Mitchell invited cinematographer Harris Savides to Harvard to
participate in our viewing of Elephant.
Our assignment : A feature length review-essay of Gus van
Sant's Elephant (2003) for a major news and
arts magazine such as The New Yorker, Harpers or The Atlantic.
is a conceptual film by Gus Van Sant with a strong visual and
aural style. Inspired by the Columbine Massacre in Littleton,
Colorado, 1999, influenced by the snapshot aesthetic of Southern
William Eggleston ( Eggleston's Guide 1976
) Alan Clarke's hard-core documentary Elephant
1989 (included in the French DVD), Wisemans
High School (1969) and the camerawork of Bela
This film has a fresh new vision all its own.
American Director Van Sant succeeds in portraying the emptiness,
boredom and solitude of Suburban High School life in an subtle,
understated way. It is not a sensationalist investigative
report like Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine
or a film with a strong narrative structure like Donnie
Darko (Kelly,US, 2001) or Chumscrubber
(Posin,US, 2005) ( other films exploring the darkness
beneath the sunny tree-lined streets of suburbia ) but
reveals everyday life through the fluid, objective lens of Cinematographer
Harris Savides in a direct image of time.
Shot with a brightness and graphic simplicity that could be introduced
as evidence in court. There are no kids in therapy or on drugs;
no six foot rabbits or chumscrubbers influencing them to become
rebels and commit crimes; no technical problems like first
time director Posin..
They walk, play Beethoven, take pictures, walk, gossip in the
cafeteria, play football, shoot, even go to class.
Director of Photography Savides maintains a respectful distance
in his close-ups, ( often tracking the walking students/models
from behind or in profile ) and mysterious depth in the long takes
. Showing affection and a perception for his subjects.
Much in the way James Agee and Walker Evans went to the South
to photograph Tenant Farmers in Let Us Now Praise Famous
Men the crew of Elephant document social problems in a
typical American High School.
Here, Van Sant found a recently closed high school renamed it
Watt High and filled it up with real live high school students,
improvising from there into a free build up of tableaux vivants.
Visual Style and Story
The film opens with a Steiglitzian cloud equivalence with a telephone
pole and then follows a white Mercedes down a trellised street
in a scene reminiscent of a drivers ed instructional video. An
opening shot typical of the director of photography's camerawork;
The Yards, Birth and Gerry. A long traveling plan.
The car bumps into another parked car. A teenager with a shock
of yellow hair and yellow T- Shirt with a bull imprinted on it
jumps out and orders his drunk dad (Timothy Bottoms) out of the
car. John, with his rosy cheeks and red lips helps set the
smooth and stylish feel to the piece. Later we see him posing
for the lanky student photographer, Elias, who also moves through
his world with ease, traveling down the corridors with his camera
. We'll see this one scene again. Three times and from three different
angles, in one of the most intriguing affects in the film. The
third time, time is reversed and you start to feel that something
is going to go wrong. The gliding, slow flow rhythm of the film
is romantic somewhat reminiscent of the films of Max Ophüls only
here and in Caught (1949) an American
production , the lingering camera brings out the performances
rather than distracting us with dashing, swirling, tracking camerawork
like in the Earrings of Madame de (1953) where
the camera moves so fast that we hardly can follow the story or
the performances but are fascinated by going up and down stairs,
looking through windows....
The camera then shows you the football playing field, we hear
Beethoven in the background, a day in the life of teen-age America.
Michelle, the shy, self-conscious girl who won't wear shorts,
chest caved in and spectacled, cuts across the playing field.
( In Wisemans High School (1969) it's the teacher
that tells the girls to wear long pants, here it's the other way
around. The gym teacher tells her she has to wear shorts ! )
We see Jordon hoofing it down the infamous corridors of
Watt High School with his red and white lifeguard's T-shirt followed
from behind by Savides tracking camera. "He's so cute"
say's one of the three girls huddled, gossiping in the corridor.
We are starting to get to know the student/models at this
mock High School in Portland, Oregon. Each one of them has
a placard introducing them like name cards set at a dinner table.
Brittany, Nicole and Jordan. John and Elias. Michelle
played by Kristen is the library assistant and Alex and Eric,
the shooters. African-American Benny has a place at the
Along with the names I would have liked to see Elias photos
in a black and white freeze frame. With its long takes,
fluid travelling shots, and crystal clarity the film feels like
a still moving image, a cool hyper-reality. Savides camera
is apathetic, he doesn't care .
Could be one of the killers. Eric goes to a physics class and
the other kids throw spit balls at him. He looks angry .
Other people are rubbing him the wrong way. Maybe
someone ignored him.
Michelle has to endure other girls at the locker room gossiping
about her. Her teachers reading her personal email in class. The
camera takes stock. Elias glides down long corridors, through
the school to the darkroom where we see a close-up of him developing
film in a metal canister for a full minute, rocking it back and
forth, slowly, for the required 30 seconds and then tapping it
on the counter. ( You know it's not real life but a movie
because it would have taken 10-15 minutes to really develop, stop
and fix his film, as though you were watching time develop.) The
eye is on the metal developing can for over a minute. This is
where you start to feel like a bomb is about to explode. Meanwhile,
Eric is preparing his plan. Time starts to repeat and reverse
itself. Something is going wrong. "What plan ?"
asks another student. "Just my plan." We don't know
what he is up to until we see him and Alex purchasing guns over
the Internet, as they play computer games ( shooting at Ben
Affleck and Matt Damon from Gerry, (2002) a
previous Van Sant movie ) and Beethoven's "Für Elise" on
the piano in one of the most beautiful and evocative scenes of
the movie; Savides signature French clouds ominously, slowly,
flow across the sky, passing through every atmospheric
nuance. Blue clouds, not grey because the film is in colour. Then
comes the shower scene; the two boys kiss. A black and white
documentary on Hitler plays on the TV, we hear that Hitler hates
Michelle is the first to get killed.
They pack their bags and head off to school dressed in black army
fatigues and carrying duffles and weapons . Alex says "Most
importantly, have fun" and as the camera swirls around
him in the hallway I wonder if he is dizzy with excitement as
he goes on his killing spree.
They enter the library; geeky Michelle in her red sweater
is the first to get shot. Later we see Benny (many have
called him the hero) walking through flaming, orange corridors,
helping a stunned girl escape out the window. Almost saving the
day with his warmth, like Russell Crowe in Jocelyn Moore's Proof,
in an otherwise cold conceptual piece. But he gets shot. The
final scene of the movie in the cafeteria refrigerator, hanging
with meat carcasses, starts to resemble an autopsy room and it
is this image of a student gunman in black that will remain frozen
in our memory. Evil entering, our clinical and clean spaces;
According to Hitchcock killing can not happen anywhere else.
The movie's visuals are matched by Leslie Shatz's subtlety expressive
sound design, mixing Beethoven's classical piano (Moonlight Sonata
in C sharp minor) Ambient noise, musique concrète ( a mix
of electronica and natural sounds) and ecological sound from Hildegard
Westerkamp "Türen der Wahrnehmung" Supernal Infinite Space (Kawabata)
Waikiki Easy Meat (Mano) .
Why do I feel like I'm on a ship that is about to sink, as Eli
walks and walks through the hallways to the darkroom .
Music from a cruise ship ?
Chopins Funeral March might have been more appropriate.
What the Critics wrote
So, on October 10, 2003, when Van Sant's Elephant opened at the
New York Film Festival, nobody was exactly sure what they were
watching. It wasn't a documentary without characters or
narrative like Alan Clarke's drama. It wasn't a teen's fantasy
life like Donnie Darko but had a spare and unconventional ( for
Hollywood , not artists ) style that divided critics
and viewers alike.
For Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times including the spectator
in the film and the film in the mental image made it into a haute
horror film, and he says : "By making the camera an observer,
we get a perspective that often comes out of horror movies, a
choice that whips the ordinary with the terrifying, an unforgettable
mix." Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, in Spirituality
and Health see " pain, loneliness,
anger, irresponsibility, cruelty, self-disgust, and violence everywhere."
" Rarely do form and content add up with such harmonious
grace and power." says the Los Angeles Times . The
New York Film critics agreed : A Best Cinematography award. Two
more nominations. A Palme d'Or at Cannes and Best Director.
Some people saw the original Elephant Clarke film and Van Sants
earlier work as authentic masterpieces and this Elephant as trite. The
very beauty of the directors work used against him and regarded
as a lack of substance.
For me, removing the situation from the real world of ugliness
and vulgarity, distills the essence of the experience, and
turns it into art.
Towards a Non-linguistically based Cinema
The problem with Chumscrubber and Donnie Darko is that they are
linguistically encoded rather than relying on the language of
cinema; kinetics, the infinity of images and their rhythm . They
ignore what is distinctive about the movies ; time, space,
kinetics, the infinity of images and their rhythm.
Elephant works because it is a succession of open events rather
than being based on a literary narrative like Chumscrubber and
This is one of those films that reminds you of your self walking
through sprawling slabs of concrete, developing your portfolio
for art school, working in the library, dreaming in
Little did I know when I was watching the film at Harvard's Carpenter
Center that Gus Van Sant went to my Alma Mater ; Rhode Island
School of Design and perhaps, that is why I felt, that this was
a movie I might have made myself. Sister souls with
A mirror-image of myself and of my own experiences as an
outsider, during my two years, at Belmont High School in Belmont,
Massachusetts and as maker of very fine, high quality, large format
still colour photography
(more coming here)
and So, this optical and sound situation becomes an image,
but instead of becoming an action image, it becomes virtual like
the image of Gerry in Elephant : A simulation or computer game.
Working, well, on the computer monitor, as well as, on the
For lovers of Fine Art photography; moving or still.
An experience that you will remember, everytime you go into a
public space, and wonder who the next gunman will be.
I pray to Ganesh: Lord of success and destroyer
of evils and obstacles.
of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth.
of Shiva and Parvati, with an elephantine countenance ,
trunk and big ears, and a huge potbellied body.
send comments to: Michele