Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is very much like the clouds that fill the screen at certain points in the film. Just as different people see different shapes in the clouds in the sky, so audiences will see different versions of Elephant.
The reason for this is that Elephant is an improvised film with no concrete dialogue, populated by a bunch of unknown kids. Set in a an American High School, a majority of the film concentrates on a day in the life of these students, sharing their experiences that cross-over at particular times. Van Sant literally follows these students as they go about their daily business; filming them in long takes as they walk through the school, or as they develop photographs, or bitch about each other.
As such, apart from a few personal problems (a boy deals with his drunk father, or, in a wickedly comic scene, a trio of bulemic ‘Valley’ girls regurgitate their lunches in three ajoining cubicles) what appears to be only the mundane occurs to the film’s characters for a large part of the film. Van Sant manages to avoid blandness, however, not only because of a continuous atmosphere of inevitable tragedy (more on that later) but also because of the audience’s connection to the lives of the students. By not forcing his audience into viewing a constrained narrative, Van Sant is able to encourage them to paint their own mental picture on the canvas he presents, allowing them to make their own shapes out of the clouds. When presented with the ‘objective’ image of a student walking through the school, the audience can use their own experience of school-life to give the scene a subjective perspective and enrich it in a very personal way. Van Sant enables his audience to think for themselves, and in doing so creates a truly interactive experience.
This determination not to guide his audience by the hand is also mirrored within Elephant’s subject matter as well. The film takes as its point of origin the horrific shootings that blighted American schools between 1997 and 1999 (hence Elephant being imbued with a feeling of tension throughout).
It is clear that something terrible is going to happen, which makes the seemingly everyday lives that are being led by the film’s characters all the more poignant. Yet Van Sant makes no attempts to lay the blame of the inevitable tragedy onto anyone, or anything, in particular. He does point to certain factors that could have led to the horrifying denouement of the film: students being aggressively excluded from High School society; easy access to dangerously violent games on the internet; and the opportunities that are available for young Americans to get automatic weapons delivered to their front door. But Van Sant does not try and provide a definitive answer as to why the tragedy that unfurls has occurred. Rather, Elephant tries to illustrate the argument that some inexplicable questions can never be fully resolved.
Elephant is a film that treats its audience with the respect they deserve. Both lyrically, visually and intellectually Van Sant forces the film’s viewers to think and feel for themselves. Although this approach will not necessarily appeal to those cinemagoers who like their movie experience handed to them on the plate, for others it will make for a refreshing, if somewhat troubling, change.