Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Elephant(s) in the Room (237)

I recently caught the late British director Alan Clarke's Elephant, a short film about the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland that was originally made for TV (and is a good sign of just how different overseas TV programming can be from American TV). I had originally heard of Elephant because Gus Van Sant admired it so much he modeled one of his own films after it, even going as far as to borrow its title (more on that film in a minute).

Clarke's Elephant is political, but if you watched it without knowing any of the context, you'd be forgiven for just thinking that it was existential, or even nihilistic. The film is stark, almost completely lacking in dialogue, and devoid of what you might consider "plot." It details a series of coldblooded assassinations, not unlike what you might see in a mafia movie, only with all the exposition, characterization, and false drama removed. The audience has no real idea who the killers or the victims are, or what specifically prompts the murders (although they are all supposedly modeled after actual murders). Each scene depicts a different attack, and nothing is done to explicitly link the scenes together with any sort of master narrative. From the audience's perspective, these deaths are horrifying and literally meaningless.

A typical scene starts with an unidentified character (sometimes the killer, sometimes a victim), and follows them as they walk around an innocuous public setting for a few minutes. Eventually a climax of sorts occurs as someone is shot, the killer flees nonchalantly, and the camera lingers over the corpses for a few moments. Cut to next scene.

Clarke films mainly in wide-angle tracking shots. Although there are usually several cuts in each scene including some close-ups, many shots are of extended length, and often assume a perspective that follows a character from behind. Implicit in these following shots is a sense of doom, of unavoidable fate. The shots create a kind of visual pathway in the frame, especially when indoors and in hallways, and that path is terrible and inescapable.

Gus Van Sant's Elephant isn't quite as unadorned as Clarke's film, in that it actually has some dialogue and characters and story, but it's every bit as bleak and still pretty damn spare when compared to most narrative filmmaking. The film is about a Columbine-like massacre at a high school, but drained of all the sensationalism other films (cough cough Uwe Boll's Heart of America) might have opted for. It's disturbing and sobering, and I mean that in a positive way, because I admire the way Van Sant refuses to find easy answers, or over-editorialize, like so many in the media did after Columbine. It takes an unblinking look at a tragedy and surmises, to quote Vonnegut, "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." It's a film about its own lack of insight into its story.

While Van Sant's lack of agenda (or his anti-agenda agenda) may be in contrast to Clarke's more pointed intentions, stylistically he borrows much from Clarke's film. Not the least of which are those wide-angle tracking shots that follow characters from behind. Van Sant's camera follows the students, victim and killer alike, down endless, winding hallways, evoking that same sense of impending terror. To the victims, it's just an ordinary, mundane day at school, but they are on an unavoidable collision course with death.

I'm certainly not the first person to point this out, but these shots of killers and victims marching down endless hallways strongly recall another film, which I think was likely an influence on both Van Sant and Clarke: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Tell me what you think.

Kubrick's vision of the Overlook Hotel is one of the great, iconic locations in horror movie history (hell, maybe in all branches of movie history), and his tracking shots are some of the most unforgettable moments of his film. What is it about these shots that is so effective? How is it that, when following a victim, they imply foreboding and helplessness, but when following a killer they imply an unstoppable force? There is something in their trajectory that makes everything feel unbearably inevitable.

Kubrick is the rare director who could make a horror film that is not only accepted as an art film, but has had an observable influence on the art house. (In addition to these examples, Gaspar Noe, an ardent Kubrick enthusiast, took these tracking shots to their furthest extremes during a lengthy segment of his Enter the Void. I loved that film, although maybe I'm being too generous in considering it part of the "art house.") What surprises me is that I can't think of examples of many horror films that stole, borrowed or were inspired by these tracking shots. Filmmakers have frequently ripped off, for example, the POV shots from John Carpenter's Halloween. Where are all the Kubrick knock-offs? Can anyone think of any examples I'm forgetting? This is a demonstrably awesome stylistic strategy, more young filmmakers need to get on it.

Final thought: I've read in the past that Kubrick was a fan of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Do you think there is any chance that Kubrick was inspired by a certain famous shot from Hooper's film?


Shenan said...

1) I was hoping you'd quote Slaughterhouse 5 somewhere in here, and you did.

2) I like the new look; I've messed with the format of my blog on and off but nothing seems to give me everything I want. One came close but would have forced me to go back and re-size all my horizontal pictures, because of a different width limit on images. I need to learn how web design and make my own theme.

3) I think this is one of your best posts in awhile. Not only for your insights, but there weren't any spelling or grammar mistakes that I caught ;)

Dan said...

"I was hoping you'd quote Slaughterhouse 5 somewhere in here, and you did."

That's interesting. By "here" did you mean my blog, or this specific post? Because if you mean post, I'm curious as to what about it made you think of Vonnegut before I quoted him.

I'm trying to promote this one to see if I can get any outside comments on, particularly if people can think of other good horror movies that use these kinds of tracking shots.

Shenan said...

I mean this particular post, because the whole "being really spare and lacking an overarching message or commentary and not fitting into traditional narrative storytelling" is the whole point of Slaughterhouse 5. Maybe I just saw the post going there, or maybe we've talked about it before. I don't know.

I can try to spread the word about your post too via various social media vehicles, if you want.

Dan said...

You're sweet, but I'm not sure the folks in your social media circles would have much interest in it.

Shenan said...

I know a lot of diverse people on facebook! I'm sure a lot of them would like to read it. I can make it so it's invisible to like...my parents and stuff if you want. But I bet a lot of people out there would be interested.

Dan said...

I don't know. It starts off by talking about 2 movies that a lot of people probably haven't seen, then ends by citing specific shots that people might not even remember from famous horror movies.

S said...

Couldn't hurt? Also, a lot of people have seen the GVS "Elephant."

S said...

As well as those popular horror movies you reference.

Joseph said...

I'd argue that part of what makes those long tracking shots so nerve-wracking is that they don't give the viewer the usual escape from the action. We're so familiar with the basic language of cinema that we assume we have the power to change perspectives and more than likely get out of that situation. Tying us to a long tracking shot denies the viewer the escape via perspective they may be expecting.

It's sort of a different way of getting at the eye-slicing business from UN CHIEN ANDALOU. There, they give you the false and expected release of cutting away and implying the action -- then going back and showing you anyway. Long shots like these also play on your assumption that you'll get to cut away and be spared having to experience the violence as a participant. They also play on the fact that you're being unwillingly pulled along by the character -- it puts the walker in charge of the action and chains the audience to him or her, heightening your sense of powerlessness and reminding you how bad you want to get away.

That sort of ties into the sense of impending doom you correctly discuss, but I think in a horror film the fatalism has an added level of going against our assumptions of what the audience's role in the action is going to be.

Dan said...


If I could "like" your comment like on Facebook, I would. I think you're right, part of what works about the long tracking shots is that it denies the audience a cutaway from the action, something we're used to constantly seeing. Even a cut to a different angle on the same action offers something of a relief of tension.

It's such an obviously effective style that I just don't get why it isn't aped more often. I'm glad that it hasn't become cliche, but still, what's stopping all the low budget horror film makers out there? Are wide-angle lenses too expensive? Are these shots too time consuming to light, block and execute? Avid farts, which I must imagine suck up a lot of time in the editing room, are abound in modern horror despite almost always being lame, yet no one can be bothered to frame a symmetrical shot of an axe murderer walking down a long hallway?

Joseph said...

Two recent films which spring to mind that make great use of long takes to heighten tension/horror(why didn't I think of this yesterday?) are CHILDREN OF MEN and IRREVERSIBLE.

CHILDREN actually has some long tracking shots of Clive Owen walking (both from the front and behind) which directly mimic the ones you're looking at in THE SHINING, although they use it to heighten the immersive experience more than to build tension. The effect is still the same, though -- the audience recoils in horror at being denied their usual escape in perspective (its actually kind of suggestive of a bad dream where you realize you're dreaming and find it even more horrible that you can't wake up). CHILDREN also has a lot of subtext about fate and the question of whether or not humans can alter their fate (the final shot is of a ship called, if memory serves, "The Tomorrow") and so you get that aspect from the long shots, too.

IRREVERSIBLE is the one that really milks the long take for ultimate emotional horror, and again, you see two themes: denial of escape for the audience and protagonist and inability to escape one's fate.

Actually, come to think of it, those two things are kinda tied together in SHINING and ELEPHANT, too. Long shots are about feeling trapped, both in a literal sense (in a school or isolated hotel) and in the metaphysical sense, where forces we can't control or even see are inexorably moving against us. Cinema, with its ability to take whatever perspective it wants, is uniquely suited to give us godlike freedom or force us to walk whatever path it chooses.

Dan said...

Both great examples, and I think in IRREVERISBLE's case, directly attributable to THE SHINING. It also furthers my suggestion that THE SHINING has been more influential on art films than on horror films.

CHILDREN OF MEN is interesting in that there's a sort of extra, "meta" layer of "wow I can't believe how long this shot has been going on for, and how much has been going in it." You're sort of aware of the technique, but it heightens the excitement rather than takes you out of the film.

I was trying to directly compare the GVS ELEPHANT to THE SHINING in my post, and in fact I think it's almost definitely a direct influence. The reason I picked those two specific shots (one of Scatman Crothers and the other of the innocent student) is because I think one is a direct reference to the other: both films have a scene where a black man (or boy) is filmed from behind walking down endless hallways into a deadly situation. In both films there is a sense that the person is going to help in some way, but then both are abruptly, shockingly murdered, throwing the audience off balance.

Joseph said...

I've been thinking about it and I actually think I understand why more horror films don't seem influenced by THE SHINING. Obviously, plenty of them are just poorly or carelessly made, or are insecure about boring genre fans by going more than a few minutes without a "boo!" scare. But perhaps more importantly, I think SHINING is trying for a kind of existential horror which doesn't have a lot to do with actual violence (there's almost none in the film).

Few horror films are interested in exploring the horror of being trapped to our fate, be that fate recieving or dealing violence. I think the final shot of the film reveals that Jack is arguably the tragic character here even more than his family, powerless as he is to stop his inevitable participation in this horror. So using the tracking shots to convey to the audience a feeling of inescapable fate makes a lot of sense there, but maybe no so much in a Slasher type film or anything which is concerned with escaping violence or ghosts or whatever. Although I think it might be effective in those situations to cultivate tension, the thematic meaning would be lost.

One film that does deal with similar themes is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's KAIRO, which, now that I think about it, has a lot of long static shots and panning shots (though I don't recall any specific tracking shots).

Joseph said...

Also when the fuck are you gonna see BLACK SWAN? I'm dying to hear your take on it.

Dan said...

The plan is for this Sunday. I promise to put some thoughts up here or on Vern's site when I do.

Dan said...

Still haven't seen BLACK SWAN, unfortunately, but now we're planning to some time this week. I will do at least a brief post once I do.

In the meantime, I'm hoping to have an unrelated post up tonight or tomorrow.

Andy said...

Everyone's been making really excellent comments, so I'll just jot some stuff down, hopefully it won't sound too stupid.

I think the camera work reinforces a lot of cool ideas in the movie. The hotel has a history of violence, built on an indian burial ground and host to the murder of a family. This cycle of violence, now repeated with the Torrances, is visually expressed in the maze-like hallways, that are imposing and disorienting. Having seen the film many times, I don't think a clear layout of the hotel is ever presented, how various hallways and sections are connected, creating this threateningly bare labyrinth, leading the characters into more abstraction and disconnection from reality. The family is never really seen together. Apart from the scene where they drive to the hotel, only scenes of 1 or 2 of the family members interacting occurs. The family is isolated from the outside world, but also isolated from each other, the tracking shots almost always just following one persons journey through the hallways, into the unknown, and in Jack's case, the darkest recesses of the mind. The shots filming peoples backs as they walk suggesting no turning back, only traveling deeper into the hotel, the same locations recurring, but each time a different level of reality revealed. By the end the characters have shined so far into the hotel, they see everything that exists on other levels around them. This roving camera really captures the journey of the film. If the camera was static, it would lose that sense of tapping into another plane, traveling into another reality where violence and evil lay dormant.

Anyway, I'd write more, but I have to go be fitted for a suit with Dad. I can write more later iof you want.

Dan said...


What's cool is that some of your comments on the tracking shots, namely:

"The shots filming peoples backs as they walk suggesting no turning back, only traveling deeper... but each time a different level of reality revealed."

That kind of describes both ELEPHANTs as well. And yes, please do continue, I like what I'm reading.

Best comments ever. Thanks everybody.