Alan Clarke’s bold, stripped-down take on sectarian killings in Northern Ireland remains as provocative as when it was first screened on the BBC.
Through spaces industrial and domestic men move, in pairs or alone, tracked relentlessly by fluid Steadicam, negotiating doorways and traversing empty halls, down roads and paths and corridors, encountering nobody, until somebody is located, a gun is produced, and they are killed. Alan Clarke’s legendary (at least in my school) Elephant traces murder after murder after murder, with no music or context or explanation, 18 in all, over 39 minutes, with only a title card to clue us in to the fact that it’s based on actual sectarian killings in Northern Ireland. The title is a reference to the phrase ‘the elephant in our living room,’ which Belfast-born writer Bernard MacLaverty used to describe the conflict.
Elephant may well be the most audacious piece of film ever screened by the BBC. It’s blunt and difficult and simple and achieves whatever effects it does through repetition. We get a Steadicam killing, then a lingering still shot of the corpse for a few seconds, then on to the next. There are variations and surprises, but the emphasis is decidedly upon the repetition: the steady pace, the footfalls, the gunshots. Shock gives way to confusion gives way to a kind of numb dread, the brief running time and relentless forward motion staving off a slide into traumatised boredom. Tossed into the last years of the Thatcher reign like a bilious little hand grenade it evaded the usual controversy and clumsy censorship through its Spartan nature; robbed of telling information, you couldn’t accuse it of taking sides, or collusion. You can only say for sure that it was anti-killing, laying bare the grubby, brutal acts that are usually cloaked in partisan bullshit and political rhetoric.
I missed it on TV at the time, goddamnit, but can remember the reaction of friends at the time being one of disbelief that such a thing had been made and screened on TV. Going by their descriptions it actually sounded like an inevitable endpoint for all those stalk and slash horror movies we were dragging home from the shelves of Star Video on a Thursday night: the film that was all murder and nothing else: the political nuances lost on hormonal teenagers with a pitiful grasp of the Troubles. I wonder if a teen catching it today would see it as an uncool warm-up exercise for the first–person-shooter aesthetics of Hardcore Henry and the like; doubtless most modern audiences will only possibly be aware of it as a key inspiration for Gus Van Sant’s austere high school massacre movie of the same name, or be familiar enough with the idea of the film that they don’t feel obliged to actually watch the thing. They should, though, because it’s a strange and unsettling film, provoking reaction after reaction. What would it be like longer, or shorter? What‘s happened to these huge spaces, are they all developed now? Gentrified or demolished? You wonder if the peace process will hold. You wonder about murder as the background noise of your weekly shop. You wonder at the blood that flows under every civilised street.