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com

aN aMERICAN iNDEPENDENT cINEMA cASE sTUDY - eLEPHANT (2003)

In this case study I will be looking at the 2003 Gus van Sant movie
‘Elephant’. I will be examining its position as a piece of American Independent
Cinema, seeking to analyse the text in relation to its formal features, socio-
historical context and industrial factors which concern it and also how it relates to
other movies that are considered to reside within this meta-genre.
Before I can attempt to do this however, it is important to establish what can
actually be considered to be American Independent Cinema. This is of particular
importance as the term Independent is something of a bone of contention amongst
scholars and critics with both a more literal and a more liberal definition being
proposed from different sources.
Somewhat more simply, the country of origin for a film is decided by the
International Federation of Film Archives using “the country of the principal offices
of the Production Company or individual by whom the moving image work was
made” (anon, 1999) and as a result, ‘Elephant’ is clearly American. Even taking
into account the nationality of the writer/director and the location of filming
(Oregon) ‘Elephant’ is undoubtedly an American movie.
As for defining the term “Independent Cinema”, it is less clear-cut. Greg
Merritt for example, in his book ‘Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American
Independent Film’ takes the former approach to defining the term, stating that an
independent film is ‘any motion picture financed and produced completely
autonomous of all studios, regardless of size’. (2000, p.xii)
This industry based definition would put ‘Elephant’ outside the sphere of
American Independent cinema as a result of its distribution network of the Time
Warner owned HBO Films and Fine Line Cinema, a subsidiary of New Line Cinema.
In fact, when the film was made, “all seven major studios… [had] independent
arms [and] only two really well-heeled independent production companies… still
stand alone”. (Holmlund and Wyatt, 2005, p.8) Studio involvement was certainly
increasing, almost to the point at which independent cinema by that definition was
hardly noticeable on the general audience’s radar.

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Yet still, despite this growing studio influence, when commenting on the film
in 2008 Edgerton and Jones stated that ‘Elephant’ “would never have been made
in a studio system” (p. 296) strongly suggesting that these “independent arms” are
still considered to be makers of independent films, despite their links to the
studios. Surely then, if this is the case, disallowing the film on this basis would be
unfair.
As a result, for the purposes of this study, we are going to be considering
American Independent Cinema along the lines of a more liberal definition that
Merritt dismisses as ‘too slippery’, the “belief that independence is determined not
by financing but… by professing an alternative vision”, a idea that he concedes is
“widely held”. (2000, p.xii)
And it is primarily along these lines that I shall seek to establish that
‘Elephant’ is an example of American Independent Cinema, concentrating upon the
film’s form and context as well as touching upon the industrial factors that do still,
of course, play their part in the makeup of the film.
The changing cost of filmmaking as a result of digital technologies for
example had an effect upon the production of ‘Elephant’. Russell Evans noted that
“DV film is going to cost far less than its conventional analogue or celluloid
forerunner” (2006, p.72) and this obviously provides scope for new ways to use
funds that would have otherwise been tied up elsewhere.
In some cases independent filmmakers may use the money to enable their
film to have a more conventional Hollywood look, as opposed to having to thing
more creatively and laterally during the filmmaking process as has traditionally
been associated with independent cinema. Others would be more inclined to
make their decisions in this regard based upon that independent and more
experimental spirit, and that appears to be the case when it comes to ‘Elephant’.
The cinematographer on ‘Elephant’, Harris Savides, mentions how “the film
was shot in continuity… we could afford to do it… movies are not filmed in
continuity for one reason and that’s money, what other reason is there?” (Ballinger,
2004, p.180) This decision obviously impacted on the final text too, with numerous
critics commenting upon the “smooth style” (Hollands, 2005) of the film, something

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that was probably made easier for the crew and cast of non-professional actors to
achieve by working in such a manner.
‘Elephant’ is not a film which is solely entrenched within contemporary
independent cinema either, it also has similarities to an older type of independent
cinema, that of the exploitation film. In a similar way to how “exploitation movies
were able to piggyback on topical stories in the news” (Schafer, 1999, p.114) much
of the talk about ‘Elephant’ to be found in reviews and in magazines referred to its
original concept being based upon “the wave of public school shootings during the
late 1990s, particularly the one at Columbine High School” (p.56, Dancyger &
Rush, 2007). This undoubtedly served to raise the profile of the film, and its
subject matter generated more media coverage and word of mouth than a film of
its size would probably have garnered.
It was not marketed quite so brashly as the 1970’s exploitation films and nor
was the film claiming to contain any graphic scenes, but given the subject matter
of the text, it is probable that some of the audience were expecting something
along those lines purely through implication. Here then, in true exploitation and
independent tradition, the film managed to utilise the alternative promotion
methods (through word of mouth and topical relevance) to make up for its
advertising budget.
As Yannis Tzioumakis explains, “the topicality… guarantees them a certain
amount of publicity (non-paid advertising)” and such methods “attract maximum
public awareness for the lowest possible amount of expenditure” (2006, p.140),
making up for an advertising budget that would otherwise be dwarfed by that of
major pictures.
When looking at film form, Geoff King highlights two main ways in which
independent films often distinguish themselves from the more mainstream texts
that are found. One-way is through “the use of more complex, stylized,
expressive, showy or self-conscious forms” whilst the other is “in making greater
claims to verisimilitude/realism”. (2005, p.10) There is little doubt that Gus Van
Sant purports to achieve the latter with ‘Elephant’ and he is relatively successful in
doing so. One reviewer goes so far as to say that “viewers may believe this is a
documentary and not a fictional film” (Kramer, 2006, p. 193)

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This level of verisimilitude was achieved by using a combination of


techniques that serve to draw the viewer into the diegesis and make it appear to
be very current and real. The aforementioned use of non-professional actors for
instance lends the film an authenticity that may not be quite so apparent if
professionals were used. Using the local students, familiar already with the area
and routines, allows for the idea of the film being set on the “ordinary high school
day” the film’s strap line suggests to really come through.
This realism leaves the film to, particularly in the first act, spend time
focusing on very little by way of action. Instead, the film “move(s) slowly and
linger(s)… and this process memorialises the banal and apparently insignificant”
(P.King, 2005, p.85) thanks to what is described as a “loose script”. (Scott, 2005)
This allows for a great deal of freedom to be conveyed within the text, and
heightens the realism due to the lack of immediate tension and dynamism to
propel the narrative forward at pace. Instead we a presented with a level of action
more similar to what the audience could call a typical day than is the norm, and as
a result the film becomes very easy to buy into.
The number of scenes where we were tracking students down corridors or
seeing them in a relative state of isolation (alone in a room, etc) made for a very
sparse amount of dialogue within the text at times. What dialogue there was, like
the script, was improvised heavily based around the actors’ real lives. This lack of
speech works to develop the sense of foreboding and an element of dramatic irony
as the audience know what is to come later on.
Patricia Leavy also notes that it “serves to highlight particular sounds”
(2007, p.172-3) from the “mundane” such as a squeaky book cart in the library,
through to “the striking sound of a bullet hitting a gun chamber” which is a signal
for the shooters’ spree to begin as used later when repeated. This contrast of
quiet and sudden louder noises shattering the silence unexpectedly is a typical
staple of the horror genre, which ‘Elephant’ does contain a few elements of
thematically too (high school, terror).
The narrative structure of the film however is not quite so sparse as the
dialogue; in fact it is a very interesting and innovative example therefore fulfilling

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the belief that “independent cinema expects films that possess a certain level of
novelty”. (Berra, 2008, p.201)
The way the first hour of the film is structured uses a downplayed, multi-
strand narrative to show the audience fifteen minutes in the school prior to the
shootings from the perspective of a few characters around the school, none of
whom are explored in significant depth but each of whom are given enough time to
convey a little about themselves and their personalities. We are however able to
ascertain that this is a typical school day, and enough common teen character
stereotypes are explored to allow almost everyone in the audience someone to
relate to.
Interestingly though, this leaves the film somewhat ambiguous as to whom
exactly is an important character and who the shooter may be. The narrative
reveals this in an equally intriguing manner, by moving to act two in what can be
described as an “abstractly thematic” (Dancyger and Rush, 2007, p.55) way; the
audience’s question is answered but by introducing both new characters and a
new time period, therefore further disrupting the audience impressions of what to
expect in the story. As Bassett says of the narrative “it is complex and non-
linear… mutable and innovative”, (2007, p.184) and therefore by nature a thought
provoking piece.
It is not just through the narrative structure that ‘Elephant’ can jolt the
audience and be a difficult text to read. The slow pace and length of time spent
lingering the grounds of the school, seemingly just soaking up the atmosphere as
people drift in and out of frame and following tracking shots creates what Nicholas
Rhombes calls and “illusion of objectivity” (Rhombes, 2005, p.52) where the
audience take on the role of a slightly distanced observer.
Couple this with the composition of some shots, such as those in the
shooters house through a door from a distance back, and again the fact the
camera spends a lot of time following the backs of heads and it can be seen to
create a huge a sense of detachment for a mainstream audience used to plenty of
dialogue and action.
By constructing the film in this way though the director managed to ensure
the film “sidestepped melodrama and sensationalism” (Scott, 2005) diffusing

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somewhat the inevitable criticism and claims of exploitation by presenting the story
in a downplayed and tempered manner.
It is almost certain then that Van Sant, who is equally comfortable making
mainstream cinema, chose to tell this narrative in the way he envisaged best and
therefore chose to make an independent movie. As Edgerton and Jones said, a
movie like ‘Elephant’ would otherwise “never have been made”, and such a film
done in a more mainstream style would have courted significantly more
controversy on the grounds of bad taste and exploitation.
The entire film is instead left very open to interpretation but nowhere more
so than at the end of the picture where Carrie and Nathan, a couple of the popular
students whom we have become familiar with, are cornered by Alex who proceeds
to play eenie-miney-mo to decide who to shoot. Before we see who is picked, and
whether they alone or both are shot, the image cuts away to the sky leaving the
viewer with one more final enigma to ponder over rather than an expected ending.
As Savides himself says of the thinking behind the film, “there was to be no
explanation and no resolution. We weren’t going to slap anybody’s hand or
preach. The audience was to take what they wanted from the film and interpret it
the way they felt” (Ballinger, 2004, p.180)
According to Abraham Maslow “the need to know is a burning drive”
(Wilson, 1966, p.78) within our psychology as human beings, so by choosing to
keep the film so detached, objective and ambiguous can make the film
uncomfortable viewing for some audience members.
As Caroline Bassett notes, “clearly the narrative structure of ‘Elephant’ does
not set out to soothe or reassure” (Bassett, 2007, p.184) and it is certainly
something far removed from the standard three-act structure found within
mainstream cinema. There are no real conflicts set up early in the film, there is no
happy, obvious resolution and the motivations of characters are not exposited and
clear-cut. This provides an example of “alternative vision” from the filmmakers,
establishing the independent nature of the text.
In conclusion, I believe there can be little doubt that ‘Elephant’ is indeed an
example of American Independent Cinema. Undoubtedly there are parts within the
text where it can be said to demonstrate characteristics of more populist and

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mainstream cinema. There are no overt examples of “showy” or “self-conscious”


(G.King, 2005, p.10) cinematic style, shots are composed and framed in a familiar
manner for the most part and we are exposed to certain characters enough to
develop an empathy with them, despite the distance.
This is just reflective I believe of the blurring of the line between independent
and mainstream movies that has been brought about by the growth and purchase
of independent studios. That, coupled with the fact that mainstream cinematic
techniques can now be used with more ease, has meant that independent cinema
has had to evolve.
It may have resulted in films more immediately recognisable and accessible
to mainstream audiences, yet the lack of cause and effect narrative, sparse use of
dialogue and long duration shots are all things that indicate there was an
“alternative vision” to the mainstream Hollywood style in the film.
So ‘Elephant’ appears to fall somewhere in between the mainstream and art
cinema and, to quote Geoff King, “independent… is a space that exists between
the more familiar-conventional mainstream and the more radical departures of the
avant-garde or the underground”. (2005, p.10) In conclusion then, ‘Elephant’ is
indeed an example of American Independent Cinema, despite its ties to
conglomerate studio funding and distribution.

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