The Cleansing of the Elephants

Trumpeting, flapping, crying: a cultural history, from Ding Yunpeng to Gus Van Sant

January 2, 1871: Victor Hugo writes in his diary: "They killed the elephant at the Jardin des Plantes. It cried. They're going to eat it." Charles Darwin—a more sensitive soul on the subject—and various naturalists, hunters, trainers, and psychoanalysts, have confronted the phenomenon that elephants do appear to cry. They are singularly sensitive to death. They do not have graveyards, but are reverential toward the bones of their kind. Like many other animals, elephants will shed tears under the pressure of sheer physical pain, but they seem alone in shedding tears of loss and sorrow.

The most touching thing in Elephant is its unexpected tears. Early on, one of its protagonists finds his way into a deserted classroom and begins to cry. A girl we have not yet seen gently asks him what's wrong. "Nothing," he answers softly. "I mean, you were crying," she says, and he answers again softly and unashamedly, "Yeah." "Is it something . . . bad?" He shrugs: "I don't know." And then she does the best thing in the world: She kisses him on the cheek, quickly and tenderly and trustingly. And goes to class. It is not clear why he cries: because his father is an alcoholic, because it is exceedingly strange to be an adolescent, because his school seems dissociated and dissociating, because he suffers from a pain as difficult to name as the one that will soon drive two of his classmates to kill the principal. It is hard to say.

Before they attack, elephants vigorously flap their ears. Elephant doesn't offer tips on how to recognize teen flapping. Van Sant claimed he "didn't want to explain anything." The problem posed by the Buddhist proverb that Van Sant thought lay at the heart of his title is not that of the folly of sending blind men on missions of zoological taxonomy. Like Christ, the Buddha had the habit of answering difficult questions with parables. When asked why some men held that the world was eternal, while others taught that it was finite in time and space, he answered with his elephant. He warned not only of the dangers of judgments based on partial information, but of the difficulty of offering any formulaic answer to the problems of life and its limits. Like Clarke's, Van Sant's Elephant reminds us of dangers so obvious they're almost invisible. Adolescence is too weird a time to inventory, and the violence in America's schools too vast a problem to solve with a recipe. Van Sant's Elephant trumpets the danger of parties who treat adolescents with little patience, and of those who furnish them with the means of their own destruction, but it also trumpets the danger of simplification—and the value of looking at the world with wide, intelligent eyes.

While this is the elephant of the film's content, with all its tears and rage, there is another equally important elephant to be found—one of form. At the start of his career, Van Sant worked on Madison Avenue for two years, learning the trade of the commercial and the lurid, of the heavily adorned and the rapidly paced; he employed this training to great effect in films about the dangers of youth (such as To Die For). In this film, however, he presents an image freed of adornment and haste—an elephant, like Ding Yunpeng's three centuries ago: massive, musing, mysterious.

« Previous Page
New York Concert Tickets