Alan Clarke’s Elephant and Contact – “Bold films that, simply by presenting their actions, we’re forced to cast judgement”

Alan Clarke, of Scum and The Firm, is a director of men. These could be men in prisons or aggressive, violent offenders keen to tattoo swastikas on their foreheads, as he did in Made in Britain.

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The BFI, in their retrospective of Clarkes’ films this month exhibited a double bill showcasing two films that revel in the conflict of male dominance in very different ways. They share the setting of Northern Ireland, but with perspectives of two striking definitions of warfare.

Contact, directed by Clarke in 1985, is a thoughtful observation on the military in rural Northern Ireland, near Dundalk (we can assume from the few moments of conversation made). A team is based in a small, cramp accommodation and the Platoon Commander (Sean Chapman) has a room that could barely be a back cupboard. The rest of the group are squeezed into bunk beds with grim showers and their porno mags stuck on the walls. Their time consists of walking open fields, wet pathways and bustling forests in day and night, with only a helicopter on hand to help out if stuck. Republicans use the area to exchange guns and, if lucky, pick off the British Army using automatics and bombs hidden in the fields. The monotonous daily life is ugly and the men have to brush off the death of peers and push on through their assignment. They wait in deep growth and spy on the locals as they cycle down roads and stop. In one instance, we suspect something is happening. The man takes a piss on a tree and moves on. The men struggle to stay focused. A hail of gunfire greets a dangerous mob and, it seems, the only slight perk is the feeling of power as the Commander places the cold steel of his firearm in the mouth of a surrendered enemy. This is no glorious battle and, in contrast with the stunning nature that surrounds these guys, these men are unnecessary blemishes on the stunning landscape.

Elephant1Next up was the shorter, Danny Boyle produced Elephant from 1989. The set-up is simple yet profound, as it deconstructs the fatal flaw with ill-thought, self-interested violence. Before we continue, it is worth noting that Gus van Sant’s 2003 award-winner purposefully shared the name, as Alan Clarke’s art film influenced it to a large extent. Sequences, each less than five minutes each, portray a man (or two men) arrive at a location, kill another man (or two men) and exit the vicinity. Then the camera lingers on the motionless corpse. Outside of the characters, no one else is on the streets or in the empty factories, houses and warehouses used. This is urban warfare, as no evidence is revealed as to who is on what side either. Republican or protestant, we don’t know, and with all the other obvious gaping plot-points (why is he being shot? Who is he? How did he know where he was? Are they connected? Is it over a long period of time or all happening on the same day?) we’re not supposed to know. Instinctively perhaps, we wonder whether the murdered man is on the same side as the man who’s victorious in the next sequence? Or is every murderer on one side and all the victims on the other? Assassinations take place in homes and shooters walk down long suburb roads. People sleep soundly in their beds or wake up to a day of work. Elephant could work on a loop, akin to Christian Marclay’s never-ending The Clock, as the endless shooter and corpse continues day after day, with no side winning or losing.

This was the overall pull from both Contact and Elephant. Men choosing, or ordered, to act in way that’s not only sanctioned by their peers but actively supported. The purpose of a soldier, in part, is to follow orders. The shooters, purposefully hunting and killing their target, are not random in their choice – these were sanctioned hits. Eventually, it needs to stop. Thank god the credits end our experience but we know another day awaits the soldiers and the loop of gunshot murders could continue forever. These are bold films that, simply by presenting their actions, we’re forced to cast judgement. War is an ugly thing but Contact and Elephant reveal how man’s appetite for victory, at the cost of another, is what continues the vicious cycle.

This was originally written for Flickering Myth in April 2016

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