ELEPHANT (Alan Clarke, 1988)

influences on contemporary contemplative cinema...

[photos from here and here]

Preparatory to my analysis for Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003), I read a well written and focused article by Dan North on Alan Clarke's Elephant (1988) here. I searched youtube for the video or a clip and it was clear enough that this has been the source of Van Sant's contemplative masterpiece.

A clip from Elephant (1988)

On Van Sant's Elephant there is a notion of the extensive use of the steadycam as the primary source of movement. This technique is also noticeable in Alan Clarke's short film. I asked a question, why is this technique appropriate for the analysis, exploration and depiction of violence and mass killings? The thematic of both film revolves around mass violence. This seemed to be propelled in an almost dreamy movement of the camera locked in a moving trolley.

The steady camera - tracking shot approach is central to the stylistics of both films.

However, what are the other alternative options available for the two filmmakers to film both films?

(1) Handheld camera reminiscent of Michael Brault's Les Raquetteurs (1958) and any of Wong Kar-Wai's films.

Michael Brault's Les Raquetteurs (1958)

The object of contemplation will be lost, however, if the directors will pursue this cinematic style. It can be thought that hand-held cameras may depict the theme of violence recurring on both films with much accuracy because it can deploy much of the needed hastiness and immediacy of the gunner shooting a victim. It can also add a lot of psychological positioning as post-compositional effects. This style is common in art house cinemas especially in the independent waves in the 80s. Kurbrick did use a handheld camera when he filmed certain scenes in The Shinning (1980).

(2) A stationary camera on deep space with "Tarr-ian" effect

Deep space in Satantango (1993)

To film violence and to approach it in a realism mode of diegesis one can use the deep space extensively. To apply this approach to filming the themes explored by the two films, one can set a camera in a stationary position, set the lens in deep focus and let the characters move in front of the camera. In a way, the almost real time implementation of the action can create a realistic immediacy to the quality of the images.

The two alternatives are of the extremes of the spectrum of the stylistics of contemplative cinema. When Theo Angelopoulus crafted Eternity and a Day (1998) most of his frame compositions and cinematography were dominated by tracking shots from a long (not duration) shot to a medium shot on a gaily paced from deep focus to shallow focus, this characteristically long shots of Angelopoulus became a recurring technique on his predecessors and one cannot see why Van Sant cannot used this one. However, Van Sant's approach to Elephant was more of a Tarr than an Angelopoulus.

In the light of this filmic realizations, both the Elephant films have been much of an innovation than a recycling of techniques and one cannot discuss one without the other.