The ‘Ronde’ and Elephant

Posted on 19/03/2011


written 13/03/2011


Today, I am feeling rather lethargic and hungry, so if this entry feels either sluggish or starved, this would be why.

Furthermore, Mark has now made the critical mistake of using my blog as an example of an apparently informative, pretty and generally awesome (read ‘adequate’) blog, which is frightening because something tells me I’ve hit my stride too early and it’s all downhill from here. So expect an almighty anticlimax.

But any-who, we talked at length – in between the banter – on Friday about the many delights and frustrations of alternative narrative structures, by comparison to the good ol’ man-has-problem-man-must-solve-problem-man-solves-problem structure.

Ironically, this discussion flowed on surprisingly nicely from the 1941 screwball comedy Sullivan’s Travels, which we had just walked out of a screening of not ten minutes before. Travels is, at least in it’s first half, about as pedestrian as a narrative for a comedy gets: man is unfulfilled and wants to change things, but in order to change them he must go on an outrageous adventure of discovery and subversive sexuality. Much laughter results. That’s a formula as old as the hills, and yet half-way through the film, it’s cantor changes entirely, warping disconcertingly quickly into a tragedy of which we’re not sure if there will be a happy ending. It hits you like a bus, and whilst it doesn’t quite work, it’s still interesting.


Sullivan fights back an erection in Sullivan's Travels (1941)

But what of the unconventional narrative structure? What of the multi-strand or the ronde or the platform (bless it’s cotton socks for trying)? Surely these are equally as viable as a means of telling a story.

I don’t offer an answer, but I offer a riveting discussion on the matter (the politician in me)!


Back in 2003, Gus Van Sant (of Milk and Good Will Hunting fame), seemed to be feeling particularly adventurous, controversial and “American indie”. The end result of these feelings was a film called Elephant, a hypothetical reconstruction of the events leading up to the Columbine Tech College massacre, as well as his interpretation of the massacre itself.

Van Sant offers absolutely no explanation, no logic and no reason for the tragedy, and nor does that matter. What he’s doing with the film is subjectively placing his camera in the middle of this very simple, very uncomplicated place, where several kids just walk around and go about their days, seemingly linked by nothing, until this horrific event occurs and everyone becomes connected in the worst way possible.

The film has nothing to do with it's zoological namesake, by the way.

The whole thing is essentially the film equivalent of following people around, standing in the corner of the room and then watching them do absolutely nothing worth even caring about. The film is very sterile, very quiet and very understated, and in many ways quite boring. It is also an incredibly organic film, moving (both literally in terms of the camera and narratively speaking) with a certain sense of tranquility and simplicity that keeps us totally unaware of the illusion of watching a film.

You remember how I said there’s a lot of walking around and not much else happening? Well, here’s what the film looks like 99.9% of the time:

One of our killers tells Beethoven to get fucked.

The bleached blonde kid walks somewhere...

The film's climax.

It’s structure in terms of narrative is absolutely fascinating, and if we were to classify it into any form or type of alternative narrative structure, we’d most likely call it a ronde, in a similar vein to Linklater’s Slackers or Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes.  New story-lines are formed in the blink of an eye. Two characters will pass one another in a hallway, or a seemingly unimportant conversation will take place, and all of a sudden, we’re off, following them, and leaving the other guy to continue on his journey.

ME (at various points throughout the film): What? What happened to the other guy? Where’s he going? I wanted to see what he was gunna do! What, now we’re with the chick?! C’mon!!! Hey, she’s kinda cute…

It’s frustrating at times, but then again, it means we have the option (like so many great multiple narrative thread or ronde films, or even a soap opera) of picking and choosing whose story lines we want to tune in to. I didn’t like the bleached-blond kind, but I do like the photographer. I have the freedom to tune into his story line and tune out of the others.

Now, the key to the ronde is the point of nexus; the moment wherein everyone meets or is united, or the thing that links everyone together. In P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, it’s a musical number. In Slackers, the mere locale is what glues all of these people together. Here, it is this tragedy of the Columbine massacre – which is always hinted at throughout, as we cut away from the school to the two culprits in a state of plotting – wherein everyone we’ve seen before comes back and is linked, tragically, through death.

If you haven’t seen the film, the “eenie-meenie-miney-moe” sequence sends shivers down the spine, and although it’s ending is not entirely unexpected, it’s still a total sucker-punch when it happens.


Although Elephant is a very smart, very carefully meditated film with many interesting qualities to it, it is by no means a favourite of mine, and possibly my biggest reason for that is it’s structure. The film is – until it’s climax – frustratingly sterile and monotonous, and again, it leads back to how much an audience constructs their own narrative within any film. Mothlight, which I discussed last week, is a good example of a film that forces us to manufacture – as it were – our own narrative thread if we so choose.

This, whilst not necessarily a problem in other films that follow this structure, is a problem in Elephant because nobody in it is particularly interesting, and whilst this is exactly the point – as Van Sant wants to show us just how mundane this place and these people were before it was shaken by this tragedy – it doesn’t exactly help the film. If you look at a film like Coffee and Cigarettes or Slackers, the characters the director’s paint are so interesting and so vivid that we can’t help but want to watch, whereas here, everything just sort of plods along and nothing really happens and it’s all very sterile and cold.

The other problem is that there’s close to no dialogue in the film. Any talking that does occur is very sporadic and quite clearly improvised, and whilst yes, I get it, it’s purpose is to highlight the fact that this is a real place full of real people, it’s just fucking boring after a while!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that whilst I do love the ronde as a structure – and based my Year 12 short film around that form – it can only work if it’s supported by strong characters and/or a good script. Coffee and Cigarettes works because it has both of these things, and to a lesser extent Slackers as well, but here in Elephant, whilst the structure is pushed it it’s absolute hilt, it still comes across as boring most of the time.



Elephant in real-time


Official trailer for Elephant


Posted in: Semester 1