I saw the movie “Elephant” on cable a few weeks ago. If you have not seen the movie and want to completely avoid spoilers then don’t read on, though at least finish this sentence: the movie is original, disturbing, and well worth viewing. There is no major spoiler in this review, but if you don’t know anything about what the movie is about, as was my situation when I saw it, it might heighten the experience a bit, possibly. The unique aspect of the movie is not the subject matter, but its point of view. I don’t mean the views of the director or producer or writer. I mean the actual point of view of the film. Let me explain. Books can be written from a first or third person point of view. First person point of view isn’t used very much, but in a sense it most closely replicates our own experiences. When we walk into a room we don’t know about the murderer hidden in the closet until he appears. The third person point of view is more the “god perspective.” The narrator tells what is happening, and knows things about the story that other characters don’t know. He describers the murderer hiding in the closet, the victim opening the door, and so forth. The narrator in this type of story is somewhat god-like, but is not himself (or herself) a character in the story. The second person is rarely used in narratives, being mostly confined to instruction manuals and such: “First you open the box. Then you remove the blender from the packing material. Etc.”
Movies usually take a third person point of view. We are seeing things from a point of view of none of the characters. This does a good job of telling the story, but it is an unnatural point of view. It doesn’t seem to bother people reading stories or watching movies, however.
Movies and stories tend to be linear in time, although I have read plenty of books in which simultaneous events are interleaved through alternating chapters. Movies do less of that, though some do play with time. An example is “Run Lola Run.” Another is “Elephant.”
“Elephant” has very little dialog. Most of the movie is long slow shots of kids in a high school. Early into the movie though you realize that movie time is non-linear. There is a scene that ends with the high school principal. A number of other scenes go by. Then you are back with the principal as if no time has passed. Kids talk and a girl runs down the hall. The scene is later replayed from the girl’s point of view. Essentially the movie takes a limited time period and expands it by reshowing the same scenes from different points of view. The result is a step beyond third person. The perspective is even more “god-like” than a typical third person narrative. You get to see the events from multiple points of view. The events, it turns out, are a school shooting almost exactly parallel to the Columbine shootings. This was jarring to me when I first saw the two kids with rifles appear in the movie. Most of the film up to the shootings seems banal and everyday. The events are transcribed on film, but despite the multiple viewpoints, there is still not answer given in the film for the senseless violence. We see it all, but we still don’t understand it. It is difficult to describe the effect of the movie in words, but there is no doubt the construction of this film amplifies the horror of the events more than a simple linear perspective would have. This effect is worth experiencing. Afterwards, you realize that some things we humans are capable of cannot be comprehended, only apprehended — which is perhaps the point of the movie.