It’s time to notice the Elephant. Again.

Gus Van Sant, in his film Elephant, combines steadicam tracking shots with long takes to create ethically sympathetic characters. The technique also allows him to use multiple framing devices and points of view in the one shot. The following analysis focuses on the shot of the character Nathan, from 10”45’ to 13”32’, which can be viewed by clicking this link (Van Sant 2003). The film is a fictional recreation of the Columbine Massacre of 1999. David Edelstein of Slate Magazine argues that Van Sant employs formalist, minimalist technique to engender detachment (Edelstein 2003). I question whether Edelstein is confusing authorial morality with filmmaking ethics, an expectation that Van Sant’s personal moral standing on such events should be evident (Anderson 2012, 2). I will argue that Van Sant’s formal choices create a definite air of foreboding, senselessness and loss.

The tracking of the character, Nathan, frames his journey through the school in mostly medium close up, from behind; the viewer sees what Nathan sees, and sees Nathan himself. The mundanity of the surroundings, conversations and people included in the frame give him an ‘every-teen’ quality, while the proximity of the viewer to the subject gives Nathan a distinct identity. The effect is that the impending loss of life is both societal (a loss of innocence) and specific (the loss of the loved individual). The tracking is slow and smooth, mirroring the lazy meandering of a carefree, teen life, and “forc(ing) the viewer to dwell” on its impending loss (Bordwell and Thompson 2008, 203).

The long take (almost two minutes) has the effect of pronouncing variations to framing. Viewers witness contrasting scopophilia (Nicholls 2000, 35), achieved by transition to a medium shot of a group of girls from Nathan’s point of view; through the frame of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, we may read this choice as signifying reproductive loss (Nicholls 2000, 36). Bordwell and Thompson note the contrast between the use of long takes and the “disorienting” elliptical cuts in the film, where Van Sant presents the killers’ home lives (Bordwell and Thompson, 2008, 203). Edelstein expressed frustration that the characters were crafted to be “totally unmemorable”, however my experience of Van Sant’s formal choices made apparent the universal qualities of teenaged experience, and made the killer’s contrasting abandonment and extinguishment of this life appear all the more senseless.


Anderson, Nicole. 2012. ‘Week 8: Film and Ethics’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed January 13.

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. 2008. Film Art. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Edelstein, David. 2003. ‘The Kids in the Hall’. Slate. Accessed January 13.

Nichols, Bill. 2000. ‘Film theory and the revolt against master narratives’ in Reinventing Film Studies, edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, 35-52. London: Arnold.

Van Sant, Gus. 2003. Elephant. Accessed January 13.


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