Elephant

I have just realised that after half a year of studying film and television, my whole perspective of what makes a fantastic movie has changed. Last year, I would have said it has to entertain me and absorb me in its world. That’s still true – a good movie still must do this. However, I have started to believe that a good movie must also offer something new. It has to push boundaries. It has to challenge its viewers. It has to be groundbreaking. I knew this – it almost seems like common sense. However, I didn’t truly understand the concept. Movies like The Isle, 2:37 and The Book of Revelation, fit into the revolutionary category. Although all of them scared the hell out of me, and seriously made me wonder what I was doing watching them, I have grown, not only to appreciate them, but I now actually understand that they’re truly fantastic pieces of art and because of that, I have made the conscious decision to say “I like them”. Previously, I only appreciated them – I didn’t consider them compulsory viewing. I’ve change my opinion. I think you need to watch film like these, if you are going to become a filmmaker, so that you understand that the challenge is to create something that hasn’t been done before. To create something that will spark people’s imaginations. Make them angry – make them cry – whatever. Now, a lot of people have suggested that 2:37 is just a rip off of Elephant. Personally, I think that’s a bit of an over exaggeration. Yes, the cinematography is very similar. Some of the camera work is almost exactly the same. And yes, the sound design is very similar (which isn’t unpredictable seeing as the same person did both movies). And yes, the story does have its similarities – i.e. it’s about a high school that suffers a tragic event. However, after watching elephant for the first time, I came out of the room with a completely different feeling to when I left 2:37. After watching 2:37 I felt sick. I felt like I had just been tortured. However after watching Elephant, I felt something completely different. That’s why I don’t believe 2:37 is a rip off of Elephant. Although it has a lot of similarities, you leave the theatre feeling different emotions. It’s not so much about the sound design, or what’s shown on screen. It’s more about the feelings and emotions it sparks. That’s what film school has taught me thus far. It’s not about pretty pictures and nice sounding audio. It’s about a story that messes with the viewer. The story is everything. The story must evoke a passion in the viewer, whether it’s negative or positive. I’ve come to realise that that’s what filmmaking is all about.

Elephant, like 2:37 (although some would hate that I am comparing Elephant to 2:37 and not the other way round!), follows around several typical high school teenagers as they go about their normal school day – except all hell breaks loose at the end when two teenagers decide to shoot everyone. It opens with a car dangerously driving down a typical American suburban street, smashing into other cars as it goes. The driver is a drunken parent, attempting to take his teenage son to school. At this point, I was thinking that maybe Elephant was going to be exactly like 2:37 – an insight into the lives of several very troubled teens; based around a horrific mystery, with a gruesome climax. As it introduced more characters, the cheerleader, the football player, the outcast who spends her time in the library, I starting to think “here we go again”, but I soon realised I was wrong.

Unlike 2:37 these characters felt real. They didn’t feel like stereotypical American teen soapie characters. I felt like I was watching archive footage of real people whilst at school. What they said, and what they did wasn’t important. It was fairly random, and to be perfectly honest, boring. It was just a bunch of people at school – just another day at the office. It was almost like watching Big Brother. Groups of girls gossip in the canteen, a wannabe photographer develops his prints, a shy girl helps out in the library. That’s what made this movie a lot different to 2:37. It was a lot more random and a lot more detached. Although it only focussed on a few characters, you still never got close to knowing any of these people. You were basically shown them at their most boring. At although they did fit the stereotypical teenager moulds, I never really thought about that. I guess because, in reality, the big attractive alpha males are the ones playing footage, and the gorgeous teenage blondes are normally completely obsessed with their appearance. Or maybe it was simply because I knew something sick and evil was around the corner, and I was ignoring the film and just subconsciously waiting for that key event.

Forgetting about 2:37 for the time, the film has a very unique and stunning visual style. All the shots are either extremely smooth steady cam, or slowly panning and tilting crane shots. The smooth, almost floating camera work helps to underscore the feeling of this being another ordinary, empty and humdrum day at school. There is also some time lapse photography which helps to slow down the already slow paced film. The colour of the footage is surprisingly pale – for example, in reality bold red and yellow tee-shirts, are less striking, showing more texture and contrast, which helps portray a very “film look”. You think the film looks very nature, until you study each individual frame, and you realise that it doesn’t look real at all – it just looks like a beautiful movie frame; completely colour corrected and contrived. Although, I can’t work out way (apart from the fact it looks cool), the film also makes use of messing with time. For example, when John interacts with a dog, as the dog jumps into the air we are shown the dog in slow motion. It does look great – but why do it? Does it affect the story in any way? I don’t think so. The film also messes with time in another sense – scenes are constantly overlapped as we are shown stories from a different characters perspective. The film reminded me a lot of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, as it followed around the characters, with its haunting and hypnotic manner. You knew something bad was going to happen – you knew people were going to get hurt – you just didn’t know when. You just didn’t know who was going to survive.

The soundtrack is truly amazing. It really messes with your emotions. Music is used; however, only sparingly. Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and “Piano Symphonies Nos. 14 & 2” are used within the film – the peaceful classical music adding to the sense of danger and mystery. “Fur Elise” is basically the theme song for Elephant, as there is a scene were one of the key characters is playing that song on the piano in his room. The reason I have a great respect for the soundtrack of this film, is that it’s not wall-to-wall music or sound effects. Everything is very subtle and unnerving. The soundtrack compliments the picture, in that it’s very random and unexplained. Sounds of unimportant conversations, general school atmospheres, dogs barking in the background, random natural sounds etc. are slowly faded in and out creating a confusing, yet simplistic aural soundscape. However, in the more dramatic scenes, especially towards the end of the film, as the images became more intense and horrific, so did the audio. More sounds were layered together, and the tempo of the score became faster. The sound designer made fantastic use of the stereo medium (as opposed to mono); swinging sound effects from left to right, making you feel as if you’re trapped in the building with the characters. Silence is also used to great effect. Sound wise, the film reminds me a lot like “Alien”. Both films take the natural sounds of the scene, and manipulate and add to them to create a feeling of terror and fear. Neither film overuses sound. Your ears are never feed too much information. In fact, a lot of the visual styles remind me of Alien as well. For example, although one is on a spaceship and another is at a school, the long dimly lit hallways scenes are very similar.

Watching this film at school made a huge impact on me. It makes it more real. At any moment someone could pull out a gun and there would be nothing I, nor anyone else, could do. Now that’s terrifying.

A lot of people have said that the film is pointless, doesn’t offer any insight, and is basically just a really bad movie. I disagree. Yes, it’s really hard to watch. To be honest, I really didn’t want to be sitting there watching or listening to the movie. I just wanted to run away. However, that’s what makes it so amazing. I still find it hard to believe a bunch of pixels on a screen, and some human manipulated soundtrack can evoke such powerful emotions. I really respect the fact that the filmmakers decided not to explain why the killers did what they did. There is no single explanation for such behaviour. The fact that the two murderers were having a hard time at school (being bullied by their peers), played violet video games, read gun magazines, and were apparently gay, could have been contributing factors – however they are definitely not sole explanations. No one knows why the killers did what they did. No one can really understand what was going through their heads. No one can truly claim to understand their sickness. I respect the fact that the filmmakers didn’t just make up some seemingly logical expansion. It’s easy to say they killed everyone because they were being bullied. But being bullied is not a good enough explanation.

The film also unpredictable – just like life. The misfit girl is not saved just because she is like the assassins. When a muscular seemingly impervious African-American student starts sneaking up on one of the killers, one presumes that he is going to save the day. However, he’s not a hero at all – just another disengaged student that thinks he’s invincible. But the reality is no one is invincible. If someone is pointing a gun at your face, there really is nothing you can do about it. If the person wants to kill you – he or she can. This is not a film about high school students, bullying, homosexuality, or love. It’s about the randomness of violence. This film could have easily been set in any other location and played by any age group (i.e. an office building). The outcome and the responses would have been the same.

The reason I think this film is so challenging to watch is that, even when people are getting shot left, right and centre, the pacing is still very slow and the actions very random. You are left just watching some of the most horrible events take place in front of your eyes, and yet, there is nothing you can do about it. There’s no real accessible reason for why it’s happening. There’s no sign of it stopping any time soon. The worst part is that the students in the building just don’t know what to do. Like the audience – they’re in shock.

Overall, it’s a remarkable movie. It’s a slow movie that shows the reality of a tragic and horrific event. It doesn’t offer any explanations as to why things turned out the way that they did. It only offers some random (and probably irrelevant) hints. The dialog is routine and monotonous, as is the action leading up to the slaughter. This is a movie that will set your brain and imagination into overdrive after viewing. So many questions are asked throughout the film and no answers are given. The cinematography is truly incredible, as is the petrifying soundtrack. It’s a painfully beautiful film, with a disconnected narrative that deliberately withholds closure. The filmmaker wants you to think about what you’ve just seen. There’s an unbearable tension right throughout the film, and when the onslaught eventually starts, it actually explodes on the screen, hitting you with a frightening energy that’s unforgettable and completely chilling. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the images of Alex and Eric walking through the school.

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