

It’s the sort of school where nothing like this is supposed to happen. The general affluence is clear: the sound of a flute player practicing filters through the hallway, the library is spacious and stocked with a wide array of periodicals, the lunch line offers choices, the teachers discuss gay rights and gay visibility in a way that seems equinanimous and civil, and there’s an entire darkroom, for goodness’s sake, with multiple students working together, critiquing each other’s work, sharing each other’s successes. And there is, unfortunately, a language lab with a door to the outside, through which march Eric and Alex, in black and camo, toting their bombs and assault rifles. “It should be empty,” Alex observes over the map, “no one uses it anymore.”

It’s the sort of school with a principal (Matt Malloy) who regards John sternly, who gives him a detention for tardiness, but also lets out a pitying sigh because it is the whole situation that seems lamentable and aberrant, his father parked out in the fire lane, supposedly sleeping it off. It’s the sort of school where Alex can have the life he has: Beethoven on the piano, a laptop on which he can buy a gun and afford next-day delivery, pancakes from mom the morning before you go shoot classmates.

It’s the sort of school where students suffer the routine indignities of life itself, but where only one of them – a young, angry, middle-class white man fed up with having massive spitballs lobbed his way in science class – decides to do something other than survive. Standing in the hallway later, rounding the corner and coming upon the empty cafeteria that his partner has already shut up, Alex quotes Shakespeare, the first line Macbeth utters: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” No one alive is within earshot. No one is listening.

***

In the years since its release, Van Sant has been faulted for not offering a diagnosis, a clear attempt to indicate the motivation, the rationale, in any concrete way. This is not the point of the movie, even if it seems, over time, to have become the dominant framework for having a conversation after any school shooting. We watch Eric play a first-person shooter on his laptop, synched up with the Moonlight Sonata, a sparse barren landscape populated with fleshy automata who exist only to be shot, devoid of plot. We see Eric entertain Alex’s disinterested questions as they watch a documentary on Nazism on a tv topped with a decorative gourd display – “That’s the name of Germany, right?” “So that’s Hitler, that guy?” We see Eric join a flustered Alex in the shower, saying he’s excited but nervous, that “I’ve never even kissed anybody,” and then kisses him, draping an arm over his shoulder. We overhear the tail end, but only the paltry and stupid last words, of Eric’s vengeful monologue against the principal, begging not to be shot on the floor. Surely in this muddle of conflated ideologies and influences, there is motive?

But this isn’t Eric’s plan.

***

As Alex plays the piano the camera swivels idly around his basement bedroom once, twice, three times. Flannel bedspread, flannel shirts, several books, a tape deck, a laptop, a La-Z-Boy recliner, more books, and sketches, pencil sketches, punctuating the walls. Over his shoulder, an elephant in pencil, signifying nothing. Just the elephant in the room.

During the attack, Alex begins in the library. After watching Michelle’s chest crumple from the force of a short range gunshot, we cut rapidly to Eric, who snaps his last picture. Then back to Eric’s profile – tight, oversized, as usual for Elephant, with everyone else in soft focus, barely discernible as human, as the pumps resound. They swipe toward the ground like smears of pastel.

His encounter with the three girls in the bathroom is bloodless, an entrance and a truncated scream.

In the hallway outside the classroom, one curious student, hearing screams and fire, is shot dead on the floor. The students and teacher drag his corpse in and escape through the window. The school begins to empty. The pickings grow slim.

But as he makes his final approach to the cafeteria, where he takes a drink of water from a dead student’s styrofoam cup, Alex’s interior soundscape clarifies itself. It is the sound of distant rushing water, a brook, nothing too torrential, and the rustling of leaves. Birdsong interrupts the silence, the occasional tweets of an impossible starling. In Alex’s mind, the birdsong reaches a crescendo over Eric’s final report (“Well, I killed the principal), cresting just as he shoots his accomplice in the chest. Nature’s serenity fades away as we follow him toward the echoing freezer. Nathan and Carrie hide among slabs of meat, visible only to Alex, who plays “Eeny Meeny” with the barrel of his rifle.

***

I hadn’t watched Elephant in fifteen years, but in another sense, I’ve never stopped watching. What I still find so striking about this movie is its essential minimalism: through utterly mundane and largely improvised dialogue, delivered by (at the time) non-professional actors and punctuated by only the smallest snatches of pathos, Van Sant ensures that we care about each and every one of these people.

If there is didacticism here, or an ethics, it consists of the foundational assumption that it actually takes very little information – and very little effort – to accord people the basic dignity essential to recognize the horror Alex and Eric inflict. As a matter purely of fact and as a record of experience, a school shooting is an uncomplicated issue: it is nothing less than a nihilistic assault on our commonly held humanity. Its perpetration requires such complete dehumanization that we can be dropped around complete strangers for under an hour and be incapable of understanding how or why they might be killed. It is an act of egotism that reshapes the way we see, the way we hear, the institutionalized topography of adolescence – permanently. As in a John Hughes film, these sketches of people feel familiar, despite their sketchiness, or perhaps even because of it. We can’t help but know we know them. We know how they listen.

And yet here we are. Fifteen years later.

***

In the opening scene, after watching John’s dad careen down the road, nearly taking out a cyclist and definitely taking out a car mirror, we are supposed to feel relieved to see John take the wheel. His father knows he has screwed up but offers no apology (“What’s the big deal?” he slurs). Instead, he asks about weekend plans, a chance for the wedge driven between them to be removed: “Let’s go huntin’. You wanna go huntin’ this weekend? You can use that old Jap .243 that Grampa brought back from Truck. Truck Island. Admiral Halsey, World War II?” John, frustrated at his father’s obliviousness, jokes, “Oh yeah, World War II. I was there. You’ve been there, right?” His father retains enough composure in his drunkenness to scowl. “No?” And maybe that’s the problem.

While John and his father are relieved to be reunited after the incident at the school, looking on together as smoke rises from the bomb sites, it’s worth pausing to remember the history of this hidden weapon, a historic firearm, a family heirloom, an instrument of war, still out there in the film’s ether. How can its recreational use be contextualized in light of the guns-on-demand that have allowed Elephant to happen? What kind of a relationship can be forged through hunting after having been the victim of a hunt?

What kind of comfort can a gun afford the living on behalf of the dead?

How can you go back to a place where it could happen again?

In the end, an ambient thrum – the saturated blue sky, ascending through clouds, with the honking of geese flying away. Unlike Eric, whose final twitter Alex collects as the last onscreen death, they are merely lucky not to have been shot.

Next week, Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013). Epigraph quotes from this NPR piece.

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