On watching Elephant after Rashomon


May 4

After watching Elephant I felt a little like the priest in Rashomon, which I wrote about yesterday. The event it depicts is enough to shake one’s hope for the future and faith in the goodness of humanity. Elephant is a fictionalized movie about a school shooting inspired by the Columbine school shooting.

Like Rashomon, Elephant tells the story of a school shooting from a variety of students’ perspectives. The title comes from the story about several blind men trying to describe an elephant in which none of them actually can describe the entire beast. The film shows the same event and time period from different characters’ perspectives. It does not sensationalize violence. Roger Ebert said that “Van Sant has made an anti-violence film by draining violence of energy, purpose, glamor, reward and social context.” It was disturbing without being at all thrilling. 

The movie is slow, and I almost dozed off a couple of times. It takes various students through mundane, insignificant moments that might happen on any random day at school. It starts over at various points and follows a different student. Dialog between characters are the only hint at relationships between them. There are no real subplots or contexts. We have minimal information and characters are not really developed. We get a sense of general type but that’s about it. The movie is a chronicle of lives in action, lives ended by gunmen who seem as senseless, idle, and random as the bullets they shoot.

Rashomon is so fresh in my mind and I can’t help compare the two. Rashomon focuses on the motives of its characters while Elephant seems to deliberately stay away from any exploration of motive. The influences we see at one of their homes are presented as factors rather than causes, and their motives are never explored. Ebert quotes Van Sant:  “I want the audience to make its own observations and draw its own conclusions.” I can’t say I enjoyed Elephant nor that watching it gave me much perspective on the elephant. It just made me sad.  I did appreciate that Van Sant tackled the subject without packaging the message to make sure I know how I’m supposed to feel or think.

Rather than offering a redeeming moment at the end (I liked that about Rashomon even if the film experts think its a flaw) the film ends abruptly, before the attack is even finished, with no resolution. A couple of characters, specifically Benny and to some extent John, seem to be set up as possible heroes had this been a traditional film. Each has brief moments that could have turned the tide. Ultimately the events occur with no moral commentary and no real character development. There are no heroes. We barely know the characters at all. There is no omniscient narrator. The camera does little to evoke emotion, but rather records the events much like a security camera with sound might capture them.

Both films seem to be about moral ambiguity but Rashomon, made in 1950, focuses on personal, individual moral ambiguity while Elephant seems to put the moral ambiguity on the audience itself. It demands that the audience, who have been stripped of most of the interpretative devices a film usually provides, examine the elephant in the room and try to describe it and draw conclusions about it as a whole. And so, I feel like the priest at the beginning of Rashomon. I am sitting on the dilapidated gate of culture with my head in my hands, devastated that there are kids out there with guns and without conscience who may, for reasons that might even be unknown even to themselves, go to school and start shooting.

My conclusions: This generation, like all others, needs the presence, love, and grace of God. We have only one enemy and he is not human. Efforts to fight whatever else we think are causes are light fighting the hydra. Cut one head and three more will grow in its place. Pray for the Johns, Bennys Eliases, and Michelles out there, and for the Erics and Alexes.

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