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Elephant

Director: Gus Van Sant

U.S.A.| 2003. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 81 minutes.


Unlikely as it might first seem, Gus Van Sant’s controversial response to the Columbine high school massacre has its roots in Ireland’s own turbulent conflict. The title, and much of the new film’s stylistic modus operandi can be traced squarely back to Alan Clarke’s Elephant, an excoriating 40-minute drama screened by the BBC in 1989, in which killing follows killing follows killing in an attempt to find a meaningful artistic expression of outrage at the bloody cycle of violence in Northern Ireland. Clarke took his inspiration from writer Bernard MacLaverty’s description of the Troubles as ‘the elephant in your living room’, meaning the huge issue that people can’t or won’t confront, and it’s a notion still just as relevant, in Van Sant’s eyes, to the apparently unending spiral of firearms-related carnage in today’s America.
Clarke’s ever-present tracking camera is well in evidence here, as Van Sant follows a day in the life of an ordinary high school unaware of the nightmare about to befall it. Unlike Clarke’s realist grime however, there’s an almost dreamlike atmosphere as we glide down almost empty corridors, the everyday minutiae interpolated with shots of cloud formations or elegiac Beethoven piano music floating through the soundtrack. By and by we’re introduced to the non-professional cast, occasionally doubling back in time to show exactly how paths converge when their heavily armed schoolmates stride in through the front doors and all hell breaks loose. We see the killers too as they take delivery of rifles from the mailman and set out their plan of attack, but the film insists its true responsibility is not to offer easy answers or a false sense of closure. Instead, there’s a sort of glazed horror as the bodies fall to the floor, a provocative detachment which leaves the rest up to us. A must-see.
Alan Clarke’s film ‘Elephant’ will be shown with the Gus Van Sant in a special double-bill performance on Wednesday February 4th at 6.45 p.m.

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