Elephant (2003)

Elephant is a drama film directed by Gus Van Sant that is based on the events surrounding the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The film follows an ordinary school day, introducing us to many different characters along the way. We meet Alex and Eric entering the building with weapons in the middle of the day and, due to the film’s non-linear narrative, see a flashback to the day prior and see what a normal day at school is like for them. Alex and Eric are two outcasted students who are mistreated by their peers. They become infatuated with the fantasy of killing those in their path in order to escape the reality of being rejected.


Alex and Eric entering school before the shooting.


The students about to begin looking for those left in the building.

While there are many interesting plot lines within the film, it is important to focus on the experimental nature of how the movie was produced. It is composed of many tracking shots of students going about their everyday lives, but also tracking shots of Alex and Eric running around the school with their guns. There is no narration of thought, which is extremely frustrating as a viewer, however the particular filming draws parallels to the graphics of a violent video game. As we see Alex and Eric walk through the halls from behind, it is very familiar to controlling a video game character. This only enhances the fantasy of the situation, leading us to believe that committing this massacre was an escape from their reality.

This idea of escaping reality is also found in Willa Cather’s story Pauls Case: A Study in Temperament. Paul was also a student who struggled to fit in at school and at home, so he made the decision to leave Pittsburgh and run away to New York to live out a new life “entirely rid of his nervous misgivings, of his forced aggressiveness, of the imperative desire to show himself different from his surroundings”. Paul played up the part of his character, building his perfect fantasy by dressing how he pleased and spending money on fancy dinners and alcohol and thinking that he would finally be happy. However, this all changed when Paul realized his father was coming for him. His fantasy was coming to a close. In the end, Paul took his life in order to permanently escape the reality of the trouble he would endure at home.

While Paul’s fantasy ended with him taking his own life, Alex and Eric ended theirs by taking the lives of others (in addition to Eric also being shot by Alex). Their sexualities can be linked to their desire to escape what life had been for them, as Paul was outwardly homosexual. While we don’t know Alex and Eric’s sexualities, they do share a kiss in the shower together the morning of the massacre, which can at least be considered non-normative. An interesting concept to note from both the story and the film is that neither piece ends concretely: we do not know what comes of Paul’s death or of the massacre, however lives were certainly taken under unnecessary and unfortunate circumstances.

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