Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tackling the Twelve: Elephant

Deserted factories, cavernous warehouses, industrial spaces lit like football stadiums, rundown backlots, dingy taxi offices, parks and fields lost in the urban margins, the outskirts of industrial estates, grim suburbs, and isolated nocturnal petrol stations. These are the locations in which Alan Clark's "Elephant" (1989) takes place.

Clark made two films for the BBC in the 1980s about Northern Ireland. The first, "Contact" , follows a single patrol of British Soldiers on Patrol in "Bandit Country", the rural areas around the border. In contrast, "Elephant" is a series of short sequences depicting murder, assassination, killing. It is stripped down, without any exposition or explanation. Indeed, if one came to it without any knowledge of its relation to the Troubles, it would be difficult to specify where it was set and indeed what it was saying, exactly. It has a certain universal quality, in its emphasis on the banality of murder. These are assassinations which occur in the most everyday locations, the men involved anonymous, everymen.

Clark's technique was groundbreaking. He uses a steadicam on every scene - following alongside or behind a man walking. Across a car park, along a street, bordering a field, and through a factory his camera keeps pace, negotiating corners, a smoothly gliding presence, always on the shoulder of these men like some angel of death. The men draw guns from their coats, their wastebands. The shots are loud, thunderously so in some cases, victims thrown against walls, across carpets. Blood smears on walls. The gunmen flee, the camera refusing to follow. Instead Clark cuts back and shows us the victim, a corpse now, slumped over or splayed upon the ground. Then he cuts away, the flat affectlessness of it all impossible to ignore, likewise the absence of any glamour or heroism or dignity. We see another man walking.

And just when we have accustomed ourselves to this technique he throws in a little twist. The man we follow on a walk is the victim, suddenly, somewhat shockingly, shot from behind by a previously-unseen assassin. Clark appears to be underlining his wider point here - the universality of death, the banality of murder. The emphasis on the walking suggests that he wants us to see the everyday, functional aspects of murder. These are men committing these crimes, not political symbols - they walk to these murders, then they walk or run away. They could be anybody, hence the switch from following killer to following victim. The physical aspect of it linked also with those flat, faintly sad shots of the corpses of the murdered. Even the anonymity of the men and the setting speaks to this idea: Clark decontextualises these acts to give them only the weight of the act itself - the stealing of another's life.

Here that is almost abstracted. Some of the sequences are so stretched that it must be the case that Clark is inviting us to give them longer consideration, to examine their meaning as we watch instead of doing so afterwards. We gaze so long at a man walking at a fair clip down a lane that eventually we wonder at the nature of the image, what exactly it is telling us, and then perhaps our thought processes widen and we consider the meaning of the scene and even our complicity in watching it.
Then there is the effect of repetition. Again and again Clark depicts murder. By the end these acts lose any impact they may have possessed, the audience feels somewhat numbed. And interestingly, this is exactly the effect of something like the Troubles on the general populace - people become fatigued by murder, then accustomed to it. It no longer means as much as it should. But at some point, it has drawn anger. A few scenes into "Elephant" the film itself seems a little insane in its stubborn insistence on depicting this series of killings in such unblinking, undramatised fashion. Again, this insanity reflects the actual situation in Northern Ireland in 1989. And then it drains away, and you wonder just how pessimistic Clark was.
Giving all of this an almost disturbing streak is the fact that each of the murders is based scrupulously on an actual killing, which may help to explain the incredible flatness of the setting and playing of each.

To the modern eye, one aspect might seem terribly dated and almost naive. The killers are amateurs. Many of them draw and shoot from the hip, from waist level like in childhood cowboy games. Rarely - twice in the entire running time - men are finished off with shots to the head. Generally, death is assumed after bullets have disappeared into the torso. The gunmen turn and flee without making sure, without even a second glance at the victims. In the modern age, when anyone with a passing interest in action cinema or video games could probably map out and execute a textbook assassination, this seems an unnecessary flaw in what is otherwise a thrilling and provocative piece of work.

The title, "Elephant" originated in screenwriter and novelist Bernard MacLavery's term for the Troubles as "the elephant in the living room" of Northern Ireland. Its enigmatic quality suits the film perfectly. It was borrowed, of course, by Gus Van Sant for his 2003 film, "Elephant", which also borrows Clark's fondness for long steadicam shots of characters walking, alongside some of his visual economy.

The film is available to view in full right here .

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Blogger Ross said...

Thanks for the link, I'm looking forward to seeing it.

If the murders are based on actual events, maybe the lack of 'professionalism' is from actual events?
Would everyone involved have been trained assassins? Unlikely. Even today, with the saturation of images of violence, it's still surprising to find that many people aren't aware of what guns do.

10:02 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I think the murders are inspired by actual murders, but not actually recreations. But its not a big point...

12:34 am  

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