Tuesday, 15 January 2019
Released in 2004 Gus Van Sant’s “school shooting” film was i heavily publicised for its allusion to the Columbine High School massacre. Because of the controversy surrounding its release audiences knew the film’s inevitable ending before they’d paid for their ticket, but with Van Sant’s steady pacing and overlapping time lines, the sense of impending doom only added emphasis to the film’s unbearable tension. Yes, it ends with a tragic and violent shooting carried out by two monstrous students but the journey there is one of substance, that both shoots straight to the heart of the problem of toxic masculinity and dually offers notions of a solution. Each of the film’s subjects is the embodiment of a specific American High School stereotype. There are the jocks, nerds, stoners, popular kids and the outcasts. Alex (Alex Frost), fits into the latter and is the most dominant of the film’s two gunmen. He wrestles with his identity throughout, with every significant chink in his armour being rectified by some macho response. He is introduced as he sits at the back of class after being mercilessly pelted with spitballs by two bullies. He retaliates internally with meticulous planning for his violent retribution; measuring corners and checking out the areas where he can get the best shot of his doomed targets.
His only vestige of sensitivity is expressed whilst playing Fur Elise on the piano in his basement bedroom as his best friend Eric (Eric Deulen) shoots people dead on a video game. However, his captivating rendition is but a guilty pleasure to him, with heavy emphasis on the guilt. The music ends in a frustrated outburst at what he considers his emasculating talent but he swiftly puts that to rights and gratifies his manliness by placing an online order for ammunition. In the film’s most tabloid worthy scene, Alex confesses to having never been kissed. So he, and his accomplice, tick it off their bucket list in the shower together. Eric is the most impressionable of the two, idolising Alex and adhering to his plans. However, following their kiss, Eric becomes yet another guilty secret, one Alex eventually eliminates with a bullet. Masculinity, particularly in the case of the average white American male in cinema is generally expressed through violence (see John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or Matt Damon to name but a few) and it’s impossible to think of any leading male actor who has not packed a weapon in one role or another. These gun-toting figures have been lauded as role models since time immemorial and thus symbolise Hollywood’s definition of a true ‘man’. Masculinity is only brought to the fore when the subject finds his manliness fragmented or modified against the social construct of what man is, or should be. Herein lies Alex’s motivation. Not only does he take down his tormentors but he goes out in what he considers the most masculine blaze of glory. To him the gun makes the man, particularly because a tinkle on the old piano doesn’t.
The largely improvised dialogue within the film follows no traditional narrative ark, but its result quickly humanises each of its subjects and it is in these characters that Van Sant subtly offers the antidote to Alex’s repressive issues. John (John Robinson), following an argument with his father, cries with the audience as his off screen altar. His tears offer him emotional and physical relief. We then see a study group which shows kids openly discussing the issue of homosexuality and social identity in a safe and nonjudgemental environment and then it is made evident that there is no problem shared quite like three bulimic teenagers vomiting in synchronicity. Within the confines of the film, Alex has no such emotional or physical outlet and no close friends aside from Eric, whose insults his friend’s musical gift and is used by Alex purely for his willingness and naivety. Other characters we see in moments of isolation, such as Michelle (Kristen Hicks), Alex’s unbeknownst female counterpart, who seeks solace in books and as if inspired by the pages of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, is “relieved from the pressure of the present” by looking optimistically towards the sky.
Elias (Elias McConnell) proudly expresses himself creatively with photography and other characters; lifeguards, football players and athletes all have a sense of place, yet Alex has only the piano and the self-loathing that comes with it. Such is his repression that only when Eric tells him “I guess we’re going to die today” and death becomes certain and imminent, is he able to succumb to his true self. Unlike other films featuring single white males at boiling point, (see Taxi Driver (1976), Falling Down (1993), American Psycho (2000)) Elephant’s killers avoid the anti-hero archetype because their victims have been beautifully humanised, their sweet oblivion accounts for their innocence. There is certainly no justifiable comeuppance here, just merciless and mindless killing by Nazi inspired monsters.
Whiteness is blindingly apparent in Elephant, with only one black character, Benny (Bennie Dixon) who, after a brief bout of heroism, quickly meets his demise. The massacre is a result of Alex and Eric’s fascist objectives, their absence from the present and their disregard for everybody, including themselves acts as motivation. “There are others out there like us too” Eric tells his teacher before shooting a bullet in his back, suggesting he believes he is part of a wider alliance and his actions are for the greater good. Mass-violence in white males, both onscreen and off is often linked to a lack of empathy and an affiliation with fascist ideologies and because white heterosexual masculinity is the structural norm, it remains largely undiscussed, hence upon it’s release the shower scene and its homosexual implications created more controversy than the demented machismo of Alex’s final act.
The film’s title pays tribute to Alan Clarke’s short film of the same name, which refers to the phrase Elephant in the room, yet the phrase ‘an elephant never forgets’ is also fitting when considering the hyperbolic rhetoric of the 9/11 terror attack. The term ‘never forget’ is lauded with aplomb in the media when it comes to crimes involving race and religion, however when a white male is responsible for a crime it’s surprising how quickly the problem is brushed under the carpet. There have been over two hundred further school shootings in US schools since Elephant’s release. Elephants are shown on Alex’s wall and on his bed covers, suggesting that he is the very subject we should be talking about but with relatively recent reports stating that white males are America’s biggest domestic terror threat and guns are the country’s biggest killer, it seems that, sadly in sixteen years, the proverbial Elephant is still in the room and it hasn’t shifted an inch.