Shooting for Dead Time in Gus Van Sant's Elephant

William Little


In Elephant, director Gus Van Sant dramatises a massacre at a suburban American high school in order to examine narrative cinema's ethical capacity to respond to that which resists being framed as a meaningful event. In the film, this stubborn stuff is experience shot through with contingency. Van Sant depicts acts of violence that are indiscriminate and, at best, ambiguously motivated, as well as school-day activities that appear coincidental and insignificant. This essay argues that the director aims to screen contingency to mount a critique of conventional narrative film's terror of contingency, its anxious drive to convert all cinematic time to good, signifying use. It also argues that Van Sant complicates or crosses up this aim by constructing a self-reflexive text attuned to the inherent irresponsibility in assuming that radical contingency's dead time could be fully and faithfully animated on screen. While the film camera and a still camera used by a student photographer in the film shoot people with the ostensible aim of capturing contingency in all its otherness, both projects are, at the same time, linked, in complex ways, to the student killers who shoot people with the aim of eliminating all otherness. The film's recognition of its own drive to plot in a deadly fashion thus illustrates Van Sant's profound sensitivity to the challenges of responding responsibly to a time of terror and, more broadly, to the terrors of time.


Gus Van Sant; Elephant; contingency; responsibility; time of terror; terror of time

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