A Mood of Dissonance: Unpinning Ambiguity in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant
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This article seeks to position Elephant into the contemporary discourse of film-moods by focusing on its peculiar forms of aesthetic and representational dissonance. While mood is often relegated either to the scope of cognitive or phenomenological theory, Elephant’s pairing of brutal historical realism with an often ethereal aesthetic begs a new question: how can the film-mood be evaluated when the work is based in reality, and yet lingers somewhere beyond it?
The nature of mood in cinema has proven difficult to parse since its introduction into the discourse of film theory and philosophy. It has thus far been examined primarily through the frameworks of cognitive and phenomenological film theorists, and to varying degrees of specificity. These two approaches differ mainly in their consideration of the precise source of mood in films, and whether it is a result of narrative events, or a more diffuse layer of emotion which permeates the text from the events themselves. Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant (2003)—a fictional depiction of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999—poses a further complexity to the argument of distinct film-moods: How can mood be considered when it aligns with both a cognitivist and phenomenological viewpoint? In this formal territory, mood shows itself as being both in the film and of the film, brought upon due to its basis in real events (fictionalized as they may be), which place the spectator into a state of perpetual anticipation. Such a mood might most accurately be described as: a mood of dissonance.
The term, dissonance, has its artistic conception in the medium of music, therefore it seems appropriate to approach a first definition by borrowing from their aesthetic vernacular. Dissonance occupies an interesting place in musical vocabulary as both a formal trait, and as an external, aesthetic judgment. While dissonance can be characterized as a set of notes which “lack” harmony, it can also define the “impression of tension or clash (dissonance) experienced by a listener when certain combinations of tones or notes are sounded together.” Dissonance spans an ambiguous space from the material of a work to the experience of the viewer in an identical fashion to the film-mood, with its indistinct presence somewhere between its filmic and extra-filmic content. By taking up elements of both cognitive and phenomenological mood theory, this article seeks to prove a dissonance in Elephant’s mood by use of a primarily musical framework and, in turn, examine mood’s potential as a representational procedure.
This article’s argument is comprised of three stages. Firstly, both sides of the argument regarding film-mood will be presented. Upon analyzing Elephant’s dual-presence in both epistemologies, its idiosyncratic mood will then be unraveled. With a first definition now in mind, Elephant’s mood of dissonance can be understood, filmically, as one which operates on two levels. (1) Aesthetically, as a form of unease produced by the strange ambiguities of Van Sant’s sometimes impressionistic style in the face of an event as tragic as the Columbine shooting. And, (2) also as a form of tension produced by the spectator’s knowledge of the inevitable event itself—the film’s impending “resolve.” By wading through the distinct qualities of dissonance within the film, its representational quality will be examined in order to reformulate the vocabulary of mood in address to a film such as Elephant. As a term which is said to comprise both filmic and extra-filmic material, mood’s existent vocabulary is surprisingly narrow, normatively relegating mood to aspects of mise-en-scène and narrative. Elephant constitutes a vital case study of mood in that it occupies a novel territory where the interplay between Gus Van Sant’s aesthetic and its basis in historical reality forges the creation of cinematic mood as a type of uniquely cinematic thought, being: a mood of dissonance.
Greg M. Smith’s creation of the “mood-cue” approach in his book Film Structure and The Emotion System laid the groundwork from which contemporary mood theory is based. Smith takes a cognitivist perspective on the nature of mood, defining it as “a preparatory state in which one is seeking an opportunity to express a particular emotion or emotion set...These expectancies orient us toward our situation, encouraging us to evaluate the environment in mood-congruent fashion.” For example, according to Smith, “people in love” might perceive a day’s events quite differently from people who are not. Smith poses moods as “low-level emotional states,” encompassing a longer duration than emotions, which are more powerful than moods but also shorter-lived. However, according to the mood-cue approach, in order for a film to sustain a specific mood, “we must experience occasional moments of emotion.” Taking up Smith’s example, love then becomes a mood which is prolonged by periodic doses of congruent emotions. In this sense, although both are necessary, emotion is subordinated in terms of its ordering within the affect of mood.
Fellow cognitive theorist, Carl Plantinga, takes issue with this hierarchy, arguing that Smith’s framework is highly oversimplified. Instead, Plantinga suggests that “the orienting emotional states of which Smith writes are not just moods, but can be a combination of moods, emotions, and/or felt physiological responses.” Arguing for a less binary approach, Plantinga proposes that there is no single order for these phenomena to take place, and that the interplay between them is more similar to the “spillover effect,” deriving from the social sciences. Here, emotions can leave a lingering effect even after they are evoked, which then exists as a mood felt in the viewer while watching the rest of the film. Despite their philosophical differences, Smith and Plantinga both base their mood analyses solely on narrative events and their intended emotional contents. However, identifying precise beginnings and ends to film moods in a purely narrative context seems reductive of the very nature of mood as a more abstract, and atmospheric filmic phenomenon. As Plantinga ultimately concedes: “The interplay between emotion, affect, and cognition in film viewing is obviously complex, and cause and effect works both ways.” Smith and Plantinga’s arguments amount to a formative base from which mood can be understood from a cognitivist perspective. Taking a further rhetorical step, Robert Sinnerbrink’s “Stimmung: Exploring the Aesthetics of Mood” enlivens the debate on cinematic mood by upending them both, and taking a phenomenological approach.
Sinnerbrink commences his article by outlining the very first thought of mood in film theory: Lotte Eisner’s employment of the term Stimmung, used as a descriptor for “mood, attunement or atmosphere.” Eisner’s stimmung described German expressionist films of the 1920s, citing their stylized aesthetic as encompassing an invisible state which “hovers around objects as well as people...spanning both visual style and aesthetic response”—a relation akin to dissonance. Using Eisner’s definition of stimmung as his underlying epistemology, Sinnerbrink poses mood phenomenologically as “a way of revealing or opening up a cinematic world...to show how mood, in revealing distinctive cinematic worlds, is essential to our aesthetic engagement with film.” His chief opposition to the cognitivist treatment of mood is that it is one phenomenological step ahead of where mood actually exists in films; to Sinnerbrink, using aspects of the film narrative alone neglects the inherent purpose of filmic moods. “Before focusing on character, action and narrative development, we should be attentive to how the particular film-world is aesthetically revealed and how we are affectively attuned to that world.” Sinnerbrink takes issue with both Smith and Plantinga for neglecting so-called “backgrounded” filmic elements in their discourses of mood.
Sinnerbrink shows that mood is even more than a powerful—“backgrounded”—force within a film; it can epitomize the entire significance of certain scenes and filmmaking methods. In this terrain, “mood-cueing is no longer a background feature guiding our engagement with characters, but a quasi-independent element within the cinematic world. Mood becomes autonomous.” Mood becomes its own activity for the filmmaker. Taking Sinnerbrink’s phenomenology a step further, Sabine Müller considers film-mood from the perspective of the camera itself operating as a mood-apparatus. Müller positions herself into mood’s critical context cinematographically, pointing out that “scholars rarely scrutinize closely enough how the camera elicits affect or mood in its own right—in fact, this aspect of film has hardly been at the center of attention.” In parallel to Sinnerbrink’s notion of mood as a shared phenomenon between the film, and the aesthetic experience of the viewer, Müller “moves the focus of the debate around the role of the camera from the viewer’s involvement with plot and character to notions such as mood, which subtly yet crucially shape our engagement with cinema.”
Sinnerbrink and Müller emancipate mood—its operations and functions—from narrative elements alone, elucidating the vital importance of purely visual and aural style in the creation of cinematic mood. However, their demonstrations of apt phenomenological mood concepts still do not address the possibilities for filmic moods via simultaneous narrative and para-narrative filmic expression, engaging with both filmic events, and their diffuse atmospheric qualities. Consequently, between the two ends of mood’s theoretical spectrum an epistemological gap is formed: what of a film that operates on both levels? Elephant motivates such an evaluation. This article does not seek to place Elephant in total opposition to a cognitivist or phenomenological mood-perspective. Instead, this analysis will work to awaken both approaches to film-mood by bridging their discourses into the domain of representability, an inevitable endpoint for a film such as Elephant.
Elephant’s Mood: Cognitive and/or Phenomenological?
The editing technique in Elephant bears a patent formal relevance to the film-mood as constructed by cognitivist theories. The film chronicles a day in the life of a small group of high school students, going about their daily rituals until two fellow youths (one student, and his friend) open fire—killing thirteen—at the end of the film. However, parsing the film’s narrative into such terms is misleadingly clear, as Van Sant not only moves through the day without linearity, but he also chooses to repeat certain moments from different angles and literal perspectives. One such moment is a short interaction between two characters, joined by a third running alongside them (Fig. 1). This interaction occurs three times in the film, each from one character’s perspective during their own portion of this day. The first—occurring twenty minutes into the film—is actually a combination of two perspectives, though dwells mostly on the latter of Eli and John. Roaming through a hallway, the camera tracks in front of Eli as he moves, and eventually greets John. Subsequently, a bell rings, Eli takes a picture of John, and they go their separate ways. However the camera stays not with Eli, but with John, tracking him from behind as he moves through various hallways before eventually exiting the school (Fig. 2).
The camera continues with him outside as he encounters the two young men about to commit Elephant’s tragic act (Fig. 3). This is clear due to their camouflage attire, toting of large duffle bags, and one killer’s (Alex) cautioning words to John: “Just get the fuck out of here and don’t come back.” The shot ends on John’s face, staring back at the killers as they walk into school. However the shooting does not occur at this time; the film presents this foreboding hint of the inevitable, and immediately moves to an earlier scene as the film continues moving through its fragmentary system of time. The first repetition of this moment neatly occurs approximately twenty minutes later, shown through Eli’s perspective. In an exact 180-degree reverse angle on Eli and John’s interaction, the camera tracks Eli from behind, down the hall to their rendezvous (Fig. 4). The bell sounds, as the camera now continues following not John, but Eli (Fig. 5), as he enters the school’s library. During this repetition the aforementioned third character in the scene becomes more apparent, now seen running in the same direction as Eli, and into the same location, the library. The final repetition is from the perspective of this third character, Michelle (Fig. 6).
Spaced another twenty minutes into the film—three, even, premonitory punctures into the narrative—the camera follows her walking (from behind, once again) until the bell goes off, setting her into a jog. Upon finally following Michelle into the library, the sound of a gun cocking is heard as she looks up behind her. After each of these evenly placed portents, Van Sant then cuts to another scene, prolonging the inevitable which has now become palpably, unbearably, apparent.
The repetitive gestures in Elephant are structurally similar to Smith’s mood-cue approach, specifically in regards to his necessity for intermittent emotions to erupt in the prolonging of a given mood. As Smith claims, “Brief periods of emotion can provide the urgency and speed needed to deal with sudden changes in the world.” In a film of 81 minutes, such repetitions (of which there are multiple) illustrate such a process of reacclimation—the quality of spaces and characters constantly changing as they are shown in relation to the shooting. Van Sant demonstrates the effects of such an approach through both repetition and these brief glimpses into the film’s climax—the killers warning John, a gun being cocked—which punctuate the end of John and Michelle’s respective scenes.
Elephant’s cinematography offers a different critical approach to the film’s mood when explored through its phenomenological implications. Sabine Müller describes the camera in terms of its capacity for embodiment, and its methods of expressing abstract human emotions, and mood. To Müller, the embodiment-affect of camera movement and its elicitation of mood are entwined phenomena,  It is also crucial to note that Müller’s rhetoric of the “camera” is phenomenologically rooted as “the result of the viewer’s engagement with movement on screen...Camera is understood as a heuristic device.” There is no separation between the camera as a formal recording device, and its positioning of the viewer within the space of the film. The cinematography in Elephant frequently tracks subjects from behind via steadicam—roving at their pace as each student moves about the school—suggesting both a human perspective, and a distinctly nonhuman ease of motion. An unwatched observer that is ubiquitous and yet uninvolved, one which moves like a human but is very consciously not one. Echoing Müller’s design of camera and subject, the camera “actively inhibits and reveals to the viewer the intricate system of communication of bodies and gazes at work in our daily life.” This restraint—allowing for ample time spent with each character, though still allotting a certain privacy—situates the viewer into a confusing space, one of simultaneous closeness to these characters and alienation from their perspectives.
These tracking shots are by no means the only approach that Van Sant’s cinematography takes in Elephant; the camera follows characters frontally, in-profile, via 360-degree pans, and at times remains static for entire scenes. A common trait through all of these cinematographic techniques is the pervasive long take. Regardless of the precise movement of the camera, it typically dwells on its subject(s) for the duration of a scene. Van Sant’s cinematographic compositions, in combination with each shot’s duration, linger somewhere in between improvised organicism and clean conceptual design. However, these paradoxical compositions do not denote a blurriness of intention on the part of Van Sant. On the contrary, as Müller states, “the ordinary use of the term ‘intention’ and the phenomenological concept of intentionality merge in the way the camera occupies space in narrative cinema.” Ultimately, in a phenomenological sense the camera can then be seen as a mood-apparatus, shaping the viewer with its own mechanisms of attunement. Müller also references the same formative term for Sinnerbrink, “stimmung,” as the situatedness by and within which the camera creates a film-mood. Van Sant’s cinematography posits each shot as such an act of phenomenological perception and, consequently, mood-attunement.
Elephant has, thus far, begun to entangle both discourses—cognitive and phenomenological—of the film-mood. Its narrative structure resembles Smith’s mood-cues, and its camera Müller’s phenomenology; its mood is produced by the imminent punctuating the film’s design, as well as the odd simultaneity of absorption and detachment in Van Sant’s spectral camera. Are these theories mutually exclusive? In her text, Turbulence and Flow in Film, Yvette Biró takes up a similarly indistinct, dissonant, question in address to Elephant, citing the film’s representational status as a means of critical reconciliation.
For Biró, it is safe to assume that a given viewer would know about the shooting that is to occur in Elephant: “What is the source of this increasingly chilly atmosphere that surrounds us? Of course, we know the story. We know what’s coming.” Because of this, the whole film can be said to be an exercise in the prolonging of a certain kind of mood—the viewer is primed for the inevitable before the film even begins. In mood-terms, Van Sant uses techniques of repetition at multiple points throughout the film, thus forming a “consistency of expectation” which Smith deemed mandatory to the congruency of a film-mood. A similar structural note is in Plantinga’s text, in his opinion of mood as a means of “[enveloping] the sordid story events within an affective experience that is...fitting or congruent with the film’s content and themes.” The film’s narrative is organized in such a way that the shooting remains stunted, but ever-present due to its intermittent punctures into the narrative. It could happen at any moment, from anyone’s perspective. Bridging narrative and mood-terms, these “bursts of emotion encourage the mood to continue” as the distinction becomes blurry as to whether the precise mood evoked by Van Sant’s editing choices lies within their narrative or extra-narrative content. Evidently, it is in both. The spectator is placed into a position of eternal dissonance throughout the entire film—“we know what’s coming,” but not when; we feel its presence, yet it hasn’t yet occurred. Elephant stands in imminence for its entire duration, imbuing each person and place with the thought, and fears, of the inevitable. Throughout the film, recall that for no explicitly narrative reason, different characters are shown looking up to the top of frame—at the sky, at the roof of the cafeteria—denoting an unknown sense, an attempt to figure out the source of an odd tone which seems to be felt on this particular day (Figs. 7-8).
What Elephant proves to be inextricable with is then not solely a cognitivist or phenomenological mood-form, but rather a combination of them both. This particularly dissonant form of attunement encourages a push away from present boundaries of film-mood discourse, and towards new descriptive criteria for a film such as Elephant.
Dissonance, Heard and Seen in Elephant
To reevaluate Elephant’s mood more distinctly, the film’s most acutely dissonant moments will be examined. The last of which, appropriately occurring in Elephant’s last shot, will lead into a final discussion regarding representability and its bearings on film-mood. To approach a further definition of dissonance in musical terms (the medium which contains its formal roots), the prolific American musician and scholar, Leonard Bernstein, can lend a vital pedagogy for this study to adopt. So far, dissonance has been explained as a disharmony between notes, as well as one felt within a listener who is exposed to said ‘disharmony’. In his lecture series at Harvard University, entitled The Unanswered Question, Bernstein furthers this definition by use of the notion of resolve. “[Those] ‘leaning notes,’ dissonant tones that bear a special weight and tension that must be resolved, notes that lean on their resolutions.” Such a resolve, in Elephant, is, tragically, found in the unfolding of the shooting itself—Elephant’s inevitable end. Since dissonance is both inherently discordant, and also dependent upon an eventual resolve into consonance (the viewer’s expectation of the shooting, eventually satisfied), its double-identity seems positioned in a state of ambiguity akin to that of Elephant.
This is the dual-nature of dissonance: a state of being both aesthetically discordant, and also in anticipation of an eventual resolve. A similar linguistic analysis should be performed briefly for the term, ambiguity, which will be used as a criterion for Elephant’s dissonant mood. Bernstein defines it concisely: “Webster gives these two definitions of ‘ambiguous’: (1) ‘doubtful or uncertain’ and (2) ‘capable of being understood in two or more possible senses.’ But that ‘two or more’ presents an ambiguity of its own; so let’s delete ‘or more’ for our purposes of the moment, so that we at least can be clear.” This study will adopt such a definition in assignment to both terms, dissonance, and ambiguous (two-ness, dual-presence, etc.). Elephant’s forms of aesthetic dissonance can now take material form via three ambiguities existent in the film: (1) a heightened, ethereal visual palette in conflict with the concrete reality of its finale, (2) Van Sant’s ambivalent handling of killers alongside their fellow students, and (3) finally, the dissonance within Van Sant’s sound design in combination with the brutal murders which end the film. All of these ambiguities revolve around the film’s larger dual-presence, or dissonance: a tethering to the event which befalls it (its unfortunate resolve), and an effort to potentially overcome it as a result of Van Sant’s process of aestheticization.
The first quality of aesthetic dissonance in Elephant can be viewed as its unexpected etherality. Elephant’s characters are most often positioned in the concrete milieu of the school and its surround, yet the slight overexposure of light, oversaturation of color, soft focus, periodic use of slow-motion, and uninterrupted long-takes present the characters’ experiences through a patently conceptual, and celestial style. Echoing a similar phenomenon in the film’s soundtrack, Nikolaj Lübecker uses the enticing metaphor of a bell jar: “We have the impression of hearing everything from beneath a bell jar...the sounds Nathan traverses all remain ‘out there’, disconnected.” This strange, ‘other’ quality is visible in the film’s every frame and sound, but is perhaps most acute in the following examples. First, consider the play of focus in one of Elephant’s early scenes. John, whilst on the phone with his brother, subtly moves in and out of focus—the camera does not show a desire for a realist aesthetic, despite the historical realism of the Columbine shooting itself (Figs. 9-10). The school’s principal subsequently approaches John, but no rack-focus occurs. Instead, the camera holds on John, with the principal’s face (a potentially important character) remaining entirely hazy, and unknown to the spectator (Fig. 11).
In a later scene, the killers are shown asleep as a storm brews outside. The sharp blue of this film stock (transmitted to their skin and surroundings) stands in radical opposition to the pervasive color palette of the film (Figs. 12-14). All of the film’s colors are slightly oversaturated, but never are they as surreal and unrealistic as in this scene – a definitively dissonant flash of dark color.
Along a similarly colored vein, there are the three highly ambiguous time lapses in the film’s beginning, middle, and end (Figs. 15-17). The light blues and greens in the sky indicate both a subtle aesthetic interest in the sky, as well as a potential agenda in relating the motion of the cosmos, or storm clouds, to the experiences of the students.
However, to Van Sant himself, the latter explanation—an easy solution—would be a patent oversimplification. Commenting on this relation, Van Sant relays an ambivalence in his portrayal of the killers: “It’s almost like it could be the weather. So we show the clouds.” Why should these students be shown in such a celestial, perhaps even impressionistic, way when they are about to die? Or, why shouldn’t they? Harkening back to Müller’s phenomenology, “the camera remains detached and records but does not yield to the alleged objectivity of the documentary.” Van Sant’s compositions exemplify such an ethic. Though, however heightened Van Sant’s presentation of characters might appear to be, they are still relentlessly positioned according to their relation to the film’s final shooting. Such an ambivalent tonal attitude lays the groundwork for the second form of dissonance to be explored: an ethical dissonance between the portrayals of the killers, and their victims.
There is a disturbingly fluid form of identity which Van Sant seeks to evoke from the characters in Elephant. Van Sant’s frequent behind-the-back cinematography, roving through endless hallways without an end in sight, has been said by Thomas Stubblefield to confer a lack of identity amongst the students. To justify his point, Stubblefield cites a “lack of expression...conferred upon the identity of the characters themselves, who are barely distinguishable from one another save for the strong primary color they wear (John = yellow, Nathan = red, and so on).” Although the personalities of the students could potentially be viewed as being archetypal, they are far from being indistinguishable from one another despite Van Sant’s frequent behind-the-back framing. In fact, the characters only become archetypal through the distinctive information we learn about them—John’s alcoholic father, the three bulimic girls, the awkwardness of Michelle, etc. The real ambiguity within the identities of these youths is in the uneasy equality with which Van Sant treats them; the killers are shown in identical ways to the other students, just as powerless as their victims. Alex is still tracked down hallways, shown from behind, heard exchanging in banal dialogues—he is just another part of the surround.
There is also the absolute randomness to the motives of the film’s climactic event, preventing a more classical alignment with “victims,” and aversion towards “antagonists.” There are indications, subtle and overt, but they remain vacuous: Alex is shown having spitballs thrown at him, they play first-person shooting games at home together, they surf the internet for guns, they watch World War II documentaries about Hitler for fun. However, each symbol is quickly upended. While watching footage of Nazi Germany, Eric asks: “Who’s that guy? That’s Hitler, right?” These are no experts; they have all the makings of murderers (camouflage, guns, rebellious façades), but Van Sant is not so divisive in his fictionalization. The killers kiss naked in the shower after confessing that they’ve never had a sexual experience, they carry their guns with limp arms, they oblige themselves to watch Nazi propaganda without knowing what Nazi propaganda is. Once again, in Van Sant’s own eerie words: “It’s almost like it could be the weather. So we show the clouds. And, it could be madness. So we show him holding his head.” The second part of Van Sant’s quote is in reference to another pointedly stylized moment wherein Alex holds his head in his hands, overcome by the sounds of the school’s cafeteria as they increase in volume (Fig. 18). Van Sant makes this ominous point most overt in a brief display of a video game being played by one of the killers.
At Alex’s house, halfway into the film, Eric is shown playing a video game which contains the most obvious hint of the film’s climax. His computer screen, enveloping the entire shot, reveals the barrel of a gun at the center of frame, as Eric’s character moves around a white desert shooting randomly placed people from behind. The landscape is completely sparse, but its placement of people combined with Eric’s behind-the-back roving motion bears an identical composition to the pervasive cinematographic style in Elephant (Figs. 19-20), including a brief, actual glimpse into their shooting spree (Fig. 21).
In addition to this scene’s certain ominousness, since Eric is technically not a student, his presence in the video game seems to lend him a portal into the display and surround of the school via this mirroring of Van Sant’s cinematographic techniques. The unavoidable events compounds, along with the film’s dissonant mood – now impossible to divorce from its representational procedures.
The film’s final shot, and the sound which accompanies it, contains a situation which can help to summarize the heretofore arguments of dissonance, and direct them concretely towards mood’s position in the realm of representation. It is of note here that in much of the discourse on mood—cognitivist and phenomenological—vocabulary becomes sonic very quickly upon describing its precise quality in a given film. Plantinga cites music as “the most obvious means of affecting mood.” In an excerpt rife with musical vocabulary, Sinnerbrink explicitly parallels film moods to music: “Like musical composition, film narrative consists of ‘movements’ that develop a theme, introduce variations and recapitulate motifs (images, objects, gestures, visual figures or musical themes), thus providing structure and shape while also modulating mood overall.” And, Eisner’s definition of stimmung as a “musical condition of the soul.” Sound perhaps retains an ambiguity that the image has lost, increasingly appropriate as a descriptor for the more ineffable qualities of cinema, such as mood.
The film’s final moments contain the paramount example of Elephant’s ultimate ambiguity: its inherent capacity to reflect a world unencumbered by the tragic event which befalls it. At this point in the film, the shooting has nearly concluded except for Alex’s final two victims: Nathan and Carrie—the jock, and his girlfriend. The shot begins framing yet another hallway as Nathan and Carrie run, panicked, into the foreground of the frame (Fig. 22). Noticing Alex, who walks into frame from far behind them, the couple flees as the shot then holds on Alex in the distance, out of focus (Fig. 23).
The music used in this last shot is the work of Canadian sound artist, Hildegard Westerkamp—the piece, entitled, “Beneath the Forest Floor” (1996). Westerkamp’s music is placed with extreme subtlety at three previous points in the film, though is dominated—in fact, it is practically unnoticeable—by either the noise of rowdy students, or later by gunshots and students screaming. However, in this final shot there is no escape from it.
Alex stands in the background, shown out-of-focus against a wall of windows, appearing as a mere blotch of shapeless black color. As he begins walking towards the camera, his body slowly takes shape – resembling a strange animal more than a human – through odd figural distortions via the camera’s lens (Figs. 24-25). In the diegesis, his breath and footsteps can be heard, however they are overpowered by Westerkamp’s music: rushing water, a series of loud birds chirping, wind in the air, and beneath it all an undercurrent of elusive, synthetic, electronic tones. All the while, Alex slowly approaches the camera, his body finally taking shape in a medium close-up (Fig. 26).
Upon revealing his human figure, Westerkamp’s ecological/synthetic hybrid designs continue to peak, forcing a distinctly surreal—definitively dissonant—fusion of these unlike forms. Westerkamp is known for spearheading the “sound ecology” movement: a style of sound art which extracts un-edited sounds from the natural environment and composes them into new sonic forms. In this technique, she is an artist of particular import regarding Elephant’s treatment of the Columbine shooting. This surrealist juxtaposition of sound and image is palpably dissonant, dangerously ambiguous (Fig. 27).
Elephant’s finale might be said to be an attempt towards a human reconnection to earth in the wake of an event such as the Columbine High School shooting. Van Sant creates such a cinema via the simultaneity of a hyper-reality, and its rootedness in the cruel reality of the film’s final event—acute, lastly, in the film’s sound design—ultimately characterizeable in mood-terms by the notion of dissonance. In its dissonant cinematic thought, the film does not stray from its core ambiguity at any moment; “we are sailing somewhere between the two,” hovering between hope and submission for its entire duration, even with the knowledge of the film’s abject final act. The surreality of Van Sant’s finale begs questions in regards to its representational intentions, a subject which will conclude this essay’s investigations, here considered through Hayden White’s essay, “The Modernist Event.”
Representability, Impossibilities, and Elephant
Hayden White chronicles the representational quandaries, and conflicts, that arise due to the overwhelm of certain subject matter, and the potential absence of sense—historical and aesthetic—which can be wrested from them. White claims that certain types of tragic events, specifically World War II and The Holocaust, “do not lend themselves to explanation in terms of the categories underwritten by traditional humanistic historiography, in which human ‘agents’ are conceived to be in some way fully conscious and morally responsible for their actions.” Moving into aesthetic choices, White continues by rendering traditional forms of narrative to be identically moot in their capacity to exhibit versions of reality adequate to the all-encompassing weight of such abjectly tragic events, which are so stymying to our moral understanding. Citing a possible exception, White makes the claim that “postmodern docu-drama or historical metafiction” has the faculty to defy this problem of representation. Instead of abiding by strict doctrines of reality vs. fantasy, fact vs. fiction, what becomes necessary is not a total inversion of a work’s perspective on the real, but rather a cinema where “everything is presented as if it were of the same ontological order, both real and imaginary.” Such an ontology recalls Müller’s advocacy for a kind of cinema which, “does not plead for distanciation and intellectual engagement but for an ability to let go.” If a film’s events are constructed with a congruent sense of the event itself, regardless of their “factual” or “fictive” leanings, then this “contract that originally mediated the relationship” can dissolve. Such a definition of representability evokes a vocabulary of mood; White’s diffusion between the nonexistent real and unreal ultimately advocates for an effort towards a faithful reproduction of a sensation, or stimmung. The focus of the filmmaker should perhaps lie here, rather than in the domain of pure, alleged, objectivity.
Elephant posits itself as a characteristically ambiguous example of White’s ontology of artworks, and their questionable capacity to represent. White advocates for such ambiguity in his essay: “The suggestion that the meanings of these events...remain ambiguous and their consignment to ‘the past’ difficult to effectuate should not be taken to imply in any way that such events never happened. On the contrary.” Perhaps the film’s ambiguity is proof that sense cannot be made of such violence, nor should it be. When analyzing such films, this essay has advocated for a mood which ultimately encompasses the often paradoxical relations between narrative events, and aesthetic choices (a dissonance in itself). White might be said to concur with such a dichotomy being drawn, recalling his imploration for one to avoid a strictly narrative view, or what he calls, “narrative fetishism.” This would not be a narrative approach, nor a documentary one, but one in the senses of Van Sant and Westerkamp—a new art ever-tethered to the real. As Biró puts forth, Elephant ends with “a multiplicity of causes, factors, and circumstances...For this reason [Van Sant], throughout the entire narration, emphasizes simultaneity as opposed to linear succession.” The philosophical throughline heretofore presented eclipses itself in a similar fashion. What is clear is the necessity for a new way of thinking through which such films can be considered, and perhaps Elephant brings us one step closer.
Max Bowens is a filmmaker and scholar, holding a M.St. in Film Aesthetics from the University of Oxford, and a B.A. from Johns Hopkins University. His work focuses on avant-garde ethnography, Western musicology and theory, new materialisms, and phenomenology.
Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Dissonance” (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2016). Accessed June 10, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/art/consonance-music.
Andrew Gumbel, “The truth about Columbine,” The Guardian, April 16, 2009. Accessed December 10, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/apr/17/columbine-massacre-gun-crime-us
Gus Van Sant Interview about Elephant Part 2/2 (March 18, 2010). Accessed December 10, 2015, online video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hgmh6Ge0tTE
Thomas Stubblefield, “Re-creating the Witness: Elephant, Postmodernism, and the Neorealist Inheritance,” Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema, ed. Laura E. Ruberto, Kristi M. Wilson (Detroit: Wayne State University, 2007), p. 228.
Randolph Jordan, “The Work of Hildegard Westerkamp in the Films of Gus Van Sant,” Offscreen, Volume 11, Issue 8-9 (2007). Accessed January 4, 2016, http://offscreen.com/view/jordan_westerkamp.