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The Pistol in the Suitcase: Motive, Temporality, Queer Youth Suicide
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In the midst of the hypnotic , stylized gorgeousness of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is a scene about, among other things, reading. Or perhaps we should say that, like virtually every tranced scene in this fictionalized account of a Columbine-like high school massacre, it is a scene about motive : what we take motive to express, what we imagine its legible signs to be, and under what pressures we seek to transform those signs into various kinds of attribution. In it, the camera’s unblinking eye does a double turn around a basement room in which a teenaged boy—he is soon to become one of the shooters—plays Beethoven on an upright piano. At first, we are situated just to his left, close enough watch the contours of his face. While he is playing, his friend and co-conspirator appears in the window above him, and as the camera turns away from the boy and around the basement space he inhabits we come to see that the friend has made his way into the room. The unbroken shot at last expires in a cut from the friend back to the young man at the piano. But what you might call the action of the nearly three-minute-long sequence resides not in the song’s performance, nor in any dialogue, nor in any of the incidental interaction between the two young men. In the place of any of these things there is, instead, something not unlike a Whitmanian catalogue in visual form: a small litany of quotidian objects unscrolling before the camera’s deliberate, unhurried gaze. And then, as the camera repeats its turn around the room, we see it all once again, as though invited to scrutinize still more closely, still more forensically, the landscape of adolescent detritus. “Fur Elise” swells and choruses, and this is what we see: trophies, cassettes, an inner room filled with storage boxes, a large painting and drawings affixed to the walls, an unmade bed, a camouflage backpack nestled against a soccer ball, a baseball mitt, a drawing of an elephant, stereo equipment, a pretty boy playing piano.

In its level and omnivorous gaze, which identifies us as viewers with a position suspended disquietingly between that of the predator, the prosecutor, and the connoisseur, the film offers perhaps its most vivid address to the mystery of motive—which is also the promise of motive, of explanatory attribution—that is so much at the heart of Van Sant’s project. (“How can you tell?,” asks an adult in an earlier scene, at what appears to be a meeting of something like the high school’s meeting of queer-affiliated kids.) We are confronted, in essence, with pieces of evidence , but it is evidence assembled in a conspicuously undifferentiated, lateralized way. Presented as part of this dehierarchized sequence, each object here is shown to be rich with possible implication and, in the same lateralizing motion, utterly hollowed out, transformed into the interchangeable equivalent of any other isolated data point. To read the elephant in this particular room as the explanatory Rosetta Stone, the film reminds us, is no more credible, and no less, than seizing on the boys’ piano-playing, their video-gaming, their ostracization, their wardrobe, the Nazi documentary they watch, or—oh, yes—the fact that they share a kiss, and a naked embrace, in the shower in the lead up to the murders. Why not select the drawing of an elephant as your epiphanic text?, the film asks. Any item will do the work of motive attribution and will do so with an arbitrariness that no explication ever can fully banish. (This is what Heather N. Lukes means when, in her brilliant reading of the film, she writes, “The only element Van Sant adds to the Columbine story is this homosexual element, but it is literally meaningless ” [emphasis added].)1 There are video games, guns, queer embraces, elephants: an array of objects, any one of which can be grasped and made luminous with meaning, its significances expanded almost infinitely by the spectacular violence that is to come.

Kathryn Bond Stockton, in her indispensable volume The Queer Child , gives us the grammar...



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