20 March 2009

ELEPHANT (Dir. Alan Clarke, 1989, UK)

Lasting just over thirty minutes and featuring some of the most startling uses of the Steadicam you are ever likely to come across in British cinema, Alan Clarke’s devastatingly grim experimental study of violent executions carried out in the context of the Northern Ireland troubles is unlike anything else I have come across in British cinema. Alan Clarke is arguably one of Britain’s greatest film makers and his probing examinations of British working class male identity provide some of the most telling political statements about the effects of Thatcher’s conservative agenda upon society. Though I am still not sure whether or not social realism is a style, genre or movement makes it difficult to categorise the work of Alan Clarke. Yet realism is an aesthetic that has become associated with many of his films and many of his most powerful sequences brilliantly utilise the Steadicam. Such a technique characterises ‘Elephant’ as the camera tracks, glides and stalks the executioners as they exit out of cars and walk down empty corridors to reach the oblivious victims.

It may seem repetitive to show eighteen violent executions but Alan Clarke’s camera strips away everything in terms of the mise en scene so that we are left with merely the executioner and the victim. This minimalist approach is very grim as the absence of dialogue forces the spectator to become a virtual voyeur, gazing at the emotionless figures of death and their footsteps of doom. Essentially, Clarke keeps returning to the problem of violence and death but by the time we reach the fifth and sixth killing, we begin to question our position in relation to the carnage being exacted on screen. It is agonising to observe the aftermath after each killing as Clarke’s camera surveys the scene, never pausing to allow us to catch our breath and ready ourselves for the next killing. Produced by Danny Boyle for the BBC, ‘Elephant’ has had an indelible influence on the recent films of American independent film maker, Gus Van Sant, and he replicated the long takes and endless Steadicam shots of Alan Clarke in what has come to be known as his death trilogy; ‘Elephant’, ‘Gerry’ and ‘Last Days’.

‘Clarke takes isolated behaviour and the distilled physicality of reality to the greatest extreme in Elephant (the last of these one-word titles that aim to pare down to the essentials). The title refers to the figure of speech about an ignored problem (the elephant in the room), but the film's aesthetic stringency could well evoke the parable of the blind men and the elephant: 18 pursuits that end in gun murder are shown in succession, through a series of long Steadicam takes without any exposition or narrative, and almost zero dialogue. For a viewer who does not recognise the unremarkable Belfast locales or the unnamed murders from news accounts, the anonymous action could remain unidentified as the Irish sectarian murders which, from actual incident reports and statistics, are what Clarke is dutifully reproducing…’

Alan Clarke, Nicholas Rapold, September 2005

'Elephant' is still difficult to track down on DVD and given the fact that Alan Clarke directed many dramas for the BBC, his career continues to be reappraised as more of his work is steadily becoming avaliable. It is possible to watch 'Elephant' online though:



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