Elephant and the Paradox of Narrative
On Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle's radical cinematic minimalism.
Sometimes there are accomplices, but there are rarely witnesses. The killers are calm and professional. They walk with a purpose, quickly and evenly. Everyone is a man between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-five, everyone wears work clothes or business casual, almost no one says a word. No one cries out in pain, no one shows remorse, and no one is there to hear the gunshots. This is the world of Elephant (1989), a forty-minute-long exercise in cinematic minimalism and restraint. As the presentation blurb for the film at the Toronto international film festival has it: “An empty space. A man. Another man. Bang.”
Elephant was created by director Alan Clarke and producer Danny Boyle as a response to The Troubles, the low-level sectarian conflict which gripped Northern Ireland for thirty years throughout the late-twentieth century. While larger, flashier instances of violence and resistance (such as Bloody Sunday and the 1981 Hunger Strikes) take center stage in histories of the conflict, the Troubles were experienced, according to Irish author Bernard MacLaverty, more as a bloody background hum than as a constant stream of spectacular, large-scale violence. Boyle has described the film as being motivated by a frustration with the apathy of the English public towards the steady, smaller-scale killings of the mid to late 1980’s, and Elephant has thus been positioned in much critical writing as an attempted intervention in the media discourse surrounding the conflict. Richard Kirkland, for instance, discusses the film’s impact and scope in relation to Guy Debord’s concept of the “society of the spectacle”, arguing that Elephant, while exciting and refreshing in the radicalism of its presentation, ultimately fails to break free from dominant narratives concerning the inefficacy of terrorism and the necessity of state repression in the face of violence.
Elephant itself gives the viewer almost nothing historical to hang onto, and includes no obvious narrative of any kind. The viewer’s only hint is a quote from MacLaverty which opens the film and from which its title derives: “for some of us ‘The Troubles’ is the elephant in our living room”. What follows is a series of scenes, modeled after real police reports of sectarian violence, depicting eighteen murders by different assailants in a variety of settings — restaurants, gas stations, parks, factories, soccer fields, homes, offices. There is no dialogue of any consequence, no music, the men do not wear uniforms, and the viewer is given no indication as to their backgrounds, psyches, or motivations. The camera follows men who kill other men, briefly frames their blank faces, lingers over the bodies, and moves on.
In this sense it is difficult to say that Elephant is a film about The Troubles in the strictest sense. While clearly inspired by the violence of its times, the film itself is empty of even the most minimal historical background, and the dominant interpretation of the film — that it calls for an end to sectarian violence by laying bare its meaningless absurdity — rests on the assumption that the film’s audience has enough historical context to fill in the gaps. That is, for the film to function as a call for peace, the viewer must impose a narrative onto a series of scenes which are unconnected by any exposition, plot, dialogue, characters, or other traditional narrative devices.
According to Kirkland, the power of the film rests on the fact “we appear to generate” this narrative of violent absurdity “without any guidance from the text itself.” How this is supposed to occur is unclear: is the viewer meant to be overwhelmed by the violence portrayed on screen and, without reference to the formal aspects of the film, arrive at an emotional gut reaction which renders political motivations inconsequential? Does the viewer become aware of this absurdity only after the credits roll, having searched their knowledge for some context within which to place the film’s images? Is one meant to reflect on the meaning of violence actively and consciously, thinking critically as the killers walk towards their targets, as the inevitability of another murder becomes gradually clearer? Or is this an intuitive process rooted in the long, lingering shots of uncannily still corpses which accompany every fresh killing, the inherent pathos of a murder victim standing in for the emotional weight of a name, a background, or a motivation?
Kirkland claims that Elephant “flatters the viewer just as it seeks to disturb, and locates itself within whatever prior knowledge of the North the viewer may have.” Thus, he argues that certain aspects of the film (such as its “deliberately banal mise-en-scene”) subtly guide the viewer towards a realization of the meaninglessness of sectarian violence, their level of background knowledge serving only to add nuance to a generally unavoidable conclusion. According to Kirkland, the film is constructed so as to allow the viewer the satisfaction of building a narrative out of a seemingly inscrutable text, and it is their previous knowledge which serves as this narrative’s building blocks.
Alongside other critics who have written about Elephant, Kirkland also places much stress on the intimacy afforded by the film’s use of the steadicam, a then recently invented technique which allows for the operator to keep their shots unnaturally stable and smooth while in motion. James Schonig, for instance, goes so far as to claim that Elephant “might be said to be as much about [the steadicam] as it is about the Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland, the cinematic representation of historic violence, or the impossibility of identifying the causes or motivations of such violence.”
While the steadicam is certainly an integral part of the film’s style, camerawork alone cannot explain the impact of the film as a whole. It is certainly the case that if one is to ascribe a specific “message” about The Troubles to the film, one must rely heavily on the viewer’s extra-textual knowledge and cultural background. There are, however, aspects of the film which reveal an intention to render violence meaningless by divorcing it from its political ends. Far from being a spectacle, the violence of Elephant is intimate and contained, concerning only the men involved and having seemingly no impact on any political cause.
While the form of each scene and each murder may seem to be relentlessly repetitive, the viewer can become aware overtime of the subtle differences and gestures inherent in each murder, and repetition only serves to emphasize these small differences. In one murder, the victim may be positioned as staunchly working class, a janitor or an industrial laborer covered in the grime of their work, while their assailant is more carefully groomed and tastefully dressed. In another the roles may be reversed, with a gentlemanly old man being murdered by a younger man in a leather jacket. There is only one scene in which anyone speaks, and contrary to expectations, the dialogue is inconsequential and mundane, having nothing to do with the killing or its motivations. Coming in the middle of the film, it leaves the lingering expectation of further dialogue and, through its mundanity, renders the violence seemingly arbitrary, as if the killer had picked a random man off the street.
In the film’s final scene, the viewer witnesses two men walking through an abandoned yet brightly-lit warehouse. They walk casually together with no clear signs of animosity nor amity, the natural assumption given previous scenes being that these are two accomplices on the job. Yet the final murder of the film still comes as a tangible surprise, the conclusion forgone yet its exact form relentlessly inventive.
The ordering of scenes in Elephant gives evidence to a gentle curatorial rhythm that works to subvert expectations as to who kills who, where, and how. The film is also subtly beautiful, framing dead bodies and stalking killers with a seemingly intuitive, unstudied grasp of lighting, composition, and perspective. Each murder is executed with a pleasing if tightly controlled variety of different backdrops, settings, colors, clothing styles, getaway vehicles, and firearms. The overall impression is of a violence that is arbitrary, passionless, automatic, and recursive, a so-called “tit-for-tat” cycle that takes place within a self contained sphere and which answers only to its own logic. Yet the small surprises and variations which give the film its elegant and non-verbal narrative rhythm also serve to emphasize the specificity and materiality of each murder (being not simply part of a statistic) in an attempt to break through the apathy of a distant, media-consuming public.
These aesthetic and formal aspects of the film nevertheless operate independently of the film’s ostensible subject matter: one does not need to know anything about The Troubles to be surprised by a scene’s outcome or to gradually feel the Sisyphean nature of the violence on screen. In Elephant, it is as if cinema or the camera itself is attempting to stage the most simple, unadorned, and “perfect” murder within a narrow set of parameters, yet this free-standing cinematic agent is unable to resist the urge to aestheticize and shape even the most morbid and barren circumstances.
Schonig’s comments on the “cinematic representation of historic violence” thus point in an interesting direction, namely that the film’s minimal narrative also challenges the aims of cinematic realism and artistic representation more broadly. What Elephant makes clear is that any attempt to create an artistic representation of reality that is as “objective” as possible is inherently doomed to failure. Indeed, it could be said that the illusion of reality within a work of art requires certain unrealistic uses of perspective (such as those afforded by the steadicam) and an unrealistic degree of order, harmony, and intention, however subtly they are hidden within a given form. Paradoxically, the more minimally one attempts to shape the material of a work of art into an artificial form, the more forcefully the artificiality of the work and the simplicity of its form will be felt.
Elephant thus highlights the absurdity, not just of sectarian violence, but of the illusion of cinematic realism. Far from screaming in pain or roaring with a theatrical passion, the subjects of Elephant are empty shells, pieces of clay molded in the potter’s hand. They thereby reveal the artifice of the film to the viewer, asking them whether there is anything at all within the arbitrary framework of the work of art, or whether this frame is itself the point. The more simple or seemingly blank the painting, the more each stroke will stand out, and the more the color of its frame — gold or black, wooden or painted — will, consciously or unconsciously, anchor ones experience and interpretation. Even an empty space, it seems, is framed by its emptiness.