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The Poetry of Violence: Elephant

On the morning of April 20, 1999, teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold armed themselves with semi-automatic handguns and improvised explosive devices, entered Columbine High School, and murdered twelve fellow students and one teacher before ending their own lives. The massacre inspired sensationalized news reports, documentaries (like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine), and fictionalized cinematic interpretations (like Uwe Boll’s Heart of America)—all desperate to find answers, to discover some sense of meaning in the tragedy.

In Elephant, Gus Van Sant wisely avoids any attempt to make sense of senseless slaughter, abandoning even storytelling conventions such as plot and characterization; instead, he crafts a cold, detached, and brutally honest meditation on the inherent meaninglessness of violence.

I admit, I initially found it difficult to believe that the director of Good Will Hunting and Milk (fine films, but transparently emotionally manipulative) could weave such an aggressively unsentimental tale. He accomplishes this by refusing to impose a traditional narrative structure, to linger on the forces that motivate his characters. His camera neither participates in nor comments on the action—it merely observes, tracking slowly and fluidly behind the students as they wander the halls, casually converse with friends, flee from the mayhem. A handful of scenes suggest motives—the killers at one point play a gory (and apparently modded) FPS computer game, for example—but Van Sant attributes no significant thematic weight to these fleeting moments; like everything else, they simply exist.

But meaningless violence does not necessarily produce a meaningless film. Under Van Sant’s guidance, meaninglessness itself becomes the meaning, the subject, the central theme. Elephant’s title alludes to an old parable about a group of blind men attempting to describe an elephant by touch alone, an endeavor that quickly proves futile (“It’s like a rope,” says one, feeling the creature’s tail; “No, it’s like a tree,” insists another, running a hand across its trunk)—as futile as trying to explain why two boys would callously gun down their peers. Ultimately, Van Sant argues, no satisfactory explanation exists. The search for answers may provide a measure of comfort, but it also denies a single undeniable fact: violence serves no greater purpose. 

[Originally written March 23, 2012.]

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