ELEPHANT (2003)

In a dark coincidence last weekend I watched Gus Van Sant’s fictionalization of a Columbinesque school shooting, two days before the Virginia Tech shooting.

I haven’t heard an “official” explanation of the title from the director, but I assume it’s a reference to the parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant because the movie is a compilation of several points of view of a single event. Furthermore, each of the individual POVs is more or less “blind” to the nature of the threat amongst them.

A particular student may witness a clue to the coming event — the girl who asks the shooter-to-be why he is taking notes in the cafeteria — but out of the context of the rest of the shooter’s experiences (being bullied, interest in Hitler, obsession with guns) it isn’t sufficient to anticipate much less pre-empt the shooting. Even as viewers it takes a while to be able to piece together what is happening, and even that is possible only because we’re in a position to integrate information gleaned from the various POVs.

The title also might be a reference to “the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about”, perhaps alluding to the alienation of these students that no one seems to acknowledge or, depending on the politics of the viewer, to video games or simply to gun control. Thus the title itself is an “Elephant” subject to being interpreted in a variety of ways.

Despite some of its “documentary” style trappings, I found Elephant extremely surreal rather than realistic, especially given the calmness with which the students walk through the school halls even during the shooting. No one screams, as if in disbelief that they would actually be shot.

Only one student comprehends what is about to happen and runs around the campus shouting to passersby not to enter the school, but his warnings are ignored by most. Rather than a docudrama of an actual shooting incident, Van Sant’s film metaphorically depicts the ennui of affluence that breeds denial, as Victor Davis Hanson described last week in reference to other current events:

the new religion of the post-Westerner is neither the Enlightenment nor Christianity, but the gospel of the Path of Least Resistance — one that must lead inevitably to gratification rather than sacrifice.

Once one understands this new creed, then all the surreal present at last makes sense: life in the contemporary West is so good, so free, so undemanding, that we will pay, say, and suffer almost anything to enjoy its uninterrupted continuance — and accordingly avoid almost any principled act that might endanger it.

Near the end of Elephant, as the shooter threatens a teacher, even an athlete approaches the gunman slowly from behind like a zombie, without attempting any kind of counteraction, and is promptly shot.

As we are reminded by Virginia, however, when such shootings occur in real life there are still those who risk their lives — and often lose them — for others’ sake, such as 77-year-old Holocaust survivor Liviu Librescu, a Professor at Virginia Tech who was killed while blocking a door to enable his students to escape. (HT to Matt for both links.)

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