Elephant | Pagans

Credit: BBC

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Thomas Atkinson

It is unavoidable in having a conversation about British film to not mention Alan Clarke. That fact speaks to some of the extraordinary films Clarke directed before his untimely death in 1990; but it is also, unfortunately, a reminder that Clarke has become something of a rarity in Britain. Filmmakers of his ilk – ideologically attuned, formally bracing and adventurous – are hard to come by in 2020. In his own time, he was part of a talented crowd of political and stylistically diverse directors working in Britain in the 1980s that also included Mike Leigh, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien, Ken Russell, and Stephen Frears. Clarke was the most extreme of all, though, even more than Greenaway’s fantastical mutilation spectacles and Jarman’s queer punk-Renaissance melanges. In fact, it is these directors’ baroque-ness that separates them from Clarke, a much more restrained filmmaker, and thus one more attuned to the hidden-in-plain-sight evils of his own country’s government, military, and ideology. 

It is tempting, upon rudimentary examination of Clarke’s credits, to haphazardly slot him into the kitchen sink drama tradition in Britain. His fascination with anti-social Thatcher-era angst (often the right-wing kind) in Scum (1979), Made in Britain (1982), and The Firm (1989) certainly earns him that reputation. This limits the scope of his abilities, though. He is a far more talented formalist than many others who could similarly be called British realists (Ken Loach, anyone?), and his other informal trilogy – on the Troubles in Northern Ireland – testifies to his career arc from a rare talent in teleplay direction to one of the best political directors in the Anglo-American world.

Psy-Warriors, a 1981 installment of the BBC’s Play for Today series of teleplays, was the first of this trilogy. It follows a group of volunteers in a Psychological Operations (PSYOP) experiment to test new forms of psychological torture. Play-acting as suspects in an Aldershot pub bombing, they are kept in white cages, interrogated, and humiliated by their captors, even after the experiment has officially “ended”. So, for example, a prisoner named Richards (Derrick O’Connor) is released from the programme and then charged with recruiting ex-Army members as mercenaries, locked in a noiseless cell, and observed by the same captors who have been acting as faux-adversaries in the PSYOP tests. Whether or not Richards actually did these things is left unanswered.

The defining tension of Clarke’s early 80s TV work was between the TV workmanship that he practically had to adhere to during this period and a much bolder political impulse in his collaboration with screenwriters. He’s formally inventive here, as in films like Stars of the Roller State Disco, and Beloved Enemy, often using blocking in ways that are blunt but effective (if Clarke had a motto, “blunt but effective” would surely be it). But he has to shoot on the ubiquitous video format, giving his films the cheap look that one may recognise from BBC sitcoms of the period. Even when writer David Leland is able to throw in a searing monologue about British colonialism and its place within broader global oppression (in Vietnam and Palestine especially), the psychological effect of watching Clarke working with these resources is to dampen the film’s impact. This is all despite it being by far one of the most shocking pieces of fiction broadcast on the BBC at the time, so horrifying and so timely that Mark Duguid, writing in the booklet for the BFI’s excellent re-release of Clarke’s BBC work, was surprised it didn’t get banned like the original version of Scum.

It’s in Contact (1985) and Elephant (1989) that Clarke’s formal conceit becomes easier to define, though there are still differences between even these two films in tone and intent. Nevertheless, in both films, Clarke invests in a directorial rigor that is almost theoretical in its emphasis on distance and shaking the viewer out of passive viewing experiences. But it’s also not flowery and graceful like film theory; it’s aggressive and forceful, less like someone reading Sergei Eisenstein’s theory than taking the book and smacking you in the face with it. 

In Contact, a film about British soldiers on patrol in Northern Ireland, the leap to shooting on film is far more than a mere budgetary bonus. Combined with a handheld cinematography that places the viewer in the thick of the action, the film’s mood is close to documentary, a fact that was pertinent for viewers at the time when they mistook the images for actual dispatches from the front line. There’s an obvious televisual parallel here between Vietnam and Clarke’s documentary-adjacent cinematography. Indeed, the sense of dwindling moral power in both countries that links Vietnam to Northern Ireland is present in Psy-Warriors too. Compare the cultural longevity of Clarke’s film with, say, the American reverence for the Vietnam films of Oliver Stone; it’s as though England has a collective cultural amnesia about its actions in Northern Ireland. I’m not sure what’s worse: England’s fingers-in-ears denialism or America’s revisionist, self-centred trauma stories about Vietnam.

The brilliance of Contact, however, is ultimately in how it so roundly places the audience in the point of view of the soldiers (often the camera runs along with them as though it is a member of the platoon) and still refuses any identification with them. Their psychological interiority is barely hinted at by Clarke and actively suppressed by the film’s unnamed platoon commander (Sean Chapman), who tells them bluntly after one of their members is killed by a bomb that it “comes with the job”. Just as the Northern Irish citizens and dissidents that they observe, torment, capture, and sometimes murder are seen from their Othering point of view, so the very same thing happens to the soldiers. 

But perhaps Clarke felt that allowing even the possibility of empathising with the soldiers through some misbegotten notion of imperialist trauma was too much. In Elephant, he strips everything back to its barest essentials: a location, a killer, a gun, and a victim. A series of 18 vignettes, all based on real reported events culled from newspapers, happens one after the other. In each one, someone is killed by someone else with a gun. At the end of each vignette, the viewer is helpless as Clarke moves onto the next one. The killing is unstoppable. As Leland said about the film, its “cumulative effect is that you say, […] ‘The killing has to stop’.”

Elephant’s conceit is no less interesting and direct than Contact. But it is arguably more sophisticated because it is in the little details that Clarke builds his world of terror and violence. There are several elements that, at first, appear to repeat themselves in each vignette. A close-up of the gun as it fires, for example, or a shot at the end of the vignette of the victim’s body after the killer has left the scene. But Clarke will often add new elements, like a second victim or a figure in the distance who seems like they could be the killer, only to never be seen again. And repeated images that one has become used to (if such a thing can be true of cold-blooded executions) like the close-ups of the gun are done away with and then reintroduced later. This tug of war between circular, repetitive hypnosis and sharp stabs at the audience’s inertia with wartime violence is still remarkable and haunting to this day. 

There are simply no other British filmmakers like Alan Clarke. It seems absurd that even such basic things as direct, clear-eyed engagement with political issues are still missing from British cinema, by and large. That’s leaving aside the complexities presented when a political formalist does come along in Britain today, often burdened as they are by reductive class assignation that could be paraphrased as: “Thinking about where you place the camera and how you edit your film is elitist”. Clarke’s films were simply too rough, too down-to-the-marrow, for such a reading. The enduring tragedy of Clarke’s early passing is that he appeared to take with him a particular brand of clear-eyed filmmaking that doesn’t lose sight of its political ambitions. When watching the blinkered political landscape in the United Kingdom, I wonder what Clarke would make of it. Like no other director, he saw through the bullshit. These days, most British directors are the bullshit.