Elephant (Alan Clarke, 1988)


39 minutes. 18 killings. 3 lines of dialogue. Alan Clarke’s Elephant is shark-simple in its relentless depiction of sectarian assassinations in Northern Ireland. It’s Bresson with guns, as a monotonous procession of shootings takes place with rhythmic repetition. A few shots establish a location into which a man will walk. He seeks out another man and shoots him. Then leaves. He doesn’t flee the scene: the drama of the murders produces no changes of pace or fluctuations of facial expression. We linger on a sullen corpse for a few seconds, then the process repeats again with a different shooter and a different victim. Occasionally the man we see turns out to be the victim, not the assassin. Occasionally, there is a second victim at a single scene. On one occasion there is a brief, mundane exchange of words. But for the most part, the formula stays the same throughout the film. Little attempt is made to exploit the format for a wide variety of murder methods – guns do the trick efficiently enough, thankyou.

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The killings are covered predominantly with wide-angle lenses on a Steadicam. This gives the shooters a purposeful, inexorable force, and as superior field of vision, as they carry out their task. Gus Van Sant used a similar technique for his massacre-based Elephant, which takes its title from Clarke’s film, but there it expressed ineluctible lines of fate that would converge devastatingly at the conclusion. Clarke’s tracking shots are heat-seekers, zeroing in on a target with no meandering, accident or deflection. And there is no connection between them, no sense of a conspiracy being rooted out, or a ring being smashed, just a string of squalid slayings. You want to scour people’s faces for signs of remorse, conflict, fear or other emotional nuances, but these attempts will always be frustrated, either because figures have their backs to the camera, or because their faces are sternly illegible. This is as easy as getting out of a car. And then getting back in again. The victims are benign and ordinary in their shirts and woolly jumpers. Almost all die immediately, barely having chance to register more than a dumb recognition that there’s some guy at the door. They slump or fall like the overpacked shopping bags you put down when you get home.

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Dennis Lim’s DVD review from the Village Voice puts it quite nicely, and uses most of the adjectives I wrote down in my notebook while watching:

Almost wordless and purposefully numbing, the film alternates between queasy motion (someone walks, walks, walks, and the Steadicam follows) and sickening stillness (someone is shot, and the camera likewise stops dead in its tracks). Clarke’s masterpiece, Elephant is detached and diagrammatic to the point of abstraction—it pares a cycle of senseless violence down to cruel, anonymous geometry.

Aside from the obvious shock value of seeing a set of killings that never coalesce into a narrative, there’s also a palpable sense of being kicked hard in the genres. Ouch. Isn’t TV drama, especially when its broadcast by the BBC, supposed to be a public forum for talking about political problems, current affairs and historical events? Isn’t it a way of making the news seem a bit more manageable, to situate it within a pleasingly contained, story-shaped vessel? Where is the context, the background, the psychological, character-developed, method-acted, micro-for-the-macro-allegorised, self-importantly-hyphenated drama of it all? That title comes from Bernard McLaverty’s description of “the Troubles” (itself an evasive, palliative descriptor) as “the elephant in the living room”, the enormous issue that people get used to and stop acknowledging. Well, elephant looks like the offcuts of a sanitised news archive, the deleted scenes of a war made to look like it wasn’t a war. It sounds like a trite concept, to show the human cost of conflict by excising everything else, but as a confrontational viewing experience it is a peerless pachyderm let loose in the lounge, refusing to play by genre rules: its perfect home, then, was on TV, becoming a cyclical installation piece in the corner of your front room.


Paranoid Park

I’d heard mixed reviews of Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, so perhaps I was surprised to find it riveting, hypnotic and beautiful (there’s a poster-quote for you). GVS seems to have found that delicate equilibrium between the formal experiments of Gerry (2002) and Last Days (2005) and the subject matter that obviously interests him (the moral dilemmas and looming life-choices facing alienated teens), but which became rather cloying in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. It deploys remarkably vivid techniques (particularly slow motion and a sparkling soundtrack of musicalised ambient noise) to convey its lead character’s subjective experience and his perceptual disconnect from the people around him.

Van Sant’s skillful marriage of form, tone and content is exemplified in the central incident at the core of the film (do not read on, not even the rest of this sentence after the parentheses, if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know any plot details!), the bissection by train of a security guard. In Blake Nelson’s novel, the guard is knocked down and killed by the train during a scuffle, but Van Sant’s decision to restage the death as a bravura sequence of baroque violence, during which the guard is cut in half, living long enough to crawl pleadingly towards his accidental killer, pushes the film into a new zone of oneiric excess. In a film that constructs a strong tinge of naturalism, this moment, briefly going all Dario Argento on us, could easily have overpowered the surrounding drama, but instead it effectively lodges in the memory as a bizarre and imposing memory that will haunt our central protagonist forever, regardless of whether he eventually takes responsibility for it. (See here for more on the distinctions between book and film.)

Van Sant has suggested that this event, sitting temporally and dramatically in the middle of the film, represents all of the divisions and separations contained in the film – divorced parents, the gulf between adults and youth (Alex’s parents are seen almost entirely in long shots, and his mother’s face is never shown), and the binary oppositions of confession/concealment, guilt/innocence, conformity/individuality. The death of the guard doesn’t really need all of this symbolic freight: it is important enough that it stands as an extravagantly shocking fragment of time that stays as Alex’s personal secret and permanently separates him from others.

It’s a separation that Van Sant enforces with overwhelming bursts of ambient sound, extreme slow motion and compositions that isolate Alex or hide his face from view (even when we can see his face, it is often difficult to read – a blankness that emerges as troubled contemplation rather than listless unconcern), but also with his signature following shots, illustrated below with examples from Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) and Paranoid Park :

The shot from Gerry is no doubt a tribute to Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, with tumbleweeds standing in for Tarr’s flurries of litter. I thought perhaps that Van Sant was using this shot to suggest that he was observing, following and being led by his protagonists, rather than positioning them along pre-ordained lines of action. It’s certainly unsettling to have faces hidden, backs to the camera and destinations unknown. But, particularly in Elephant and Last Days, the impression of ineluctible lines of fate drawing people towards a mortal destiny is difficult to shake. Elephant‘s tracking shots bring the film’s scattered characters gradually into deadly coincidence, while in Last Days Blake’s wanderings in the woods are more circular, repetitive and searching. It seems that Van Sant has found a range of different meanings for nearly identical shots, and by the time we get to Paranoid Park, it has become part of a more varied visual syntax that comprises a picture of Alex’s conflicted state of mind.

There are problems with Paranoid Park. It is dismissive of Alex’s girlfriend, portraying her as needy, self-absorbed and desperate for social acceptance. By portraying her as a needling representative of the forces of conformity, Van Sant misses out on a chance for compassionate consideration of the forces that alienate, control and define her. It’s reminiscent of the crude, embarrassing moment in Elephant where a group of chattering schoolgirls casually puke up their lunches in a synchronised display of eating disorders that makes them easy targets for laughter rather than dismay. But I’d hate to see Paranoid Park considered the runt of the litter in Van Sant’s great run of fascinating, exploratory movies.