Jon Opstad


Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and the
Relationship of Film Music with the Banal

Elephant (2003) is Gus Van Sant’s fictionalised meditation on the 1999 Columbine Massacre, a hauntingly poetic piece of film-making that received the 2003 Palme d’Or at Cannes and won Van Sant the festival’s Best Director award. Much of the power of the film lies in how effectively it portrays its banal suburban high school setting before this is shattered by a horrific act of violence, with Van Sant’s attention to detail in the mediocre – painting vivid portraits of unglamourised everyday teenage lives – heightening the impact of the juxtaposition with what follows. At times documentary-like in its depiction of the lives of high school students, it is also exceptionally cinematic. The combination of a cast largely made up of non actors (many playing characterisations of themselves) and a script built largely out of improvisations, with a beautifully crafted approach to photography, sound, music and editing, creates a powerfully evocative work.

The cinematic devices that Van Sant employs in the film are often technically impressive, but without drawing attention to their own technicality or ever hinting at flamboyance. The use of very long takes, individual shots often lasting minutes each, gives the sense of following the students as they go about their everyday lives, becoming familiar with them by the observation of the ordinary. The fluidity of the camerawork gives a sense of watching these lives from within, becoming part of their world, rather than the detachment that a more conventional series of edited mid-shots and close-ups might create. Individual moments are replayed from different perspectives rather than a more traditional linear shot–reverse-shot take on events, drawing the viewer into each individual character’s experience.

At the same time, the influence of the photographer William Eggleston is evident in the photography. There is much to link Eggleston’s aesthetic to that of Elephant: the focus on suburban American life, the creation of something evocative from the mediocre. The film’s opening shot in particular, looking up at telegraph wires as clouds whirl overhead, owes much to Eggleston’s style of imagery.

Van Sant’s exceptional craftsmanship is also evident in his use of sound and music, examining the relationship between a cinematic portrayal of a banal existence, and musical score. As context, a number of canonic examples can illustrate the very different effects that music can have on such a depiction. Music has an enormously powerful effect over image and to apply it to even the most mediocre of scenes can invest it with emotion that the scene alone does not possess. To take an example like Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), in many of the suburban scenes, where a banal future existence with no books or culture is portrayed, Bernard Herrmann’s score provides a sense of wistful romanticism not present in the image alone. Music is therefore something to be handled with care when depicting mediocrity, and a director’s intentions need to be extremely clear.

The distinction between original score and existing, recognisable ‘tracks’ is significant, and the effect of each can be very different. A film like Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), an early piece of New Wave-influenced ‘New Hollywood’, illustrates some precedents in the relationship between music and the depiction of a banal existence. A portrayal of a man running away from his comfortable, educated, middle-class upbringing to an empty existence working dead-end jobs, the film has no original score, yet music forms a substantial part of the soundtrack and is used to significant effect. Rafelson employs it as a device to heighten the perceived class divide between the two lead characters of Bobby (Jack Nicholson) and Rayette (Karen Black), creating a tension between her Tammy Wynette-obsessed trailer trash portrayal and the educated, sophisticated, Chopin-performing pianist identity that Bobby is trying to escape from. An interesting aspect of Rafelson’s use of music in Five Easy Pieces is that it is almost entirely diegetic (that is to say the source of the music can be identified within the image, such as a record player or a live musician). This ties in closely with the film’s realist aesthetic, allowing the music to have an emotional effect on the viewer while at the same time being a tangible part of the characters’ lives. This use of diegetic, recognisable music, as opposed to the more traditional film device of non-diegetic original score, is a significant method in depicting a banal existence, especially at the realist end of the scale.

At the other end of the scale lies David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in which suburban life is portrayed in a darkly abstract light. Lynch sets new precedents in the boundaries between original score, existing tracks and sound design. As with Five Easy Pieces, the relationship between instantly recognisable existing music (in this case Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” and other songs of the era) and the portrayal of a banal existence is clear, but Lynch exploits this relationship to then subvert it. After the opening titles, the film begins with a montage of disturbingly perfect shots of white-picket-fence small-town America to the strains of “Blue Velvet”. A bright red fire engine drives past with a waving fireman. It’s too red. The sky is too blue, the fences are too white, the grass is too green. The music continues ambivalently as we watch a middle-aged man suffer a stroke while watering his front lawn. This triggers a transition from the heightened banality to a surreal dark undergrowth, where giant black beetles swarm beneath the grass. The recognisable, comfortable music fades away as a dark, sinister drone takes its place, not quite music but not sound attributable to any source. Blue Velvet is very far removed stylistically from the realism of Five Easy Pieces, and yet there are comparisons to be drawn in the ways in which music is utilised. Existing tracks again tap into the banality of the everyday life being portrayed, but in Blue Velvet this banality quickly gives way to a much darker underworld as metaphorically represented by the swarming beetles of the opening scene.

Viewers’ associations mean that existing, recognisable tracks have a certain power that original music cannot replicate. In the case of Five Easy Pieces this is exploited both to portray a class divide and to draw the viewer into a sense of realism. In Blue Velvet, Lynch not only heightens the banality of the opening scene with the music, but also provides many of the film’s darkest moments with the juxtaposition of recognisable, light pop songs against either suppressed or open violence. In contrast, Angelo Badalamenti’s original score serves separate functions, largely linking in with the film noir and murder mystery aspects of the film, while the sound design is not constrained to realism, characterised by disturbing, dark, hollow sounds.

As with Van Sant, William Eggleston’s concentration on the suburban and mundane was also cited as an influence by Sofia Coppola for The Virgin Suicides (1999): “It was the beauty of banal details that was inspirational.”1 Again Coppola makes use of recognisable existing tracks as a substantial element of the soundtrack, while also employing an original score by French electronica band Air. Unlike the genre-based original score for Blue Velvet, which served entirely different functions from the vintage pop tracks used (and substantially musically contrasted with them), in The Virgin Suicides the original score acts more like an extension of the pre-existing tracks in the soundtrack. Air’s sophisticated period pastiches lock in with the sense of teenage angst and youthful lustiness more than any traditional acoustic score could.

The way in which music is used in Elephant is subtle but powerful. There is no original score, just existing tracks, but used in quite different ways to the other films mentioned. The first time that music appears in the film is at 00:07.45, where an extraordinary long-take sequence is underscored by Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. This is the only point in the film that approaches a conventional concept of film ‘score’. The entire sequence is five minutes and forty-five seconds long – a seemingly continuous shot (actually two shots with one cut), starting out on the school playing field before following one student as he walks inside – with the length of the sequence determined by the length of the piece of music, performed in its entirety. The events themselves are entirely mundane. Some kids playing football. A girl looks up at the sky. Cheerleaders practising. A boy picks up his jumper from the ground, puts it on and then the camera follows him as he walks across the field to the school, walking up stairs and through corridors, past other students until eventually meeting his girlfriend. The music turns this into something altogether more expressive, however. A poetic portrait of teenage school life with an indefinable hint of melancholia. It adds an emotional layer to an otherwise fairly emotionless scene. It also draws the audience in to take notice of the mundane. Through cinematic conventions we know that the music is there to tell us to take notice of something.


There is only one other point in the film where we hear ‘music’ in a conventional, obvious sense. Again this is a lengthy portion of solo-piano Beethoven, but unlike the polished, refined recording used in the first music sequence, this second instance is diegetic and rough around the edges. At 00:43.55 the character Alex is playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the piano in the basement room of his parents’ house. Again the scene is made up of very long takes, with seemingly not much actually happening except Alex playing the piano for almost five minutes and his friend Eric arriving and playing computer games. This scene marks a turning point in the film though, with the first hints of the violence that these characters are to perpetrate. Although diegetic, the function of the music becomes score as the camera moves away from Alex playing the piano and moves in on Eric, cutting from the continuous shot to a point-of-view shot of his computer screen, showing the violent game he is playing. Switching from “Für Elise” to the “Moonlight Sonata” (as heard in the earlier scene), Alex’s playing becomes more fractured and frustrated, eventually giving up, giving Beethoven the finger and turning his attention to the internet, where he and Eric look at websites devoted to guns and weapons. There is of course a strong precedent in cinema linking Beethoven with acts of violence, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), but the solo piano “Moonlight Sonata” and “Für Elise” used in Elephant have a very different effect to the huge, orchestral Ninth Symphony heard in A Clockwork Orange.

Van Sant’s direction in this scene is in some ways daring. Watching a teenager play the piano, mistakes and all, for five minutes, is not something that many directors would choose to show, but it is highly effective. We get to know Alex’s character more: he is talented and accomplished. We take in his environment. We learn more of his relationship with Eric. As at other points in the film, we are given hints as to the reasons behind their actions, but never solid explanations – this is always left ambiguous. Compared with the serene calmness of the first instance of the “Moonlight Sonata”, the diegetic piano music in this scene has an element of awkwardness to it that gives the scene an uneasy edge. There is definite contrast in how music by the same composer is read emotionally in each case is subtle but highly effective.


One way in which Van Sant’s use of music in Elephant is interesting and unusual is the use of existing electro-acoustic compositions. These pieces blur the boundary between music and sound, creating an abstract additional layer to the soundtrack that has a strong but not entirely definable emotional effect on the viewer. The score for Elephant includes works by two avant-garde electro-acoustic composers, Frances White and Hildegard Westerkamp. What makes the use of this music so interesting is that portions of these pieces include sounds that are clearly identifiable to a listener, but which would have no explainable presence within the soundscape of a school corridor, such as geese honking, running water and close rustling leaves. Van Sant also pushes this approach elsewhere in the soundtrack. During the first music sequence with the “Moonlight Sonata”, at one point (00:12.16), as the camera follows the character Nathan into a school corridor, we hear the sound of railway platform announcements over a tannoy – for which there is no feasible reason to hear echoing around a high school corridor. In some ways, Van Sant’s approach to sound and music can be viewed as an extension of Lynch’s, blurring the boundary between sound and music, using abstract non-diegetic sound. However, Van Sant’s overall aesthetic is very different to Lynch’s, pushing these approaches in a setting more grounded in reality.

There is one corridor scene, a meeting between the characters John and Eli, which is replayed three times from the perspectives of three different students, John, Eli and Michelle (at 00:19.10, 00:35.10 and 00:55.48 respectively). In each case, the same piece of music can be heard in the background but this cannot be immediately defined. It sounds as though it could possibly be someone practising flute in a nearby room. Or is it score? In fact it is an extract from the electro-acoustic composition “Türen der Wahrnehmung (Doors of Perception)”, by the German-Canadian composer Hildegard Westerkamp, originally conceived as an art installation to be broadcast in public urban places in Linz, Austria, for Ars Electronica 1989.2 Its use in Elephant is far removed from the original intentions of the work, but is highly effective. In addition to the sound of a distant flute, this portion of the work also includes the sounds of keys rattling, a door being unlocked, hollow footsteps and reverberant knocks. The use of this piece really blurs the boundary between music and sound design, diegetic and non-diegetic. Are these sounds from the space that these characters occupy or are they acting on the level of score? The effect is further enhanced by the fact that the piece is heard at a progressively higher volume, more upfront and gradually intensifying on each of the three instances. There is no acoustical explanation within the mise-en-scène to justify this intensification, and so on this level the piece certainly acts as ‘score’, rather than diegetic sound. In terms of linear narrative, this moment occurs only about two minutes before the first shots are fired, and so this subtle intensification of the moments leading up to the act itself is highly effective within the narrative.


It is clear that music has a strong role to play when depicting the banal in film, and different approaches can have vastly different effects. The baggage of associations that comes with pre-existing tracks can be used to a director’s advantage in portraying emotion, era, social background and more. The distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music can be employed both to enhance realism and to draw the viewer into the world of individual characters. The use of score can add a new emotional dimension to the work that is not present in the images alone. The careful integration of music and sound design can create complex, often subliminal emotional undertones that can enhance the impact of a scene.

Elephant demonstrates all of these aspects, while the soundtrack remains extremely subtle and restrained. The first use of Beethoven acts as score while the second is diegetic, each having contrasting effects on the viewer while remaining thematically intertwined. Van Sant really pushes the envelope in his use of avant-garde electro-acoustic music as score, opening up possibilities that few contemporary directors have explored.


1. Hirschberg, Lynn, “The Coppola Smart Mob”, The New York Times, August 31st 2003

2. Hildegard Westerkamp’s Website, Türen der Wahrnehmung – Doors of Perception (1996), http://www.sfu.ca/~westerka/installations/turen.html (accessed 18th August 2009)

Also published in Introducing, 'Sommerpause'