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Dale Ballantine


All the Elephants in the room.

24th May 2007

Dr. M. Tager

Audiovisual Hons
Content Page p.






5.1 The Postmodern Subject 5
5.2 The salvation of the sensational 6

6.1 Elephant: filming and projecting 7




Cinema exists within a framework of predominant cultural narratives that affect the illusion it
reflects onto its participants, the audience. The cinematic signification of these cultural
narratives, from which a film gains it’s meaning, is often based on ‘real’ events, events that
historically happened. Cinema, however, holds a particular paradoxical relationship with
‘reality’ within its signification process(es), with postmodern film exploring extremely diverse
and at times subversive types of aesthetic representation. From a postmodern frame, the
cinematic image often more closely resembles the reality of the event than the actual event does
within a societies communal memory. By analysing Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) within a
postmodern frame, the concept of the schizophrenic experience within a postmodern landscape
will be explored.


The cultural narrative of America was disturbed by the Columbine school shootings on the 20th
April 1999. Van Sant had been wanting to create a television show based on a factual account of
the shootings, but chose rather to portray a fictional account of the shooting (Whitfield, 2005).
Although the film is fictional, it is undoubtedly related to the columbine massacre when read
within the broader American. Elephant is a film that follows the daily routine of ambivalent
school life from a distance. The film is acted by non-professional actors who’s dialogue is mostly
unscripted. Van Sant (cited in Taubin, 2003:26) states that by “[casting] real high school kids,
most of [whom] play themselves… you reap the reward of this heightened-reality.” This reality
is redefined within postmodern film projection, as will later be explored. Elephant is about the
mundane, normal activity that American students experience on a daily basis.

The name Elephant was borrowed by Van Sant from a movie by the same title produced in … by
Alan Clarke about the high school killings in Northern Ireland. The name has two
interpretations, both of which are relevant. The first is that there is an elephant in the room which
no one wants to speak about, even though it is obvious. The second is that for five blind men the
elephant is different from their own perspective: “One blind man thinks it's a rope because he has
the tail, one thinks it's a tree because he can feel the legs, one thinks it's a wall because he can
feel the side of it, and nobody actually has the big picture. You can't really get to the answer,
because there isn't one” (Van Sant cited in Whitfield, 2005). Van Sant focusses on many of the
American ‘elephants’ such as bulimia, violent computer games, Nazi propaganda, as well as
more subtle elements such as bullying. The way that Van Sant chooses to signify the American
landscape will further be explored, but it is first necessary to understand (in part) that landscape
as a defining discourse within the films contextualisation; thus within a postmodern frame.


The American nation is defined by its “restlessness” (Tocqueville cited in Deneen, 2002:96).
Within the most dominant (ideological) discourse, there is an internal restlessness, since America
is “a nation seeking ever-new avenues of re-creation”, an “escapist” society “impelled to pursue
a happiness ever out of reach” (Deneen, 2002:96). The american soul is perpetually unsatiated in
this pursuit, since the pursuit in effect becomes a form of enslavement - “enslavement to a
pursuit without end”: the American dream (ibid). Ideology of the American Dream provides a
narrative space wherein its participants have the constant need to stabilise meaning in progress
towards the dream. Progress, however, becomes its own regress since there is no longer a point
at which the progress is ever happy enough. Within this narrative, however, are the paradoxical
effects of the dream; events such as the Columbine shootings resemble regressive narratives.
Theses events provide effective focal points against which the American narrative can define
itself. Contemporary America uses these events to speak against its disturbing problems:
ineffective gun control, broken homes, Marilyn Manson, the violent media and computer games.
The event becomes a way in which the American consciousness can propose stability through
proposing the American Dream as an answer to the societal flaws. This response is paradoxically
unstable however, as Elephant points out.

Elephant finds its own narrative within this dominant discourse. Van Sant was extremely aware
of the cultural ‘elephants’ his film deals with. For Van Sant, however, left these elements within
the narrative knowing that people would define the shooters as “gay Nazi’s” in the search for
stable responses to the event. Van Sant aims in Elephant to rather involve the audience in
constructing the narrative that shows that there are no easy answers. “If you think there’s an
answer you can isolate - maybe its the video games, maybe its the parents - then that lets you
think that the problem is somewhere else and that you aren’t a part of it” (Van Sant cited in
Taubin, 2003:33). According to Slavoz Žižek (1989:169), traumatic events can only be grasped
retrospectively, and cannot be represented adequately: “the traumatic event is ultimately just a
fantasy-construct filling out a certain void in a symbolic structure and, as such the retroactive
effect of this structure.” This structure is the fulfillment of the American dream, and Van Sant
aims at showing that even in retrospection, an events meaning cannot be stabilised since it is
always inadequately represented. Within a postmodern frame, meaning is similarly unstable and
fragmented, a frame that Elephant can help explore in relation to these horrific events.


Postmodern logic is contextualised within post-structuralist assumptions, the basis of which is

“the impossibility of knowing” (Grenz, 1996:121). The post-structuralist deconstruction of a
“true discourse” of Western history by Foucault simultaneously dissolved the modern
conceptions stable truths or knowledge, and the possibility of a true discourse (ibid). Myths such
as the American Dream as a stable answer to the american problems are therefore deconstructed
too, showing that any answer brings with it new problems. No narrative is stable and coherent;
postmodernity is defined my theorists as “those plural conditions in which the social and the
cultural become indistinguishable” (Connor, 1990:61).

Contemporary cinema, then, operates within this fluid postmodern discourse and affects what
Fredric Jameson (cited in Belton, 1999:202) refers to as the “perpetual present,” wherein the
salient feature of postmodernism is the “simultaneity and instantaneity of Western technological,
communicative, and consumptive practices.” Jameson (ibid) uses Lacanian psychoanalysis to
describe how the postmodern self is ‘schizophrenic,’ lost amongst “the transformation of reality
into images, the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents.” Within this frame, the
very possibility of having an identity becomes problematic, partly because globalisation
circulates heterogeneous cultural identities through processes of ‘informatisation,’ but also due to
the fact that the postmodern individual exists in a permanent nascent state within each new
fragmented postmodern moment. The postmodern discourse is thus inherently unstable, as are
the communication practices within it.

Postmodern cinema is an “embrace of disjointed narratives, dystopic images… motifs dwelling

upon mayhem, ambiguity… and breakdown of dominant values or social relations” (Boggs,
2001:1). Postmodern cinema therefore “takes shape within a process of social transformation
involving thorough reconfiguration the public sphere,” therefore a breakdown of stable forms of
personal as well as societal or communal identity (ibid). Postmodern cinema, therefore, erodes
the ideals of the American dream through new ways of signification and representation. Since
filmic texts share an extremely close indexical relationship with reality (Nichols, 1991:164) they
provide a means of representation that places the subject in a specific position, thus within a
specific relation to ‘reality’. As the myth of the American dream “unravels,” postmodern cinema
explored these myths within the american narrative.


Film as a medium is unique in one vitally important way: it associates an audience within a
specific relation to space and time, portraying myths about absolute permanence by
transcendental distance from the material world (Connor, 1990:173). For Barthes (2000:118), the
sheer proliferation of images in contemporary culture has resulted in a subtle shift in reality;
“Consider the United States, where everything is transformed into images: only images exist and
are produced and are consumed.” The cinematic image largely guides this shift, since “[e]
verything must be seen, and be visible, and the image is the site par excellence of this
visibility” (Baudrillard cited in Young, 2005:496). The cinematic image provides its viewer, or
subject, with an impression of reality, and in its signification “confirms the self-definition of the
human subject as someone capable of knowing that reality” (Allen, 1995:2), thus the events that
the film projects. This process is however characterised by the fact that both reality projected and
the human construction within that projection are effects of signification, an “illusion” (ibid).
Mainstream (Hollywood) cinema often attempts at providing illusion that is closely tied to the
ideological (meta)narrative of its culture, such as the fact that the american dream can be realised
if pursued. Postmodern film, however, generally seeks to undermine these cultural myths by
representing social reality through critical subject positioning, empowering the subject as viewer
to partake in meaning creation within the image. There is a “more dialectical relationship
between film and audience” as critical consumer, subject and object (Boggs, 2001:357). The
postmodern film image, then, does not necessarily aim at projecting any political, ideological or
cultural illusion, but rather provides a cinematic construction that is aware of and projects its
self-conscious construction.
There is another crucial aspect to the (paradoxical) postmodern image. The image has become
empty, since when “images proliferate, they become banal; they lose the ability to ‘pierce’ us,
because they pass themselves off as pure information” (Young, 2005:496). As Baudrillard states
(in Young, 2005:496), the image substitutes itself for reality, generalising about reality by
capturing it within the confines of a frame, thus “completely de-realis[ing] the human world of
conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it.” The postmodern paradox is the
deconstruction of cultural myths with the tool of indifferent and banal images, unable to pierce
public affect. This will be explored in light of the redefined postmodern subject.

5.1 The Postmodern Subject

Fredric Jameson provides a theoretical basis from which to understand the postmodern subject
within the endless proliferation of images in postmodern society. For Jameson, two
characteristics define postmodernism; pastiche and schizophrenia. Pastiche refers to the
transformation of reality into images by nostalgically longing “through our own pop images and
stereotypes about the past, which itself remains ever out of reach” (Jameson cited in Belton,
1999:194). Schizophrenic experience, according to Jameson, is the experience of “isolated,
disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers that fail to link up into a coherent sequence” (ibid
195), a lack of the stable “I” over time. Olivier (2006:2) notes that the modern is recognisable in
the way that it displays a permanent essence of being, whereas the postmodern continuously
overcomes that stability, “opting instead for a show of ephemerality, fleetingness, flux,
multiplicity, open-endedness, fragmentation.”

This fragmentation marks “the death of the subject” in that within the postmodern present there
is no private style or individual identity (Jameson cited in Belton, 1999:189). Rather, the post-
structuralist position claims that the idea of the individual subject is a myth, and has never
existed (ibid). This myth is part of the capitalist ideology that informs the American Dream. The
cinemas projection is guilty too of sustaining this myth, since the ‘transparency’ of the cinematic
image alludes to, in the first place, the existence of a knowable reality, and, secondly, the self-
definition of the individual subject within that reality (Allen, 1995:2). The subject is thus caught
within the projected image of the cinema which provides the illusion of reality as transparent,
and the insecurity of their own identity as unstable within fragmented moments that are in a
constant flux. The postmodern subject is thus defined as consistently ambivalent, never able to
grasp the real since there is only the image of the real, and never able to exist as coherent since
the current moment is itself divided in its presentation of coherence. Any moment is projected as
complete and coherent in its cinematic signification, but is not experienced as such within the
context of other images of other moments. This is schizophrenia, the lack of the stable between
moments of fragmented signification.

5.2 The salvation of the sensational

Baudrillard argues that an iconic sign goes through four stages in order to effect pure simulation.
Firstly, the sign is a reflection of basic reality, but soon masks and perverts that reality, thirdly
the sign masks the absence of a basic reality, and lastly the sign bears no relation to reality but is
rather its own pure simulacrum (Baudrillard cited in Connor, 1990:55-56). The image is thus
manufactured with no attempt to ground it in reality, “but is rather an escalation of the true, of
the lived experience” (ibid). These manufactured images of objects and experiences attempt to
be more real than reality itself, leading to what Baudrillard refers to as the ‘hyperreal’. Within
the hyperreal, people search for the real, which is forever out of reach since the image exists
within its own closed system. Connor (1990:56) refers to “the cult of immediate experience, of
raw, intense reality, [which] is not the contradiction of the regime of simulation, but its simulated
effect.” The image is thus manufactured, and people search within these images for the raw and
intense reality that they supposedly refer back to, but rather refer back to their own simulation -
the new (hyper)real.

Manufactured images that seek to provide an intense simulation become the sensational
spectacle for the postmodern landscape. According to Boggs (2001:362), “the connection
between postmodern cinema and the media spectacle grows ever more intimate, we begin to
witness all the manifestations of a fragmented, chaotic, out-of-control environment... a world
filled with a bizarre assortment of misfits, losers, grifters, and doomed heroes.” Sensationalised
media, according to Young (2005:495), serves to “satiate a mediated public appetite, and to fill
their own standing order for endlessly renewed cycles of scandal and revelation.” These images,
however, become banal as described by Barthes, and effects what Barthes (2000:119) regards as
indifference, “an impression of nauseated boredom, as if the universalised image were producing
a world that is without difference.” Young (2005:496) proposes that there is a need to look at
textual strategies, since in looking directly at the text (and image) “we might (re)discover the
transformative possibilities of the text itself, a potential perhaps lost in the onslaught of
‘transparent’ media with their relentless, real-time recycling of hyperbolic affective signifiers.”
Elephant is the text that will be assessed within this postmodern frame, and for the schizophrenic


With these conceptions of postmodern film and the postmodern subject, Elephant both reinforces
and subverts these conceptions. Elephant needs to be read within its cultural discourse, as it
relates to the American Dream and the postmodern eroding of that dream, but also as a structured
text that has chosen a narrative technique to signify ‘reality’ in a specific way. By looking at the
way that Elephant functions in its projection, and filming of reality, it is proposed that, as a
postmodern film, Elephant aims at informing the subject of their limited and schizophrenic
position, therein eroding the ideological basis of individuality within the American Dream.

6.1 Elephant: filming and projecting

Elephant is an independent production shown within the art-house cinema aesthetic. In relation
to the traumatic content it represents, this is regarded as many as an unsuitable medium. Relating
to a traumatic real life event (even in fiction) that is so “awash with political implications”
through documentary, as Michael Moore does in Bowling for Columbine (2002), is deemed as
the appropriate response wherein the political implications and discourse can be explored
(Whitfield, 2005). The art-house medium, however, is not seen as appropriate. Van Sant (cited in
Whitfield, 2005) understood his positioning; “I knew there would be no dramatic coverage of the
event because of the way we think of drama as entertainment and not as investigative.”

Many critics deemed the movie irresponsible, especially in its political implications, one even
saying that the movie presented a simplistic focal point, being “it was the gay Nazi’s who did
it” (ibid). Many critiqued the film in its inability to explain the massacre, but that is how it is
postmodern and aims at deconstructing the problematic society it exists within, one that seeks for
stable answers. The postmodern landscape, however, lacks any conception of “a stable or
centered self, the prospects for collective subjectivity and (transformative) political action are
checkmated — a trend amply demonstrated by postmodern cinema with its universe of anti-
heroes, drifters, outcasts, marginals, and just plain losers” (Boggs, 2001:363). This is the story of
Elephant, the story about all the elephants in the room that no one is willing to speak about since
they erode the American Dream by being part of the American landscape. It is a story about the
normal which is problematic.

At the level of both content and form Elephant rejects traditional cinematic conventions. The
camera seems more concerned with its own aesthetic appeal than the content it frames. The film
is comprised mainly of extremely long Steadicam shots which either follow the characters
around or observe them from the front. Every character is treated with the same form, the same
framing, as well as the killers towards the end of the film. Traditionally, cinema positioned its
audience as transcendent through the camera and its voyeuristic knowledge, however the camera
in Elephant seems to observe rather than transcend events through its knowledgeable eye. The
audience is never shown the character from a subjective position, but rather is invited to play a
part in creating meaning within the narrative, and making their own (limited) judgments. The
camera follows its characters for minutes, but learns very little about them. The camera is not
concerned with capturing key moments of affective intensity, but rather captures moments of the
mundane school day, characterised by ambivalence.

Young (2005:500) proposes that the aesthetic image invites sensual intimacy rather than the
articulate intimacy of kowledge, that “it is via the suspension of insight that the film opens up the
sensuality of the image, which becomes charged with a sublime unknowing.” The camera at
times does not follow the action, and thus doesn’t attempt at focussing the viewer on any single
action within the frame as more important than those omitted. In one sequence the students are
playing football on the school field. The action is taken in one shot and maintains static as the
action moves in and out of the frame, making it impossible for the viewer to follow the action.
Within the Elephant narrative that thirty second single shot would seem logically unimportant in
a film about school shootings, but Van Sant chooses to place it in part of the high school
montage, as will further be considered later. The camera is aware of its limited frame, and its
impossibility of providing a complete knowledge of any one moment, and thus the whole
Columbine narrative.

The editing is subtle and maintains the unknowing position of the audience. Van Sant (cited in
Whitfield, 2005) believes that by editing for the story a false rhythm is created that ruins the
continuos rhythm of life. By specifically not using conventions such as point of view editing and
reaction shots, the audience is left to guess at what is outside of the projected frame. The editing
does not try to focus the action that perhaps the frame of the camera misses, but rather lets the
camera focus on what it finds important. Both the camera and the editing allow random moments
to remain random moments rather than overtly structured images. In no way does the film
attempt to allude to understanding the real outside itself, or even within its own image.

Although every film is a construction of some nature, postmodern film is a construction built on
different assumptions. Whilst modern film attempted at containing the stable signifier, and
within that proposing that its subject was individual, the postmodern film is focussed on
deconstructing “bourgeois signifying practices” that present representation as natural or true, but
rather expose the illusion of a “speaking position which is outside or above structures of
representation” (Connor, 1990:161). The audience of Elephant , then, is definitely placed within
a cinematic construction that aims at informing them of their limited knowledge, as well as not
attempting at signifying one moment as more important than another. Wyver (cited in Connor,
1990:159) proposes that postmodern representation “freely acknowledges the play of the visual
signifier, making no pretense to be transmitting the ‘real.’”

Cinematic signification is different from other media, for Jameson, in that it locks the viewer into
the ‘real time’ distortions of time, offering “a kind of pure and empty duration, rather than a
modernist work, which suspends and reshapes the experience of time” (Connor, 1990:164).
Although Jameson states that one would be guilty of a theoretical violence in extracting any
postmodern image for analyses, and later does so himself, Elephant provides a narrative in which
time continuously loops back on itself. Numerous events, which as discussed are in themselves
random and seemingly disconnected, are replayed more than once within the film, often from
different perspectives.

There is therefore no illusion of temporal reality since time is not linear. The film constructs
cinematic time that is recognised as cinematic, thus illusive. Each segment of time offers no
hierarchy of connotation as in the traditional modern film (Connor, 1990:165). One sequence
doesn’t help the audience interpret another, since they are in no way narratively linked except by
location. The events that are repeated are in themselves mundane, and the audience is asked to
scrutinize the event and search for meaning as it is cinematically reenacted, only to realise that
there is no greater understanding in the event itself (Whitfield, 2005). Elephant places its
audience in an iconic text that is non-narrative discourse, it is driven by its own ambivalence, its
own aesthetic portrayal of the self-consciously postmodern film.


The problematic element for Elephant within contemporary American society as that the society
searches after the dream which needs stability in order to survive. Elephant in representing
traumatic events ‘irresponsibly’ disregards the governing myth that it is read within. Since
Elephant provides an empty space that is not narratively driven it leaves open the participation of
the audience. For Van Sant (cited in Taubin 2003:33), film is supposed to work in that it “leaves
a space for you [the audience] to bring to mind everything you know about the event. It doesn’t
give you an answer.” Eagleton (cited in Lategon, 1992:98) comments that in order for a text
effect transformation upon the reader, the reader must in the first place only provisionally hold
their beliefs in the first place.The American audience is, in general, an audience that is largely
modern in their conceptions of themselves as individuals within the American dream, and hold to
that dream tightly.

Elephant is, however, different from sensational media images since the world is so mundane,
and at some level represents the natural world of America. It is in its postmodern textual strategy
that its iconic image does not answer the problems it exposes. Since the American public has
come to expect that the cinema transcends the material world and should represent reality
intensely and rawly, Elephant subverts this by making the subject aware of their own
schizophrenia. The audience is made aware that their answers do not make sense within that the
postmodern frame, that the intense moment of the massacre portrayed in Elephant is perhaps
more real than the violence in Pulp Fiction because they recognise so closely the fragmented
environment presented. Van Sant (cited in Taubin, 2003:33) finds interesting the fact that “the
thing you’re watching all the time is a dislocation and a non-connection. Its what the film
represents… its all askew and whacked out. I tend to think our life’s like that.” For Van Sant it is
all connected, all of the fragmented events within his mundane film are connected to the

The postmodern subject is thus schizophrenically a part of this consciousness, but the viewer
doesn’t want to admit it, since that itself would erode the American dream. Elephant subverts the
sensational cinematic image into the mundane, but makes its audience aware that they too
wanted something to happen within that mundane space, something sensational that would be
worth paying for. This is the dislocation between the perpetual present of the postmodern
subject, the paradox of American cinema. As the one comment on YouTube stated; “This film is
boring, they just follow a whole bunch of people around. It gets more exciting when they shoot
the school up” (Anon , 2007). This is the schizophrenic subject.


Elephant deals with difficult subject matter, but not in a way that conventionally answers the
questions that the American subject desires. If the post-structuralist school of thought basis itself
on “the impossibility of knowing” (Grenz, 1996:121), then Elephant succeeds at providing this
state to its audience. The film is postmodern in its fragmented structure, as well as its consequent
erosion of American ideals. The film portrays and illuminates the schizophrenic subject as a
reality for the society. Postmodern cinema represents its ‘reality’ differently, and speaks to a
different subject within a myriad of myths. Elephant breaks down the conventional, not
proposing something better, but enlightening the audience to the problems in the current: the
postmodern project.

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