Elephant and the Death of American Tragedy

I remember the first news item that I paid much of any attention to was 1999’s shooting at Columbine High School. I remember, perhaps more than anything, a teacher specifically saying to all of us middle-schoolers: “This will be the first news you will remember hearing.” (Note: If I’m being completely honest, the first news I remember hearing about was President Clinton’s oral sex, but that’s another story) What I do specifically remember is being a little bit confused by the news. “Don’t I hear about guns in schools everyday? This sounds like the plot to some kind of movie,” my 12-year old self was saying internally. And, honestly, I don’t think the other school kids really understood the immensity of what was happening either. It was all a little surreal and the news about the situation seemed to trickle past my halfway-disinterested mind. The strange thing to think is that only 16 years later the same situation would be happening on a near-constant basis and that a crazed man shooting-up a theater of innocent people would hardly qualify as worth more than a night or two of news.


We don’t get very political here at Crushed Celluloid, but the politics have now moved into our realm, and I will use my puny voice to rally against a growing indifference to the unchecked, gritty evil that can exist within some people. I’m from the south, have a few family members that have hunted for all of their lives, and I am generally a pro-gun person (as opposed to my general left-leaning politics). I get that guns don’t kill people, yada, yada, yada…but have we really become so cold to these sorts of tragedies (the kind that leave 7 dead at a god-damn multiplex in fucking Lafayette, LA) that we can’t even discuss measures to keep guns out of these verifiably (literally verified as an insane person who’s family had tried for years to institutionalize him) crazy people’s hands. We watch this same story play out time and time again and have to hear the same excuse that restricting gun ownership rights isn’t the answer (in fact, to some the answer seems to be to further loosen gun ownership laws (…?)). We sit back, do nothing for fear of rising this strange ire in a small, loud minority of gun owners, and watch it all happen again (this time with even less empathy, cause how can we keep caring about this? Every month?). This last go-around I saw a tweet that rang surprisingly true (can’t remember the source and I’m paraphrasing), that after Sandy Hook, we have collectively (as a society) decided that it is OK to shoot children, and there is no going back now.


I’m not sure I can even say that I’m upset anymore, just more confused at this strange world that I find myself in. What do you do when those with raging egos have the means to express their skewed world-views through the sheer might of senseless violence? Where is anyone safe when self-professed good & bad guys carry the same tools of destruction, and both profess loudly their right to keep and display these tools? What do you do when it doesn’t even seem like it matters to discuss this sort of thing anymore? Well, I turned to the movies. To a Gus Van Sant movie. About Columbine. Called Elephant.


I’ve never seen Elephant before. In fact, until about a year ago I had no idea a movie had never been made about (well, in the vein of) Columbine. It makes sense that I never went looking for this sort of entertainment, though. I lived in the wake of Columbine and watched the strange paranoia that fell over school life. I watched as the bullied made idle threats like “You know what happened at Columbine?!” and I heard all the adults lament how it had been different in their day. The horror of Columbine never seemed much further than a distant echo and I grew up in a narcissistic bubble never caring. Something strange happened along the way, though, and Columbine became little more than a footnote as the Virginia Tech shootings happened my first year in college, then the Omaha Mall shootings, then Fort Hood, then Tucson, then Aurora, then Sandy Hook…This had become normalized and we were now talking about it even less. This is the place where Vonnegut might give his most despondent: so it goes…


Going back to Elephant though is to go back to another time. Seeing the utterly quizzical and shocked look on John McFarland’s face as his two classmates walk up to school with tactical gear and stuffed duffle bags doesn’t resonate in this world anymore. The idea that someone could see that and not immediately realize that these guys are about to shoot up the school is a more naïve ideal than we can afford now. And there is a certain innocence that carries over to all of the characters in Elephant. When you hear the distant sounds of guns in the halls, nobody bats an eye, because high schools are just noisy. The idea that someone could be shooting anyone, let alone multiple people is so farfetched that it doesn’t occur to anyone. It's hard to imagine that not being one of the first thoughts in a high-schooler's head nowadays (full disclosure: I am not, nor do I speak for anyone in high school).


There is a meditative beauty to Elephant, not least of all achieved by the video game-esque third person view that Van Sant follows the high schoolers around with. It makes every scene drip with tension and angst, knowing the worst is about to happen and to the point of wishing it would just happen already, so as not to feel so bad about all of this. But aside from the over-the-shoulder view, Van Sant escorts these teens through empty halls, gymnasiums, and through the generally labyrinthine layout that are high-schools. A certain calm sets over the film, which the audience understands is about to be forcefully shattered. The soundtrack plays into this anticipation as natural noise become amplified, the future echoes of the gunshots in the hall playing the percussion behind these teenager's lives. This film is devastatingly beautiful, but I could never manage to sit through it again.


One thing that strikes me as still true and universal about Elephant, though, is what large, empty spaces we all inhabit. There is a certain horror that comes along with this. Entering an empty, silent space brings with it a certain amount of anxiety, as our minds fill in these empty spaces with shadows of what we expect to see and distant sounds of what we expect to hear. The true horror, though, is that these large, empty spaces we find ourselves in are far safer when they are empty. The friendly faces and reassuring voices you find around yourself may, in one grotesque instance, turn into a living nightmare through the machinations of sick minds.


I don’t want to seem alarmist. I realize that statistically we are all very safe and contained from this kind of insanity. That said, it doesn’t make it any better that we live in the kind of world where children are murdered en masse and the mere suggestion of limiting magazine size for automatic weapons is breaking a sacred right we have as Americans. After the Charlottesville church shooting (remember last month? The thing that was immediately overshadowed by people concerned the state won’t be flying Confederate Flags anymore?) President Obama had a telling moment (paraphrasing here) where he sadly said to the country “you have a problem, and one day you’re going to have to deal with it.” The right to own guns may be an important one, but doing nothing hasn’t helped improve anything, and the idea of safe places is further receding into our vocabulary, cause where is safe anymore? Aside from locking ourselves in our houses and dreaming of the days when Elephant merely captures an isolated tragic instance, when it didn’t describe an accepted part of our new American life. Is it time to have that conversation yet?

July 31st, 2015