Propaganda Analysis – Elephant

April 9, 2010

The following is my propaganda analysis for Elephant, a film mimicking the Columbine High School massacre:

An Elephant in the Room

It is a nightmare disillusioned. Cornered in a freezer, cheerleader Carrie and athlete Nathan apprehensively follow the approaching rifle barrel. Left to right, the weapon swings, selecting Carrie and then Nathan to the gunman’s rhythmic taunting, “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe.” The couple hopelessly cowers, realizing the deliberation not to murder one and liberate the other, but who to murder first.

Elephant, a 2003 film written and directed by respectable independent Academy Award winner Gus Van Sant, chronicles a high school shooting massacre through the adolescent eyes of observers, victims, and villains. Employing fixated cameras to each character, Van Sant achieves a polarizing approach to directing, methodically, and often, boringly, following students through hallways and classrooms without cutting the scene. This unorthodox process allows viewers to transcend the screen, personally experiencing timid lectures, prolonged studying, lunchtime gossip, dangerous curiosity, unadulterated violence, and, inevitably, distressing demises for the purpose of subtly perpetuating propaganda.

How could this atrocity occur? Where were the parents? Where were the faculty members? How did suspicious activities resume unnoticed? If my child is not safe in school, where are they safe? Why was my innocent child murdered? Elephant unabashedly mimics the fear of unknowing and randomness immediately present during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, where two senior students shot and killed a dozen students and one teacher. The gravitas of this slaughter creates emotional pre-persuasion, as annual remembrances indoctrinate the tragedy’s detriments while Americans enveloped in anxiety continually demand impossible answers (like the aforementioned ones), nervously awaiting solutions or copycat offenses. Columbine, though admittedly difficult to discuss, easily captivates with its importance and forewarning, providing a perfect target with which to propagandize. Van Sant inexplicably conceals the film’s concrete catalysts, offering a variety of hints without promotion or omission.

Nazi propaganda blares through the two villains’ television, displaying altruistic images of determination, willingness, and empowerment. The characters also share a kiss in the shower, curiously exploring their feelings. During class, popular athletes launch disgusting spitballs at the future gunman, receiving encouraging laughter from classmates. Conflicts permeate Elephant, but the killing spree never directly connects with any particular situations or characters. Even the villains’ preparation and willingness cannot distinguish between prematurity or spontaneity! New York Magazine critic, Peter Rainer, explains Van Sant’s “…seductive appeal to this game plan – we’re free to fill in the blanks, and we don’t feel like we’re being talked down to.” Elephant deliberately relishes in frustrating obscurity because, simply, its subject matter is frustrating obscurity. Van Sant knows as much or less about random acts of violence than the audience, so the film genuinely conveys this sharable ignorance.

Sharable ignorance transforms this film from art house cinema to propaganda vehicle. With the Columbine massacre’s permanent scarring, Gus Van Sant’s credible, responsible filmmaking approach, and the emotional, explanatory ambiguity surrounding Elephant’s violence, audiences feel compelled to act immediately, repairing current failures that place safety and societal conformity at risk by teenagers like those at Columbine and in Elephant. While unintended, Van Sant’s film provokes personal action through the successful blending of necessary propaganda components, creating a media manifesto more powerful than any Hollywood blockbuster.


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