Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Alan Clarke's Elephant

I'm not sure what, exactly, I have to say about this one. For those who don't know it, Alan Clarke's 39-minute-long film is nothing more than a series of scenes depicting one or more men quietly and efficiently gunning down some other man, either in the victim's own home, or in a public restroom, or in the street, etc. The film is almost completely free of dialogue -- only one of the scenes features any speaking at all, and even that is of the most perfunctory sort -- and each scene includes many of the same shots: a shot, from the side, of the killer walking, a close-up of the killer's face as he's committing the murder, a close-up of the gun being fired, and a medium shot, after the murder, of the victim.
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I first found out about this film by reading an interview with Gus Van Sant regarding his own film called Elephant, about the Columbine school massacre. Van Sant acknowledged his clear debt to Clarke's film by pointing out, among other things, that he'd simply lifted Clarke's title. Both films share other similarities, such as a fascination with showing people walking. This has become a big thing with Van Sant of late, and you can see all the inspiration for it in Clarke's film. As I said, each killer is shown walking for a fairly long stretch before he reaches his victim, and Clarke's camera does nothing more than dolly along beside him, the microphones picking up (or adding later) the sound of the shoes on gravel or macadam or mud. Van Sant has a curious ability to add an enigmatic kind of poetry to his walking scenes, but Clarke seems uninterested in that. He wants only to show -- I believe -- that a human being who has set out to kill another human being has to go through the same old bodily motions that we all do in order to get there, that a conscious decision has to be made to kill, and more actions than the pulling of the trigger have to be taken, and that turning back is always an option. But in his film that option is never taken.

The Van Sant interview clued me in, before I'd ever seen it, that Clarke's film is about Ireland's Troubles. This information gave me the context that, I have to admit, I may not have been able to provide for myself if I'd just watched the movie completely cold. The film aired on BBC in 1989, at a time and in a country that probably didn't need any hand-holding to get the point. I can only imagine the impact this film would have had then, and can only say for myself that I found the film fascinating and sort of bizarre, as well as slightly enervating by the end. Which was probably, in a sense, part of Clarke's point.
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Anyone who wants to can watch Alan Clarke's Elephant here.
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Update: Sometimes, I go too fast. I realize now that not only didn't I talk at all about the title of this film, but I should have. Over at the Palimpsest, where I also posted this, fellow member Fanshawe reminded me of the source of the title Elephant, which is a quote from Irish author Bernard MacLaverty, who referred to the Troubles as "the elephant in our living room". MacLaverty's elephant, at least according to Wikipedia, are the "underlying social problems of Northern Ireland." Taking Wikipedia at its word, it's quite interesting that Clarke would use the title Elephant, because if there was ever a film that was calculatedly disinterested in exploring cause and effect, it's this one.

And Van Sant's film, too, while we're at it, although some claim that the shower scene in Van Sant's Elephant (as opposed to the shower scene in Van Sant's Psycho), which depicts the two killers kissing, is meant to show that homosexual repression was at the heart of their rampage. I'm not buying that, though, not least because, in that scene, the killers don't exactly seem repressed. In any case, the result is that, with both films, the title Elephant just sort of hangs there mysteriously, daring you to make sense of it.

9 comments:

Ed Howard said...

This film is very interesting. To me, whether or not one has the necessary context about the "Troubles," it creates an impression of an unstable society where murder is a commonplace, where anyone can be killed at any moment. Clarke enhances this impression by occasionally varying slightly from his formula: if I remember correctly, at one point, once the "follow the killer" format has been established, the film defies the convention by following the victim instead. We in the audience only realize that something has changed when the guy, who we'd assumed up until then was a killer, gets killed. So even within this minimalist framework, nothing is certain, nothing is solid.

The formalist austerity of the film serves to highlight the cause-and-effect chain of violence: one man pulls a trigger, another man lies dead. It is simplicity in the extreme, but perhaps a necessary simplicity, a way of making abstract politically motivated violence more concrete. I think it's for this reason that Clarke doesn't include any real context about the political situation he's referencing. His message has little to do with politics, and everything to do with the way that violence abruptly shatters and ends human lives. It doesn't matter why these people are killed; they're just as dead if they're Protestants or Catholics, British or Irish, or for that matter if they're part of some other conflict altogether.

bill r. said...

Yeah, every so often Clarke tweaks his formula, although not, in my view, to any great or lasting effect. The film is the film, and the effect of each scene is the same, whether he changed things up here and there or not.

His message has little to do with politics, and everything to do with the way that violence abruptly shatters and ends human lives.

Right, although this film has always, from what I can tell, been closely related to the Troubles, and was inspired by them, so it becomes hard, for me at least, to see this as simply a film about general violence. It would also be interesting and illuminating to know which specific murders Clarke was depicting, and who the victims and perpetrators were.

But Ed, didn't you think, at any point before the film was over, that perhaps Clarke had already made his point and didn't need to keep going? It seems a bit long, even at 39 minutes.

Ed Howard said...

Again, it's been a while since I've seen or read about this film, but if I remember correctly it was at least partly about inter-sect violence within groups like the IRA, who were at the time killing off some of their own members for various perceived or actual betrayals. I don't know if Clarke was referencing any specific murders, though.

The other question is how long is too long, or not long enough, to make the particular point Clarke wants to make here. I don't know the answer to that, really. I mean, the basic point is certainly obvious after we've seen just a few murders, but there is also something to be said about the cumulative effect of the repetition. Seeing four murders in a row is one thing; seeing ten or fifteen or twenty is perhaps something else. I think Clarke intended for the film to be a kind of a blank slate, giving people time to think about the violence they're seeing, to bring their own ruminations on politics and mortality and murder to the film. It's similar to the effect that Van Sant achieved with the ultra-minimalist Gerry, which seems to be mostly empty and spacious in order to encourage contemplation.

That said, I think Van Sant's Elephant is a more sophisticated and interesting film. Clarke has a very simple message to send, and he communicates it as forcefully as possible and that's it. Van Sant is after something much more subtle.

bill r. said...

if I remember correctly it was at least partly about inter-sect violence within groups like the IRA

You wouldn't know it to actually watch the film, of course. How can he get that across with the method he chose? How can it be about that more than other kinds of IRA murders? Or, in fact, removed from context -- which would have to include people just telling you what it's about --how can it even be about the IRA specifically? So maybe I agree with you're earlier point about it being about violence more than anything more specific, although it's still hard to see any of these killings as entirely random, or as any kind of street crime. It has to be about something in particular, but without anyone flat out telling you what it's about, it would be nearly impossible to figure it out for yourself.

I don't know if Clarke was referencing any specific murders, though.

He was, or at least so I've read. Supposedly, each killing is based on an actual police report, which is probably why one scene includes dialogue -- the witnesses reported it -- and the others don't.

I mean, the basic point is certainly obvious after we've seen just a few murders, but there is also something to be said about the cumulative effect of the repetition. Seeing four murders in a row is one thing; seeing ten or fifteen or twenty is perhaps something else.

That's true, although I would say that, from a filmmaking standpoint, there is a definite place to call it quits, and I think Clarke maybe missed that point. It's a small thing, however, and I don't want to make too much of it.

It's similar to the effect that Van Sant achieved with the ultra-minimalist Gerry, which seems to be mostly empty and spacious in order to encourage contemplation

Though I haven't seen Gerry, I thought about it, based on clips I've seen, while watching Clarke's film far more often than I did Van Sant's Elephant. For one thing, in Van Sant's Elephant, the characters are filmed walking from behind, while in the clips of Gerry they're shown from the side, which is how Clarke films his murderers. There's also the sound of the gravel and dirt crunching, which I remember hearing in clips for Gerry. I'm pretty sure I've heard Van Sant make reference to Bela Tarr in regards to Van Sant's series of films, but Clarke seems like a more direct influence on more than just the obvious one.

bill r. said...

Although it occurs to me now that I'm contradicting my review (such as it is) by saying that I think Clarke went a little past the cut off point. I say in the review that while I found it a bit enervating by the end, this may have been part of Clarke's intention. By which I think I meant that a sort of numbing of the audience could have been intentional, to show the progression (or regression) that real people who are close to this kind of violence go through: from horror, at the beginning, to a casual feeling that "Oh, that's too bad" as the violence continues without pause.

So that's what I meant in the review, but maybe I don't quite buy that.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, obviously when I say the film is "about" IRA violence, I mean that's what it's based on -- I stand by my original point that, regardless of the external context, the film is more general in its themes and messages. I mean, Clarke left that stuff out on purpose, he could've just as easily signaled what he was talking about, specifically, even if it was just with a title card or something. The fact that he didn't suggests that the point he wants to make is about violence rather than IRA violence.

Also, the walking from the side shot in Gerry is a direct quotation of a shot that appears in Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, so that's obviously a very pertinent reference point. But I think Clarke's film is also an important influence for Van Sant, especially in his own films that deal with violence.

Ryan Kelly said...

Did you put that mosaic together?

And I'm enjoying the conversation you and Ed are having but can not comment because I haven't seen the film in question. Maybe next time.

Ryan Kelly said...

If you want, I'll just make up an opinion so I can contribute.

bill r. said...

I did not make up that mosaic. The internet did. How fortuitous!

I've added an update to this post, which talks about the film's title, something I should have gotten into from the beginning. But oh well, I'm stupid.

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