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caught the late British director Alan Clarke's Elephant, a short film about the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland that was originally made for TV (and is a good sign of just how different overseas TV programming can be from American TV).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?