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The other Elephant and the art of context-free TV violence

Photo: Belfast Film Festival
Photo: Belfast Film Festival

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.

No survey of the unregulated border between television and film is complete without a discussion of Alan Clarke, a true original among British TV directors—and probably of Elephant, the roughly 40-minute, minimalist art-piece-slash-experimental-thriller that he directed for BBC Northern Ireland in 1988, two years before his death from lung cancer. Here in the States, Elephant is probably best known for inspiring the Gus Van Sant film of the same title, though Clarke’s is head and shoulders the better movie, as well as one of the most inspired and morally committed uses of television to come out in the 1980s. It consists of 18 scenes, covered mostly in long Steadicam shots that track characters from behind—all based on real political killings committed around Belfast, but presented without context, identification, or discernible dialogue. So, a man makes his way into the back of a public pool and bathhouse, shoots the janitor with a sawed-off shotgun, and leaves; two men stroll briskly through a park until one of them is shot in the back from off-camera; a man in a mechanic’s coverall slips into a pickup soccer game and then pulls out a pistol to kill one of the other players.

In the last few years, I’ve come to think of a lot of scripted TV and film not as totally separate art forms, but as members of the same evolutionary family, which, in the taxonomy of media, are distinguished on the most basic level by a kind of imaginary audience. A TV show can be a lot of things, but it is generally understood as something that could be aired on a TV channel (even if it isn’t), much as a film is something we can imagine being shown in a movie theater. The key with Elephant—which I’d been meaning to revisit for some time, as I’ve been collecting some thoughts on camera movement—is that for all of its stereotypically filmic qualities, it is really designed for the imaginary TV set in a meaningful way. The late French critic Serge Daney, who wrote some of the smartest criticism on movies and media to come out of the 1980s, once wrote that the key factor in the development of cinema as an art was that it was, from the very beginning, shown in a dark room to a paying, seated audience who were also expected to keep quiet.

That’s a very specific relationship, and it informs the grammar and self-reflexive qualities of movies, even when these viewing conditions no longer apply. And the key factor in TV has always been the ability to tune out. The use of repetition and ambiguity in Elephant—it’s really important. Although Van Sant’s movie won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (currently ongoing; check out our correspondent and resident Cannes expert A.A. Dowd’s daily coverage), it was initially produced for HBO. Yet it still addresses its audience like a movie audience, with particular expectations about patience and time. Clarke’s Elephant, in its own way, resembles an art installation created for the space of a major TV channel slot—something that could be tuned into at any moment. True to form, it was broadcast only once, in the early winter of 1989.

It’s really captivating; Clarke seemed to understand walking as an existential metaphor, and his extended, wide-angle-lens Steadicam tracking shots are in a class of their own. One looks for connections between the sequences, but there are none. Slowly, the underlying moral horror comes through. It isn’t directed at political causes or cycles (it’s never clear who is killing whom or which killings might be reprisals), but at the repetition of violence.