Time is a Flat Circle

© New Line Cinema

A lot of people measure the value of movies about teenagers by assessing how “accurate” they are. The agreed upon triumphs of this form—your Dazed and Confuseds of the world—supposedly capture exactly what it was like to be a teen, both then and now. “That’s me up there!” the nostalgic adult exclaims at 90s Ben Affleck. Nostalgia isn’t even the prime mover here; you can find your teen self in any teen movie from any time, at any time. Whatever informs this pathological need to see our most unfortunate years splayed up in front of us—pointing to the screen as a way of giving ourselves a trophy for having survived adolescence , the “Finally, somebody GETS me!” moment—said need draws me repeatedly back to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.

Films like Dazed and Confused have always been, for me, too Lucid and Articulate. Where are the people who can’t string two sentences together, the cool kids and outcasts alike who can’t express the complex web of feelings they’re going through? Where is the experience of teenage monotony and aimlessness not spoken but truly felt, and not just by hot people? Others may find it there, but I find it sewn into the very fabric of Elephant. Though Gus Van Sant’s film is ultimately a meditation on the Columbine disaster (and, unknowingly, on the similar disasters that have occurred since), his film is at its best when embodying the realities of every day teenage life. For all of its high art heft, Van Sant’s flashy stylization serves to reinforce cornerstones of a young person’s world. In his particular aesthetic choices, the director gives shape to the universal, capturing—in only 80 minutes of chopped up, replayed time— elements of recurrent, timeless experience.

At its loftiest and most theoretical, Elephant is a film of extreme stylistic affectation, aiming high with its geometric artfulness of movement. It is a film containing abundant evidence that it was designed a certain way (the film even nods to its own god’s eye affectation with a physics lesson about orbitals and electrons, the blackboard circles diagramming the movements of the camera throughout the film.) There are nuclei and pivot points—the gay/straight alliance meeting, the cafeteria—and paths that spiral out of and around them. Van Sant’s long takes circle the school elliptically, from the outside, gradually careening in, and then outward again.

We are treated to a vast array of teenage characters, both primary and peripheral, floating in and around the edges of these long takes, which guide us through the school. Van Sant’s framing and blocking of the students gives numerous small samples of life around the ever-roving camera, hinting at and acknowledging the humanity of everyone involved. These wide shots drink in the surroundings, experiencing the full properties of space—and how people move through it—that only years spent walking in and out of these spaces could ever reveal. Elephant captures what a high school student sees, these same things and same moments, over and over, from different perspectives. And as it does so, film time starts to loosen. Van Sant incorporates more and more slow motion and the experience of routine teenage life slows to a deceptive halt, stopping time as it projects out to infinity.

These techniques add a layer of humanism to the story to go along with its psychological evocations. Each character has their presence and humanity validated by the layered, subtly-mannered depictions in the frame and on the soundtrack. Each struggles and deserves to be acknowledged, repeatedly entering the frame to prove it. Van Sant allows the superficial realities, along with the casual tragedies of teenage life—bulimia, chronic bullying, alcoholic parents, and all the other unmentioned ones by association—to flow in and around each other on an equal, flat plane. By doing so, he captures the teenage crises inherent in dully managing these same traumas day after day. The film is able to hurdle over its own finite runtime and evoke in equal parts the feeling of universal applicability and infinite time, the feeling of a shared teenage soul.

Until it all comes crashing down.

Elephant is hyperaware of the presence of its own time on the micro and macro scales, from the relationship that fleeting moments have to one another to the management of time and narrative in the film’s brisk 80-minute runtime. If the film manages to languidly depict a lived-in teenage experience which, in its first hour, circles around just about half an hour of narrative space, then the final twenty minutes alters and deconstructs that existing structure with its sense of accelerated time. Elephant builds its tempo with the beautiful and chilly fugue-like repetition echoed in the Beethoven sonata which haunts the soundtrack. The final twenty minutes, though, strip down every artifice presented up to that point with precise stings, ranging from a perverse reclamation of the first hour’s slow motion to a garish snap of the first-person shooter aesthetic.

The Gordian Knot of Elephant’s densely woven threads is sliced apart crudely and irrevocably by the two gunmen moving in a straight line (tracked linearly by the camera) through a side entrance right into the heart of the school. The final twenty minutes feature lots of aggressive cutting as the film settles into playing out its final moments with direct, linear editing. One of the practical effects of this type of editing is to establish causality from one shot to the next, the movement from one shot carrying over to or influencing the movement in the second shot. Standard gunfight film grammar is a clear example of this, and it’s telling that these kinds of cuts on action appear only during certain moments of violence within Elephant.

The linear nature of the film’s violent final twenty minutes reminds the viewer that all the ethereal stuff in the first sixty minutes was just as capable of providing a springboard for major horror as it was for carrying along the everyday hauntings of any teenager. By the time the long-awaited violence finally concludes, we realize that the first hour’s set-up has supplanted our conceptions of causality, while attuning us to the humanity and individual experiences of both perpetrators and victims alike. But the shared teenage soul, stretching across the flat expanse of the high school, becomes forced apart by the resulting aberration, and we force it to stand accountable for what it may or may not have caused, for some as-yet-intangible reason.

Moments which, upon first glance (or in a different editing pattern), could be construed as “causes” were merely evidence, neutral in their origin and limited in their interpretive potential. You can try to apply hindsight to some of this, and point to the bullying which occurred in equal parts towards the shooter and the innocent victims who happened to be in the library on Wednesday mornings. But none of it convinces. Maybe that’s why Van Sant peppers Elephant with those greenish shots tilted to the clouds, along with no less than three moments of teenage characters looking to the sky. What they see, or why they look, remains hauntingly private when considered in comparison to the limited perspective we share in assessing the aftermath of these events. Each one of us close to and far away from the moment (inside and outside of the film) engages in some kind of immediate interpretive act. We read the event in the same manner as the film does, panning and scanning horizontally across the information. We assemble evidence from our various experiences, hoping to establish connections, causalities, reasons. We attack it from any side possible and, if nothing comes of all that, we turn away, staring into empty space, looking up.