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Plotting Dead Time in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant

William G. Little
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All plots move deathward. This is the nature of plots.
Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative
plots, plots that are part of children’s games.
- Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)

Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), the dramatisation of a massacre carried
out by two male students in a suburban American public high school, raises
significant, compelling ethical questions about the purpose of such a film.
Why respond to a traumatizing event of this kind by re-creating it? How is
the viewer to respond to such a text? More broadly, is it possible for cinema
to offer a responsible response to acts of violence such as this one?
Concerns about response and responsibility are relevant to a
consideration of Elephant in part because the film depicts violence that,
within the scope of the narrative, thwarts any attempt to reckon with it. No
warnings are given, no demands delivered. According to one of the killers,
the goal in carrying out their executions is to ‘have fun,’ as though they plan
to participate in a children’s game. Regardless what actually motivates the
boys, the result of their plot is that no one on the premises is able to reach
them, either physically or psychologically. From a philosophical
perspective, the school violence is terrifying because it threatens to shatter
the very foundation of education. Namely, the promise of developing an
ability to respond to the world critically and imaginatively.
The challenge of how to attend to this violence is reflected in the
title of Van Sant’s film, which, read one way, refers to the ancient tale of
blind men invited to touch an elephant with the goal of identifying the
object in question. Each man touches part of the creature, but the darkness
and incompleteness that mark the task prevent the investigators from
ascertaining the truth. The entirety of the animal remains beyond their
grasp, literally and figuratively. In this context, the title suggests that Van
Sant’s response to an event like Columbine is to re-create the violence—to
project an elephant—and then to invite viewers to determine its cause(s). At
the same time, however, the film complicates potential insights by
presenting evidence that supports alternate theories. One of the shooters,
Alex, is introduced sitting silent and alone in the back of a physics
classroom, where, unbeknownst to the teacher, he is pelted with spitballs.
The other shooter, Eric, plays a violent video game and mouths off to
Alex’s mother. Alex orders a high-powered weapon on the web, which is

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University of Virginia: wgl2h@virginia.edu
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then delivered to his home after his parents have left for the day. The boys
watch a television documentary on Nazi Germany, and, the morning before
they carry out their plan, make a tentative sexual connection with each
other. This series of clues—bullying, consumption of violent entertainment,
lack of respect, ease of firearm availability, the violence of mass spectacle,
social marginalization—renders the subject of causation hard to encompass.
In the end, every viewer is a blind man of sorts in that the clues lead to an
interpretive dead end, not unlike some of the visual signs in the film that
catch the viewer’s eye, such as the drawing of an elephant tacked to a wall
in Alex’s room.
While Van Sant seeks to respond sensitively to what causes such
violence, he also seeks to respond sensitively to what the violence produces,
namely death. Indeed, another way to read the film’s title is to suggest that it
refers to death. In an essay on Van Sant’s work titled ‘Nothing Happens to
No One,’ Holly Myers argues that, like two of his other films, Gerry and
Last Days, Elephant exercises a ‘rigorous minimalism’ that reduces
narrative eventfulness in favor of sustained concentration on the subject of
death:

Van Sant does not sensationalize. Instead, in each film we see plot
distilled to a single, profound arc: the slow, strange transition of a
body from being alive to not being alive. Taking the silence, the
mystery, the essential unknowability of death as a given, Van Sant
makes no attempt to interrogate or explain. He simply enacts this
transition and encourages his viewers to watch. The result is closer to
meditation than to storytelling. (Myers, 2006)

In its ‘essential unknowability,’ death is not unlike the lost cause(s) of the
school violence. However, just as blind men are invited to interrogate the
elephant, and just as viewers are invited to interrogate the cause(s) of the
violence, Van Sant does ‘interrogate’ death, specifically by grappling with
the ethical implications of depicting on screen deadly incidents similar to
those that occurred at Columbine.
This essay explores how the director conducts his interrogation by
crafting a text that, while minimizing storytelling, is nevertheless haunted
by plotting and, more specifically, by what the novelist Don DeLillo
describes, in the epigraph, as an inextricable link between plotting and
death. The plot of Elephant ‘moves deathward’ not simply by being
‘distilled to . . . the slow, strange transition of a body from being alive to not
being alive.’ It also ‘moves deathward’ by staging glimpses of the boys as
they plot violence (e.g., Alex scopes out the cafeteria, map in hand; the boys
take target practice at a woodpile in Alex’s garage) and by depicting the
execution of their plot. In this context, I argue that the way the film tracks
(or plots) characters through the space (or plot) of the school reveals Van
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Sant’s sensitivity to the problem of re-creating, within a narrative
framework, real deaths that challenge the very concept of narrative plotting.
I also argue that the film’s tracking of one particular student, a photographer
named Eli, represents an important cinematic self-reflection on the ways in
which shooting a picture is an act of moving deathward. Finally, I show
how Van Sant avoids neatly settling the ethical question of how to re-create
real, violent death. He performs this thoughtful avoidance, in part, by
deconstructing the life-affirming deaths that constitute the end of
conventional narrative film’s story and reel motion. In other words,
Elephant seeks to move deathward with a difference.
Mary Anne Doane speaks to the challenge any filmmaker faces in
screening real death, violent or otherwise. She indicates that real death lies
at the philosophical and ethical limit of the representable:

Perhaps death functions as a kind of cinematic Ur-event because it
appears as the zero degree of meaning, its evacuation. With death we
are suddenly confronted with pure event, pure contingency, what
ought to be inaccessible to representation (hence the various social
and legal bans against the direct, nonfictional filming of death).
(Doane 2002, 164)

Real death provokes a crisis in narrative cinema because it is the purest
form of what she calls ‘dead time,’ a temporality that resists narrative
cinema’s drive to make its time productive, or properly ‘eventful’:

‘Economy’ is a fundamental value of the developed narrative film,
and the efficiency of electricity is paralleled by the efficiency of
narrative. Resolute linearity, efficiency, and economy are also crucial
goals of scientific management in its attempt to deploy the human
body in labor with a maximum reduction of wasted time. ‘Dead time’
is again, anathema. (Doane 2002, 162)

Leo Charney claims that narrative cinema cleverly insures efficiency by
incorporating temporal waste, just as Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific
management incorporates break periods to insure maximum worker
productivity. Specifically, narrative cinema plots time according to a ‘peaks
and valleys’ structure that simultaneously acknowledges and harnesses
viewer tendency to be distracted by modernity’s myriad stimulations (e.g.,
the cinema):

While Taylor’s method of industrial efficiency influenced the mode of
production in classical Hollywood studios, the conception of weaving
work and rest also affected the structure of classical narrative cinema,
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which aimed to channel the viewer’s potential drift, to regulate the
process of viewer attention. (Charney 1998, 83-84).

The ethical implications of this regulatory process are magnified
when considering narrative cinema’s representation of death. Vivian
Sobchack argues that narrative representations of death, most often designed
to be a ‘peak’ experience, position filmmaker and viewer as participants in
an unsettling plot to deny death’s Otherness: ‘Narrative, then, only plays
with visual taboo, containing death in a range of formal and ritual
simulations, and also often boldly viewing it with unethical and prurient
interest, as if, thus simulated, it simply “doesn’t count”’ (Sobchack 1984,
291). In this context, I wish to pose the following questions: How does a
filmmaker produce a fictional narrative that makes real death’s
incalculability count? What would a film look like that strove, responsibly,
to plot death’s ‘pure contingency,’ its radical drift?
Elephant appears to be a film that plays down narrative and plays up
contingency. Recording the ostensibly trivial as well as the clearly
traumatic, periods of apparent drag and an eruption of horrific destruction,
Van Sant seems to want to create a pure index of high school experience.
The desire is reflected in his decisions to recruit nonprofessional actors and
to shoot the film on location at a real high school. His documentary impulse
is also evident in the way characters are presented to the viewer. Each
student is introduced with an intertitle bearing his or her name. In addition,
instead of tracing character arcs, the film literally tracks students as they
walk about the school, the camera often trained on a single, ambulating
figure. Ironically, this pursuit yields only hints about an individual’s
background and inner life, and at times the film seems to lose interest in its
subject, drifting from one figure to another rather than cutting away. For
example, in one sequence three named, female students (Brittany, Nicole,
and Jordan) approach the school cafeteria, followed by the camera. As they
prepare to order lunch, the camera circles behind the food servers, tracks the
girls as they go through the line, and then, without apparent motive, moves
ahead of them. It proceeds to follow a server who breaks from the line to
light up a joint in a back room, shifts to a passing co-worker, then another,
and, finally, returns to the girls as, trays now in hand, they search for a table.
Throughout this uncut stretch, the camera drifts from figure to figure,
making the filmic operation appear unscripted, improvisational.
Such formal drift represents one of the complex ways Van Sant
attempts to respond ethically to Columbine’s deadly occurrences. Read one
way, his decision to depict characters in this fashion—to track them while
refusing to plot them conventionally—is an acknowledgment of the self’s
incalculability or unknowability, its essential deathliness. The steady,
detached shots, frequently accompanied by haunting ambient sound, render
the characters as somewhat ghostly figures floating through the school. In
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these shots, the camera registers appreciation for the mysterious otherness
of others, calling attention to its own limitations by touching on and grazing
across a patch of thick, shrouded experience, like a blind man feeling out
part of an elephant.
At the same time, the drift is a critique of classical fictive narrative’s
drive to get a fix on death by abstracting it. Van Sant’s meandering camera
resembles what Sobchack calls the ‘“accidental gaze,”’ a documentary form
of vision described as ‘the least ethically suspect in its encounter with death’
(295). The film’s re-creation of an “accidental gaze” reflects Van Sant’s
wish to position filmmaker and viewer as unprepared witnesses to violence.
Like Abraham Zapruder when he unexpectedly catches on camera the
shooting of President Kennedy, the accidental gazer virtually drifts into an
encounter with death: ‘Indeed, the wonder and fascination generated by
such films is that a death happens, is visible, and yet is somehow not seen,
that it is attended to by the camera rather than by the filmmaker or
spectator’ (295). In this case, death is not an event but an experience of
radical contingency. By simulating the accidental gaze, Van Sant appears to
deny viewers the packaged stuff of eventful death—its iconography, its
peaks-and-valleys rhythm. He would seem to be the directorial equivalent of
the deviant hash slinger, posing a threat to regulatory management by
drifting in an unsanctioned manner. In fact, right before his camera picks up
the errant server, the film intimates that its accidental gaze is a commentary
on the ethics of making death available for consumption. Just as the camera
is about to leave the girls, they are heard discussing the school food. In a
critical tone, one girl states how some students crave the prepared menu: “I
know, they come back for, like, seconds and thirds.” As the camera begins
to drift, one of the other girls, now off camera, responds with an inquiry that
expresses bewilderment about an appetite for such standard fare: “They just
keep coming?” Ironically, the question also foreshadows the impending
violence, a sickening dead time for which characters and viewers, as
accidental gazers, cannot be prepared:
The film’s attentiveness to accident is evident not only in the
camera’s approach to character but also in the characters’ approach to each
other. The second approach frequently takes the form of figures crossing
one another’s paths: on the school grounds, by the front desk, in the
hallway, in the library. Such crossings are staged repeatedly, but the result
varies: an absence of recognition, a greeting, a photograph, a warning, and,
toward the end of the film, a shooting. Without a framing awareness that
Elephant dramatises a school massacre, many of the crossings may register
as uneventful happenings, random passages. Ironically, a viewer’s
foreknowledge of the violence to come only makes these (non)events appear
even closer to indices of pure accident because the viewer is alert to the
possibility that any crossing could result in death. No matter how the viewer
is positioned to respond to the film, the hallways are haunted by dead time.
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An example of how these crossings are riddled with the accidental is
the scene in which the two boys who commit the violence first appear on
screen. Leading up to their introduction, the camera follows a slight, fair-
skinned boy with bleached hair named John who was late for school
because his drunken father nearly collided with a bike crossing an
intersection and then sideswiped a parked car, after which the son took the
wheel. In a long take, John walks through several virtually empty hallways,
exits the building, and almost immediately comes across a dog, Boomer,
which he calls and, with a reach of the hand, entices to execute a twirl in
midair. However, just before the animal performs the trick two figures
emerge in the background, dressed in military gear, walking toward the
school, soon to cross John’s path.
Since John carries nothing and strolls casually even after the bell has
rung, the viewer cannot sort out where he is headed. If he has a purpose, it is
forever lost to the viewer once he notices the killers and senses that
something terrible is about to occur. Furthermore, before he encounters the
gunmen, he crosses paths with the dog, whose leap registers as a moment
without narrative weight, an impression reinforced by the fact that the
airborne spin is shot in slow motion, making time seem to drag or drift.
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As
his name suggests, Boomer is a death-marked creature. The animal serves as
a reminder that while a filmmaker may seek to respond to the contingent
with intelligence, contingency always looms as a threat to film’s
intelligibility. In Doane’s words, ‘The embarrassment of contingency is that
it is everywhere and that it everywhere poses the threat of evacuation’
(Doane 2002, 144).
Van Sant intensifies this threat by re-creating the crossing later in
the film, when the encounter between John and Boomer is shot through the
cafeteria windows and commented on by the three girls, now eating.
Returning to a time marked by death, the film simulates the experience of
post-traumatic stress (it also repeats a crossing that involves Eli, John, and
Michelle, just before Eli and Michelle are killed in the library). As Cathy
Caruth explains, trauma is marked by evacuation in that the victim,
unprepared for the experience and unable to process it as it unfolds, can
conceive of it only as a temporal void, a dead time to which the mind
returns, repeatedly, in an effort to transform it into a meaningful event:

The shock of the mind’s relation to the threat of death is thus not the
direct experience of the death, but precisely the missing of this
experience, the fact that, not being experienced in time, it has not yet
been fully known. And it is this lack of direct experience that,

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In the Lumière Brothers’ actuality Sortie d’usine (1895), the camera records a dog
playfully leaping at a bicycle as laborers leave a factory, no longer tethered to their stations.
As John leaves the school, Alex and Eric head in, preparing to conduct their grave business.
They ignore the dog.
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paradoxically, becomes the basis of the repetition of the nightmare.
(Caruth 1996, 62)

If the camera’s drift is designed to position filmmaker and viewer as
inadvertent witnesses, the use of repetition is designed to represent them as
traumatized witnesses, a representation mirrored by the girls as they witness
John cross the dog’s path. Though they are familiar with John, they are
initially unsure if he is the figure they see. Then, they try repeatedly to
account for what they witness. Furthermore, the camera drifts from the girls
as they converse, so that the viewer struggles to account for who is
speaking. In other words, the dialogue articulates and embodies a missed
experience:

Is that John?
What is he doing?
Is that a dog?
Oh, it’s so cute.
I didn’t know he had a dog.
Why would he bring it to school if he did have a dog?
I have no idea.
Like follows him to school randomly.
Maybe he just found it.
Wow.

The three girls function as ironic, adolescent versions of the Fates, unable to
seize the tangled threads of life unspooling ‘randomly.’ They express the
threat of evacuation, even performing a physiological evacuation when,
after lunch, they throw up in the bathroom, an act they indicate gets
performed repeatedly. As one says, ‘It’s not like it stays in us anyway.’ For
the girls, weight is a traumatic matter, just as for the filmmaker and viewer
trauma is, like an elephant, an enormously weighty matter. In the words of
Alex, who warns John (right after he crosses paths with Boomer) to
evacuate the building: ‘Some heavy shit’s coming.’
While Van Sant strives to re-create the accidental gaze and the
experience of trauma, he also offers sustained, nuanced consideration of the
dangers inherent in any claim to have presented the dead time of real death
responsibly. Throughout Elephant, he acknowledges that while the film may
imitate a raw visual index of death it is nonetheless a fictional
representation, meaning that the work entails significant ethical risk. This
self-awareness is evident from the film’s opening, when he borrows the look
of the dominant genre in early silent cinema, the actuality, a form of
documentary advertised as an unmediated record of reality. The camera is
fixed on an indeterminate point in the sky. The only earthbound object is a
telephone pole, shot from a low angle, with wires that cut horizontally
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across the screen and intersect jet streams to create an aerial cross-hatching
effect (perhaps foretelling the characters’ death-marked crossings). Clouds
move across the sky. It looks like nothing, or at least nothing eventful, is
happening. The audio registers ambient noise, which the viewer eventually
learns is sound from a pickup football game being played on the school
grounds. The game later appears in a similarly shot scene during which
young bodies flow into and out of a static frame. The combination of
atmospheric, aural, technological, and corporeal currents makes the two
shots appear to be indices of the random and impermanent, a true picture of
dead time.
However, while this opening shot seems to constitute an unfiltered
archiving of the accidental, it simultaneously calls into question the
possibility of such immediacy. The shot is not even an authentic actuality
because what passes across the screen does not do so in real time. Time-
lapse photography transforms the scene from light-blue sky to pitch-black
night in under a minute, leaving visible only the street lamp attached to the
telephone pole. Throughout the rapid celestial shift the audio plays in real
time, so that the visual and aural effects do not correspond. While those
effects do appear to coincide in the first several seconds of the film, the
artifice of this coincidence is made manifest by the fact that the sky starts in
motion from a still frame at the moment a boy is heard calling out ‘hike,’
cues that the filmmaker is, like a quarterback, putting a scheme in motion.
Van Sant addresses the ethical implications of such inevitable
orchestration by turning to photography, the actuality’s historical
antecedent. Specifically, he stages several occurrences in which the crossing
of paths involves the taking of pictures. Early in the film, Elias, a soft-
spoken, artistically inclined youth, strolls through a wooded part of the
school’s property carrying a still camera. He crosses paths with a boy and
girl who agree to let him take pictures of them. Later, after working for a
while in the school’s darkroom, Eli runs across his friend John in the
hallway (an encounter followed by John’s encounter with the dog). In the
course of a brief exchange, John poses for a picture. Later still, when Eric
and Alex enter the school library to begin their killing spree, the first student
they encounter is Eli. As Alex turns to him, Eli, without a word, takes his
picture, just before being killed.
This camera play-within-a-play dramatizes photography’s complex
relationship to the accidental and to death. Significantly, Eli expresses a
predilection for the accidental in his work. He tells the couple he
photographs that he is engaged in ‘doing random projects.’ The phrase
deserves careful scrutiny. Read one way, it implies that he has adopted the
accidental gaze. Like Van Sant, he has a penchant for shooting people in
passing, apparently at random. Read another way, the phrase hints at the
idea that any photographic project, not just one committed to instantaneity,
places before the viewer something that, like death, remains stubbornly
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excessive, beyond representation, unspeakably random. Laura Mulvey
elaborates this idea by suggesting that the something in question is the
photograph-as-index, a physical trace of what is now absent that, magically,
makes the absent seem still present. Simultaneously dead and alive, the
index is ghostly and elusive, not unlike the characters indexed in Elephant:
‘The photographic index, the most literal, the most banal of signs, is
inscribed into the clouded, occluded terrain in which even Freud allows that
intellectual uncertainty persists within the frame of “civilization”’ (Mulvey
2006, 65). Experiencing ‘occluded’ vision, the viewer of a photograph is a
blind man of sorts. The index is an elephant.
The index also resists masterful, ‘intellectual’ plotting because it
signals interruption of a temporal sequence. In Doane’s words:

It [the still camera] allows for thinking the image as a critical
specification of time—the exact moment. It entails a halting of time;
the image is perpetually “on the verge of” completion. Perceiving the
image as allied with the point, with the punctum, foregrounds its
alignment with singularity and contingency and, therefore, its
resistance to meaning, its promotion of aphasia, and the breakdown of
the symbolic function. The point is an absolute particularity. (Doane
2002, 217)

Mulvey compares this ‘breakdown’ to the experience of trauma, which, like
the accidental gaze, is characterized by unpreparedness. Looking at the
index, the viewer experiences a missing so profound that it amounts to a
cognitive breach:

The concept of an ‘intractable reality’ leads back to Freud’s theory of
trauma as an event or experience that arouses too much psychic
excitement for the subject to be able to translate its significance into
words. Trauma leaves a mark on the unconscious, a kind of index of
the psyche that parallels the photograph’s trace of an original event.
(Mulvey 2006, 65)

Even if the index is not the Zapruder-like product of an accidental gaze at
death, the ghostly nature of the index produces something similar to an
accidental gaze. This correspondence further illuminates Van Sant’s use of
slow motion. By moving the film toward the point of a still image, he
experiments with another way to construct the viewer as an accidental
gazer, a responsible consumer of his re-creation of a traumatic ‘original
event.’
Elephant foregrounds photography’s relationship to the accidental
and the traumatic in the scene where the deadly shooting starts. The film
camera follows the gunmen as they enter the school library. It cuts to Eli,
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standing in the library with his back to the viewer. He hears the clicking
noise of a gun being loaded and turns to face Van Sant’s camera. The film
cuts again, Van Sant’s camera moving from behind Alex, panning across his
face, and cutting away, for a few seconds, to a shot of Eli briefly focusing
the lens of his camera and clicking a picture of Alex as he looks at the
photographer. The snapshot instantaneously captures a moment ‘on the
verge’ of incomprehensible acts, including one where Eli’s body is thrown
backward by the force of Alex’s gunshot. When their paths cross, by
accident, neither boy speaks, their gazes registering more than can be put
into words. Moreover, neither boy seems to recognize the horror about to
occur. Both faces appear virtually blank, as though they cannot ‘translate’
what is happening. Van Sant reinforces this inability by shooting in shallow
focus, blurring the library setting. The scene screens multiple gazes that
embody missing-in-action.
However, since a photograph is taken just as the killers’ plan is put
into effect, this crossing also intimates that camera work, regardless how
accidental, is never entirely free of plotting. Aside from the snapshot of
Alex, Eli’s ‘random projects’ actually entail calculation. When shooting the
boy and girl outside the school, he virtually directs the scene: ‘Alright, let’s
go. Be a little happier. Come on. Yeah. There you go. Yeah. Kinda look
away. Make a funny face, you know. One more. Yeah, good. Keep walkin’.
Keep walkin’. Maybe one kiss.’ The shooting betrays an aggressiveness
anticipated by the male subject, Wolfgang, who teasingly suggests that the
photographer may be out to ‘get’ them somehow, to control and expose
them: ‘You want us to get naked with you? Take our picture?’
Eli’s capture of what is credited as the ‘punk’-styled couple draws
into consideration the history of photography’s connection to efforts at
regulating deviance. In the late nineteenth century, law enforcement
agencies employed the still camera to help get a fix on individuals
circulating within increasingly dense and mobile urban crowds. Police
bureaucrats constructed enormous photographic archives designed to
identify and monitor aberrant figures. Allan Sekula has shown how this
administrative plotting, fueled by ‘a grandiose clerical mentality’ (Sekula
1986, 57), drew on phrenology, physiognomy, and social statistics to build
files that ideally would contain a universal map of human identity on which
‘zones of deviance and respectability could be clearly demarcated’ (Sekula
1986, 14). One of the pioneers of this essentialist dream, Alphonse
Bertillon, saw that while photographic portraiture could produce an
indexical trace of an individual, the circumstances and idiosyncrasies of a
particular portrait made the images slippery subjects in their own right.
Described by Sekula as ‘a prophet of rationalization’ (1986, 25) bent on
‘taming . . . the contingency of the photograph’ (1986, 30), Bertillon
standardized the law’s photographic style (a look later known as the mug
shot) and strove to standardize analysis of physical features in the
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photographs (through a system called signaletics). These methods of
codification aided the police in plotting the criminal make-up. In Tom
Gunning’s words:

[T]his camera trained on the deviant body does not simply record it
but also filters it through a new standardised vocabulary of description
and classification. In this way the gaze of the law may know the
criminal’s body more thoroughly than the criminal does. The
photograph acted as a ‘new mark,’ one which inscribed the deviant
body with a socially defined individuality, an individuality which
rested ultimately on its structural differentiation from all other
recorded individual bodies. (Gunning 1995, 34)

Such history resonates at the moment in Elephant when John agrees,
in passing, to pose for Eli and smacks his own backside as his picture is
taken. Labeled a deviant for late arrival (‘Get to class. Don’t be late for
detention’) and sporting a t-shirt with a silhouette of a steer on the front,
John playfully brands himself as the camera clicks. The gesture suggests
that while photography moves deathward by drawing the viewer to a now
absent other, it also moves deathward insofar as it contributes to modern
plots that abstract and demonize the other. Such history may also explain
why Van Sant doesn’t reproduce Eli’s photographs. Even when John, just
released from the principal’s branding stare, points to a photograph in the
main office and asks, admiringly, ‘Where was that picture taken?’, the film
camera does not show the image, as though reluctant to participate in the
‘taking.’
The dark possibilities marking the entanglement of shooting,
plotting, preservation, and death are made most graphic late in the film. As
Alex moves through the school, he discovers two clean-cut students, Nathan
and Carrie, hiding in the school cafeteria’s meat locker, an encounter that
echoes Eli’s earlier encounter with the couple he photographs. He walks
through the locker’s doorway while the camera remains behind, a shot that
recalls a previous one in which an administrator walks through an office
doorway saying ‘Oh, and don’t forget to bring your own steaks’ and is hit
with a celebratory (birthday?) burst of ‘Surprise.’ Inside the locker, Alex is
framed by the doorway and set against a backdrop of beef carcasses, a
tableau of dead bodies representing modern technology’s power to
homogenize and serialise. Nathan and Carrie retreat into the locker and out
of the film camera’s frame, but the shooter sizes them up, acting out his
hold on them as a children’s game: ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe / Catch a tiger
by the toe / If he hollers let him go / Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.’ His plot
depends on a refusal to recognise the individuality—the tiger-like
otherness—of others, including his partner Eric, whom he shoots with no
warning moments before he opens the freezer.
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While Van Sant invokes photography to show how the camera can
support plots to deny difference, he seems to suggest that the film camera
can avoid this deadening effect since it records the other over time. One
explanation for the film’s frequently slow pace is that it foregrounds
cinema’s capacity to represent the passing of time. The pace allows the
camera to entertain, and perhaps sustain, that which seems to resist
explanation. As mentioned, the film’s long takes are noteworthy in this
regard. They invite attention to visual and aural elements (e.g., the dark
roots at the top of John’s bleached hair; the clicking noise of Eli’s camera
strap as he walks) that appear to function, stubbornly, as the cinematic
equivalent of the punctum. Likewise, they seem to position the camera as a
device that ‘catches’ a character for an extended stretch but then, without
clear motivation, lets ‘him go,’ a move that makes each character appear
mysterious, like a ‘tiger’ at large.
Two lengthy, consecutive tracking shots illustrate the idea that the
film’s temporal structure may, among other things, represent a critique of
modernity’s profit-driven plots to control viewer attention, worker
productivity, and social circulation. The first shot begins as an imitation
actuality, the camera fixed at the edge of a soccer field, recording various
activities: lap running; cheer practice; a game of pick-up football. Without
cutting, the camera then follows Nathan as he quits the game and walks to
the school to meet Carrie, his girlfriend, in the office. Leaving the field, he
dons a red, hooded sweatshirt with a white cross on the back and the word
‘Lifeguard’ printed beneath it. When he approaches the school—a building
whose architectural style (an anti-decorative, white façade with grids of
windows) is distinctly modernist—the camera slowly falls behind and
comes to a stop, letting him go. The film cuts as he disappears inside, then
resumes tracking him. In both shots he moves at a leisurely pace and crosses
paths with others at play: two figures tossing a frisbee; a boy break dancing
in front of a small gathering. Fresh from a scene marked by improvisation
and intermingling bodies, Nathan comes across as a guardian of
unregimented, sensuous life, a deviant in his own right. When he meets
Carrie he talks to her about having ‘a blast fourbying.’
If Nathan is made up to signify resistance to modernity’s deadening
effects, so is the film’s camera. The term ‘Lifeguard’ may refer to the
camera, given that cinema involves a promise to rescue time otherwise lost.
Much of the action in Elephant consists of figures walking, and it may be no
coincidence that Doane’s explanation of cinema’s investment in recovering
lost time involves a consideration of ambulation. Specifically, she refers to
Freud’s interest in Wilhelm Jensen’s novel Gradiva, the tale of an
archeologist, Nobert Hanold, who, after seeing a bas-relief of a walking
figure named Gradiva, longs to experience, as nearly as possible, the actual
steps she once took. To re-activate her presence, he goes to Pompeii in
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search of her fossilised footprint. For Doane, this drive to reanimate the
original is built into the fabric of filmmaking:

It is the movement of Gradiva that activates Hanold’s obsession and
fuels his dream of presence. Chronophotography is the scientific
sublimation of this fascination and the cinema the reactivation of its
desire. Film represents an indelible past that produces a highly
cathected experience of presence. The inflated rhetoric of movement,
life, and death that accompanied the emergence of cinema confirms
the cinematic debt to a dream of revivification and ‘presencing.’
(Doane 2002, 220)

Like the archeologist’s quest, the film’s tracking shots are suffused with
longing, made explicit in the slow motion turning of heads Nathan causes as
he crosses paths with the three girls headed for the cafeteria. Given that
cinema taps into a desire to redeem lost time, it is significant that at one
point in the course of Nathan’s walk, as he climbs stairs accompanied by
sounds of chorus practice and passes a set of windows through which white
light appears to stream, he briefly resembles a priestly figure in hooded
habit, a lifeguard of a different sort.
However, the problem with the dream of re-presenting the past is, as
Van Sant wisely acknowledges, precisely that it involves plotting. While his
treatment of time suggests that he endeavors to let the other ‘go’ in all its
deviance and contingency, he simultaneously shows that cinema’s
commitment to revivification has the potential to turn monstrous. Cinema
employs electrical currents to bring the dead back to life, and this galvanic
work always involves, to some degree, manipulation of subject matter. Van
Sant illustrates this problem in the scene where Alex and Eric are watching
a documentary on television. The camera pans slowly from left to right,
crossing Alex as he slouches in a chair and coming to rest on a heavy,
wooden television console. Emanating from the set is a voiceover
describing the Nazis’ appropriation of the German film industry for
propagandistic purposes: ‘Many of the cinema’s leading producers know
what kind of films the Nazis want. All scripts must now be vetted. The
casting of actors must now be approved. From now on the German people
will only know what their Fuhrer wants them to know.’ The last line of this
narration is accompanied in the documentary by footage of a film camera
panning slowly from right to left to face the boys and the viewers of
Elephant.
Van Sant’s decision to make an authoritarian camera mirror the
movement of his camera demonstrates that, despite its promise to resurrect
the other in time, cinema shares with photography the potential to dominate
the other. The tracking shots of Nathan highlight this risk by presenting the
figure as lifeguard and target. His sweatshirt makes him resemble Little Red
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Riding Hood, pursued through the school by a predatory camera trained on
the cross on his back. Viewed this way, the shots bear an unsettling
resemblance to the violent computer game Eric plays in Alex’s bedroom,
one in which a first-person ‘shooter’ places human prey in simulated
crosshairs. In the corner appears a window that keeps a running tally of the
player’s kill total. The window is labeled ‘GERRYCOUNT.’
No matter how faithfully it simulates the accidental gaze and
traumatic experience, and no matter how sensitively it screens the other,
cinema cannot represent real, violent death without risk. In closing, I would
like to suggest that Van Sant, who wishes to address the events of
Columbine but is aware of the dangers in recalling them, negotiates this risk
through a complex handling of forgetting and remembering.
To examine this negotiation, I would like first to return to the
computer game window. On one hand, the window serves as a memory
device for the gamer. On the other hand, as a screen-within-a-computer
screen-within-a-film-screen it is small enough to be virtually forgettable.
The matter is further complicated by the term ‘GERRYCOUNT’ which
suggests that the player perceives himself and the others he hunts as
unexceptional, interchangeable, forgettable figures, ones that ‘count’ only as
generic Gerrys. When Eric holds the principal at gunpoint in a hallway, he
says of himself and Alex, ‘You know there’s others like us out there too.
And they will kill you if you fuck with them like you did me and Gerry.’
Certainly Alex is made to feel forgettable when he is shot with spitballs,
unnoticed by the teacher. The boys’ violence, real and virtual, may be a
reaction to this feeling since the desire to humiliate is connected to a sense
of being overlooked or invisible. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips puts
it:

In our rage, we make our presence felt, if only to ourselves. Our
excitement is like a reminder, a sign of life. Or a hope that we can
redress the searing humiliation of being ignored when we are in need
of something…. To humiliate someone is to make oneself
unforgettable, a malign way of keeping a place in someone’s mind.
(Phillips 1998, 128-29)

Insofar as the boys have acts of humiliation stored in their memories, they
resemble elephants. Yet unlike humiliated elephants, they do not appear
enraged.
3
As Phillips points out, exhibition of rage is an acknowledgment of
the necessity of engaging with the other: ‘Rage is our first tribute to
otherness, both the otherness within and the otherness without’ (Phillips

3
On the problem of elephants enraged by displacement, degradation, and the decimation of
family structure, see Charles Siebert, ‘An Elephant Crackup?’ The New York Times Sunday
Magazine, October 8, 2006.
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1998, 131). The boys’ blank expressions reflect the fact that their ‘malign’
plot to be remembered entails the violent erasure of others.
The window is further linked to remembering and forgetting in that
it recalls Van Sant’s previous film, Gerry, one that follows two young men
known only to the viewer as ‘Gerry,’ the name by which they refer to one
another. In the video game in Elephant, victims are killed in a desert
landscape. Afterward, their bodies are buried head down in the sand. In
Gerry, the two figures park a car, go for a hike in a desert landscape, get
lost, and wander until one of them dies. As one Gerry (played by Casey
Affleck) says while trying to remember the twists and turns they have taken,
‘There were so many just different Gerrys along the way.’ The line
functions as a commentary on the film, articulating the director’s
determination to record figures in a way that challenges assumptions about
what it means to plot an other on film. Always on screen yet hidden from
civilization, they occupy a position somewhere between memorable and
forgettable. Indeed, they reflect the desert space they traverse, a scene of
breathtaking vistas but devoid of recognizable markers, a some place that is
also a no place.
When the two Gerrys first set out on the hike, their intent is to find
something in the desert, though they refer to that something only as a
‘thing.’ Despite their trouble giving it a proper name, their feeling is that
any path is bound to lead to it. In the words of the other Gerry (Matt
Damon): ‘Everything’s going to go to the thing.’ However, the only thing in
life to which ‘everything’s going to go’ is death. Since death is an elusive
something-that-is-nothing they struggle to get a hold of it with words.
Eventually, they give up getting to the thing at all. They decide, in effect, to
forget about it:

Gerry: Fuck it, Gerry. Fuck this.
Gerry: Fuck the thing?
Gerry: Fuck the thing.
Gerry: Thought we were going to the thing!
Gerry: Fuck the thing.
Gerry: Fuck the thing!
Gerry: It’s just gonna be a fuckin’ thing. It’ll be another trail.
Gerry: Fuck the thing.
Gerry: Fuck the thing. Let’s go back.

The problem is that no amount of forgetting will erase death’s Otherness.
Gerry suggests that such a will to forget is disastrous and bound to fail.
When the Gerrys literally turn ‘back’ from death it is, like the camera,
already following them, tracking them through the desert.
Elephant is a remarkable film in part because it dramatises how the
commitment to approaching death responsibly requires a delicate balance of
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remembering and forgetting. Thus, the film’s re-collection of violence is
marked by formal acts of distancing and avoidance. For instance, while
images of crossing and drifting make death scenes appear to be indices of
the real thing, eerie, nondiegetic sounds make them seem highly styled and
dream-like. Furthermore, despite its interest in the crossing of paths, the
film does not show the crossing of a bullet from barrel to body nor, with one
exception, does it clearly picture shooter and victim in the same shot.
Likewise, after each shooting the victim falls suddenly and completely out
of the frame, so that the film avoids conventional representation of an
‘actual’ moment of death or even a transition to death. Through these
omissions Van Sant attends respectfully to death’s Otherness. His self-
conscious forgetting of fictional death simulates respect for the prohibition
against intentional filming of real death.
The ending of Elephant constitutes an extended balancing act
between embodying a drive for absolute forgetfulness and a drive for total
recall. It does so by playing with what Mulvey calls the ‘two grand
conventions of narrative closure, devices that allow the drive of a story to
return to stasis: death or marriage’ (Mulvey 2006, 71). The villain’s death or
the protagonists’ wedding completes two movements: narrative movement
and the film’s material movement. According to Mulvey, such completion
signifies consummation of characters’ and viewers’ death drives. The
typical ending marks a satisfying return to a much-desired state of stillness.
For instance, the wedding points toward ‘the topographical stasis
conventionally implied by the new home, the “palace” in which a hero
settles, after his travels, balancing the family home from which he had
originally departed’ (Mulvey 2006, 71). At this sort of end, death, literal and
figurative, becomes a profoundly meaningful event. It totally recalls the
quiet plenitude before movement, before life, began.
Van Sant does not simply forego or forget these conventional
endings but reworks them to critique their claims on death. Toward the end
of the film, the viewer is briefly promised a redemptive death. The camera
follows a boy named Benny who helps a girl named Acadia escape through
a window, walks calmly through nightmarish hallways, and, finally, sneaks
up on Eric, who looms over the principal. Though knowing virtually
nothing about Benny (he appeared in the football game), the viewer is
invited to identify him as a potential hero until, without warning, Eric turns
and kills him. The plot of a restorative, eventful death is interrupted by a
death that appears almost purely accidental. Nothing is said. The image does
not blur. The camera does not cut. For the only time, killer and victim
appear in full focus two-shots. It is as though the camera is totally re-
collecting death as radical contingency.
In the last scene featuring characters, Alex pursues Nathan and
Carrie into the freezer. The arrangement constitutes a horrific twist on the
wedding as triumphant return to stasis. Like a minister gone mad, Alex
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faces the couple and delivers a grotesque benediction, his ‘eeny meeny miny
moe’ implying either that they will be separated because only one will be
spared or that they will soon be united in death. Instead of a hero on the
verge of settling into a family home, Nathan (a lifeguard who saves no one
and responds indifferently to Carrie’s revelation that she might be pregnant)
occupies a once familiar space (school) that is now radically defamiliarized
and unsettling.
Van Sant’s deconstruction of death-as-satisfying-closure is also
evident in his play with the metaphor of freezing. Specifically, the film’s
close may be read as a critique of the freeze frame, a formal device that,
according to Mulvey, has been used at a film’s end to signal the pleasures of
cessation: ‘[T]he freeze frame represents the fusion between the death drive
in narrative and the abrupt shift from the cinema’s illusion of animated
movement to its inorganic, inanimate state ‘ (Mulvey 2006, 81). Van Sant
alludes to this device by framing still figures in a freezer. Yet the film does
not freeze. The camera retreats slowly, as though its operator fears being
frozen, like Eli, in the gunman’s sights, then cuts to two final shots, the
camera stationary, aimed at the sky.
These shots also resemble a freeze frame. They too conjure original
stasis, in this case by recalling both the film’s opening shot (before the
‘hike’ that sets film, narrative, and deadly plot in motion) and the origin of
cinema (still photography). Again, though, the film does not freeze. In the
first shot, greenish clouds smoke and swirl, rendering the sky gaseous and
submarine. The clouds reveal and conceal the sun, conveying a promise of
clearing but also a threat of blackout. The soundtrack records “Fur Elise”
(played by Alex earlier in his room, perhaps to forget his humiliation), but
also ambient and natural noises. Commenting on Elephant, Neera Scott
claims that such shots offer the viewer the possibility of a full perspective,
total re-collection:

There is also a continual gesturing beyond the frame in each scene,
with shots of the sky, or unusual angles that emphasise a non-human
(or non-character) perspective. This is a constant reminder to the
spectator of a larger vision. . . . His [Van Sant’s] choice to promote an
impersonal perspective also has the potential to liberate the spectator
from a partial view’ (Scott).

However, these ‘end’ shots do not clearly convey such redemptive potential.
Rather than positioning viewer (or filmmaker) as a transcendent, all-seeing
eye, they emphasize a ‘partial’ perspective. In the first shot, the sun is a
decentered, potentially blinding white light that periodically breaks through
the clouds and creates circular reflections on the glass of the camera lens,
altering the vision. The cut from one uneventful shot to another further
illustrates this limitation. The film’s ending draws on narrative cinema’s
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conventions about death to illustrate their inadequacies, but at the same time
it illustrates that there is no liberated, authoritative, solar view of real death.
Even the most concerned, moral filmmakers and viewers are, in the end,
always partially blind, struggling to get a good feel for dead time.


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Doane, Mary Anne (2002) The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity,
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Gunning, Tom (1995) “Tracing the Individual Body: Photography,
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Mulvey, Laura (2006) Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image.
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Myers, Holly (2006) “Nothing Happens to No One: The Death Trilogy of
Gus Van Sant,” N + 1. July 10, 2006,
http://www.nplusonemag.com/nothing-happens-no-one.
Phillips, Adam (1998). “Just Rage” in The Beast in the Nursery: On
Curiosity and Other Appetites. New York: Vintage, 119-40.
Scott, Neera. “Sublime Anarchy in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant,” Senses of
Cinema,
http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/05/36/elephant.html
Sekula, Allan (1986) “The Body and the Archive,” October 39, 3-64.
Sobchack, Vivian (1984) “Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions On
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Filmography
Van Sant, Gus (2003) Elephant. USA.
Van Sant, Gus (2002) Gerry. USA.