In 2003, Gus Van Sant made Elephant, a stylized fictional account of a high school shooting in which two students, outfitted in flak jackets and loaded with various guns and ammunition, walk the hallways firing upon students and teachers, killing many of them. Sometimes bordering on the surreal, and exquisitely photographed in long, mesmerizing takes by the late great cinematographer Harris Savides, the movie explores the horror of the event from a distant and artful remove. As the events unfold, the feeling evoked is not of shock or despair, but rather a kind of banal inevitability.
Elephant won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and several critics ranked it among the top ten films of the decade (in 2004, I named it the best film of the year). But since the mass murdering of 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday, the existential dread of Elephant feels inadequate. When tragedies of this magnitude take place, is a sterile “art project”—as Salon.com critic Charles Taylor derisively called the film—the most effective way to represent them?
Taylor also suggested in his review that Van Sant “substitutes aesthetics for exploration,” which I think goes too far. The problem isn’t that Van Sant replaces aesthetics for deeper exploration; it’s that the film foregrounds its cinematic technique to explore these horrors in a highly dispassionate way. So when it comes to massive catastrophe and heartbreak—i.e. an event involving the slaughter of innocent children—can narrative illusionism really capture or retell those events with the same sense of responsibility—or force—as a more sober documentary? Yet perhaps the problem with Elephant hinges less on its status as fiction than on the kind of fiction it is: one that removes itself from the horror via a kind of stylized splendor. Recall similar critiques leveled at Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List many years ago: Should a movie about the Holocaust look so beautiful?
In Susan Sontag’s 2004 essay about representations of war and conflict, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” she takes up this debate. In examining the backlash against beautiful images of atrocity, which are often criticized for seeming “aesthetic; that is too much like art,” she argues that such condemnations miss the importance of “the spectacular,” which she calls, “very much part of the religious narratives by which suffering, throughout most of Western history, has been understood.”
Though Sontag complicates the distinction between art-ifice and authenticity, she also ultimately argues for the necessity of images to spur action: “Beautifying is one classic operation of the camera, and it tends to bleach out a moral response to what is shown,” she writes. “Uglifying, showing something at its worst, is a more modern function: didactic, it invites an active response. For photographs to accuse, and possibly to alter conduct, they must shock.”
The same year that Elephant was released, a smaller independent film named Zero Day was also shown in theaters. Though also a work of fiction, Ben Coccio’s film takes a far more verité approach to high-school killings, chronicling the events leading up to the attacks largely though video diaries made by the perpetrators. Muddier and messier than Elephant, Zero Day was nowhere near as heralded as Gus Van Sant’s film. But it may be a more appropriate movie for the crime it depicts—particularly for the way it handles the climactic murder spree itself, which is recorded through the high-above, black-and-white imagery of surveillance cameras. This footage avoids crass exploitation—no close-up shots of gore, thankfully—but its ugly static-y images feel all too tangible. If Elephant emphasizes the surreality of the moment—with a phantasmal sound design, including the squawks of tropical birds—Zero Day emphasizes the painful reality, with images of panicked students running through the halls and the sounds of their frightened screams on the soundtrack, tapping into the real-life-like terror that is taking place.
Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, is, of course, the defining movie about gun violence in America, taking its outrage from the same 1999 Columbine High School shootings that inspired Elephant and Zero Day. The fact that it is a documentary—and that it features actual gun violence and victims of gun violence—contributes to its power. The film’s infamous “Happiness is a Warm Gun” montage, utilizing Moore’s familiarly ironic juxtaposition of upbeat music with disturbing visuals, provides perhaps the most chilling single minute in the director’s oeuvre—a harrowing combination of humor-turned-horror that drives home the point that gun violence is widespread in both our lives and our media landscape. When Moore films the two young men who were victims of the Columbine massacre outside K-Mart’s corporate offices, he may be using them unfairly as manipulative props, but they are unavoidably in the flesh: two young men, handicapped and traumatized by a terrible incident. By comparison, Van Sant’s characters are merely elusive players in a kind of ethereal nightmare.
As a third way, somewhere between dream and realism, beauty and horror, consider Ari Folman’s stunning 2008 film Waltz with Bashir, which recounts the dreadful slaughtering of innocent women and children during Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War. Though it’s an animated film filled with surreal flights of imagination, in its final moments Bashir switches to the documentary mode. If, like Elephant or Schindler’s List, the film has allowed viewers up until that point to experience its horrors through the protective bubble of make-believe, the concluding news clip—which depicts images of enormous grief and carnage—pops it, confronting viewers with evidence of brutality that’s more powerful than anything depicted prior.
For Folman, the aesthetic choice is not just a strategic one, but also a moral one. As he told NPR and repeated elsewhere, he didn’t want audiences to think they had just seen “a very cool anti-war animated film.” Instead, the switch to the documentary footage “puts the whole film in proportion.” Thus, a movie like Elephant, or any other movie that regards the pain of others through a distinctly stylized and picturesque lens, can lack the sense of proportion that Waltz with Bashir‘s conclusion affords.
It is in this short moment that Folman’s film provides the strongest proof for what I’ve attempted to argue here: Art may imitate life, but life’s worst tragedies may be better served by reality.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.