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Gus Van Sant, Elephant, 2003


Gus Van Sant’s difficult and haunting Elephant screens tonight at the Northwest Film Center as the second installment in the director’s so-called Death Trilogy. When I first saw the film in theaters, the darkroom scene stood out most in my mind as the essence of (what I perceived to be) Elephant‘s indulgence. Aside from the fact that the high school photographer character was over-agitating his film (I’m a stickler for detail. Sue me.), I couldn’t fathom why Van Sant would subject us to a wordless, real-time scene of a boy alone in the darkroom. “At the end of the day,” I silently groused, “it’s still just a long shot of a guy inverting his film canister too many times.” And then, out of nowhere, the idea struck: “Things don’t develop until they’ve gotten sufficiently agitated.” I have no idea if Van Sant had this tiny metaphor in mind, but it seemed to apply to a film about school shootings, and it allowed me to appreciate Elephant and Van Sant’s subsequent films to a far greater degree.

As it turns out, Elephant‘s darkroom scene struck a chord with lots of writers:

“The next character we meet is a photographer, Elias, who spends a lot of time… scrutinizing his pictures in a darkroom. Van Sant stays with him for minutes at a time as he rotates his canisters and prints his captured images: Very evocative, but of what I’m not sure.” David Edelstein, Slate.com

“Another moment can be seen to be playing with audience expectations in order to question the reliability of the film image itself as a source of knowledge. One of the film’s first scenes depicts the student and keen photographer Elias taking a photograph of a couple of punks in the park. A later sequence, portraying the character developing negatives in the school’s dark-room, encourages the viewer to expect to see how this particular photograph turned out. A single, unbroken shot lasting two minutes initially captures Elias’s hand in extreme close-up as he rocks a tin enclosing his negatives back and forth; his rhythmic motion creating a ‘ticking’ sound akin to that of a clock. This auditory clock metaphor serves to highlight the length of time that the hidden negatives are the object of the camera’s intense close-focus interest. A following shot tracks from left to right across a desk in the dark-room as Elias and two fellow students examine their prints. With one student mistaking a rip in one of Elias’s models’ shirt for something ‘coming out of her head’, and then choosing to re-develop her own photograph because her first attempt ‘came out too light’, the content of the conversation here points up the question of both the unreliability of the photographic image and the potential to manipulate it. The form of this sequence is also important for the audience is never fully shown the punk photograph. As Elias holds it up for inspection the image is facing away from the camera and so the audience can only barely make out the outline of the two models .The next shot emphasises the camera’s role as un-knowing observer by placing it outside of the room in which Elias hangs up his print. Looking through a doorway which frames Elias in a long shot, the camera is much too far away to provide an adequate view of the photo and is thus never given full knowledge or understanding.” James Whitfield, Alternate Takes

“The walk is not always a fascinating one… Watching Elias hang up negatives in the darkroom, I began to worry I’d be in there forever.” Anna North, the Stanford Daily

Elephant, Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park, Sat June 14, 9 pm, $7

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