Sound in Elephant

The implementation of sound in Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant authenticates his loose depiction of the Columbine shootings.  Its luminal use adds realism and perfectly builds tension leading up to the film’s climactic massacre scene, which has an enchanting effect, due to its unique use of sound. Through the subtle implication of Buddhist ideals with the use of sound, and the lack thereof, Van Sant makes a very intuitive statement about teen violence of this nature.  The basic argument of the film is that there is an unsaid, unavoidable conflict within the high school culture, and it is one for which there is no rational method of control. Van Sant implies this through the elephant title, which he inserted to connect to the ancient Buddhist fable about three blindfolded men, who all touching the same body part of and elephant interpret it differently.  The title can also be attributed to the pop-culture metaphor of how a pink elephant in a room is unavoidable, which can explain why the elephant is pink on the film’s cover.  Van Sant designs his film to be compatible with both of these themes, in that he confronts the concept with no bias making all the characters, even the killers, victims of this tragedy.  The parents and authority figures are not even put to blame, considering that they are depicted as impotently oblivious and beaten down fixtures of society.  In the end, the audience has no choice but to sympathize with both the victims and their killers; and in the context of Van Sant’s authentically banal depiction of High school life, one is left to wonder why a tragedy like this hasn’t happened before.

Sound in this film is invaluable responsible for its power.  The volume is turned so high that the audience can’t help but be sensitive to even the silence of certain scenes.  The most mundane details are all of a sudden given significance by being center stage to wide open and empty hallways and classrooms; the echoes of the students footsteps, the high fives and whispers are all enhanced to grab and hold the audience’s attention.  The majority of the dialogue and interactions between the students are authentically insignificant, and the enhanced attention to these moments through the director’s unique use of sound, only further reminds the audience of how unaware these children are of the encroaching tragedy.  Despite this there are some moments in the film where the director wanted to relay a message and the enhanced volume does a good job of clearly presenting concepts for the audience to interpret.  One of these more telling incidents and key initial scenes in the film, is also the cover shot and the main focus of Neera Scott’s essay Sublime Anarchy in Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’.

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John briefly takes refuge in an empty room where he sheds a few tears. His friend Acadia enters, asking, “Did something bad happen?”, to which John replies, “I don’t know.” She simply kisses him on the cheek and leaves. There it is: nobody is in control, nobody is watching out, and nobody knows how to deal with the consequences. We have the Elephant. (Scott, 2004)

Scott credits this as the key symbolic scene that warrants the most praise, because it slightly reveals the core cause of the entire event as unaccountability.  This gives the film a Lord of the Flies-like quality, in the sense that the audience is trapped in their world along with them and their vulnerability to chaos.  The director’s intrinsic use of sound only puts more focus on the motifs he uses to enforce this theme.

There is also an abundant use of the color yellow throughout the film.  It is seen on John’s shirt, and Benny’s Jersey.  The film also flirts with the ideal of depersonalization in the sense that the camera follows random characters throughout their uneventful days.  The calm quiet vibe of the hallway scenes, supported by the nature motif, only further enhances the abrupt awkwardness of the student killings.  The camera follows young, blond haired, John Robinson throughout the hallways of his High school.  You hear him breathing; you hear his foot steps echo throughout the halls.  As dull as his irrelevant interactions are, they, along with those of the other characters, add to the tension inherent in knowing what is about to occur.  Few people view this film without at least a slight awareness of what occurred during the columbine shooting.  From the start of the film, the anticipation is heavy, and Van Sant does a good job of not making the first 45 minutes preachy, or unrealistic.  The film pays an acute attention to sound that has an almost virtual effect on the audience, making it as though one were actually walking through the halls themselves.  This is risqué considering the film’s subject matter.  Even though the film is not a direct factual interpretation of the Columbine shooting, Van Sant is well aware that to even to loosely depict the shooting in a gory manner would be disgraceful to those involved.

The effect of horror… is achieved not via a surplus of affect, as their content might lead us to expect, but rather in just the opposite way: via an emptying out of affective response, to the extent that the narration becomes flat and seemingly unperturbed by the violence of its own content. (Young, 2005)

Here Young identifies the methodology behind Van Sant’s decision to make the beginning of his film so simple and slow. The first 45 minutes of the film is self assured and very smooth.  Van Sant carries it out with very long takes.  The plotline follows the perspective of three different characters throughout the film.  One being one of the killers, and the other two points of view are of students attending the school.  During this time in the film, all of the social interactions between the students are, for the most part, random and seemingly unnecessary.  A major motif used in the film is that of nature.  It is depicted through the bird’s eye point of view of the opening scene that leads to John’s father driving.  The scene has a sense of being voyeuristic, in that the audience watches him from in-between two shedding maple trees.  It is also used in the final massacre scene.  Before the boys enter the school to begin their reign of terror, there is simple use of silence, and then birds chirping.  When the boys finally do begin to fire their rifles the sounds of the gun shot roar horrifically and rage abruptly echoing throughout the halls.  This is supported to be disturbingly mesmerizing by intervals of silence between shots and the occasional cry or lonesome scream.  If one were to listen to the scene away from the screen, they would merely here a sequence of guns shots, very similar to how it would be in real life.  Of course many of these shots led to the loss of cherished young students, who Van Sant poetically allows this disturbing sense of simplicity to authenticate their last moments.

In sum, the use of sound in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, enhances the authenticity of the film.  The audience can’t help but feel engulfed in the world of these students who endured this massacre.  The first person point of view steady camera work gives the picture a documentary-like appearance, to which the final massacre scene seems horrifically realistic.  This is all done without Van Sant adding any gory special effects, or virtually any blood.  Where most films designed with the intention of terrifying the viewer exploit the fear of claustrophobia, do this through the use of confined spaces, Elephant does the exact opposite.


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