Classical Music and Cinema: Beethoven and “Elephant”

The Moonlight Sonata is among the most recognized compositions by one of the most recognized composers. Filmmakers know this, so when they decide to use it, it’s not the musical counterpart to the hero getting out of bed (unless there’s a corpse in there with her) or buying a mop (unless it’s to stab a pursuing serial killer). The Moonlight Sonata (given name Piano Sonata No. 14)┬ácan’t help but call attention both to itself and heighten the drama of the scene it supports. Which means its mostly reserved for climaxes, montages and closing credits.

My favorite exception is Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant which has the piece stuck way down in the sound mix of a sequence early on in the movie. Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides open on the athletic field of a high school, a pickup game of football being in the foreground, gym class mid-session in the distance. Students jog in and out of frame. One of the kids the movie has been paying attention to thus far enters, looks up at the sunless low sky and walks away. Another enters, puts on a sweatshirt and walks towards the school building. The remaining three minutes follow the student wearing the sweatshirt walking into school, passing a group of girls who eye him and finally meeting up with his girlfriend at the end of the hall. The scene lasts nearly six minutes and is photographed in a single unbroken shot. Nothing of consequence happens. But the music tells us that something soon will.

Elephant is a fictional retelling of the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre. It begins as an ordinary day at an ordinary high school and ends with two students gunning down their classmates and teachers. It does not explain their motivation nor give us, the audience, a chance to speculate. The closing credits begin as the final bullet is fired.

Elephant won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003 and generated plenty of controversy. It was the first fictional retelling of the Columbine tragedy. Van Sant’s unwillingness to offer explanations, solace or answers was viewed in many circles as callous and self-serving. In 2005, Jeff Weise killed 9 people at his high school in Red Lake, Minnesota and had apparently watched Elephant as a tutorial a few weeks prior.

Knowing none of that, Elephant will still make you uneasy. And that has everything to do with the director’s choice of tone and music. The tagline of the film is “An ordinary high school day, except that it’s not,” and the most important word here is “ordinary.” A movie is by definition the photographic capture of a set of exceptional circumstances but Van Sant works extra hard to make this one seem workaday. His young cast is entirely non professionals who use their real first names. The day in question is overcast, probably midweek, early spring or fall, no pep rallys, no graduation or prom coming. There are no obvious turns of plot, no scene stealing performances, no fancy camera tricks. Even the lead up to the massacre feels meandering and incidental, an inevitable horror made more so by how little effort the film makes in calling attention to it.

The only music of note in Elephant is Beethoven and a small assortment of the composer’s best known pieces. Within the score resides the film’s uncomfortable, contradictory heart. The music is iconic, the film an interpretation of modern day folklore. Yet by making it all seem so everyday, Van Sant yanks the comfort icons provide out from under us. We cannot say the horrible things that occur here are exceptional or rare. We must instead acknowledge that they are all too common and that part of what makes us human is our bottomless capacity to turn our own madness and rage on one another.

Elephant was the second film in Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy.” He had been a successful studio director with movies like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester but wished to return to his origins both in smaller-of-scale, lower-budget arthouse projects and Portland, Oregon where he lived. Beethoven was 31 when he composed The Moonlight Sonata and had just begun to lose his hearing. Historians have argued that he composed the piece for a young student whom he loved, even though Beethoven himself wrote that his inspiration was sitting at the bedside of a dying friend.

The Moonlight Sonata emerges from those archetypal brambles–music by an artist losing his instrument, motivated by both love and death. Van Sant, another artist in a time of great personal and creative transition, took the piece and re-engaged it with its contradictions. We know the music, we know nothing is happening in the scene where it is used. Its beauty and horror comes from knowing something will and that nothing on this ordinary day can protect us. We must, like the students at this high school, wait, then watch.

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