Elephant: A Matter of Pace

Curator's Note

The slowness of slow cinema is often attributed to the long take, yet the technique can serve different ends when it comes to cinematic speed depending on how movement and sound are handled. Two films that lend themselves to an especially productive comparison in this respect are Alan Clarke's Elephant (1989) and Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003). Clarke's unsettling short film, which depicts a series of killings in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, strings together long takes, mostly filmed on a Steadicam, that follow characters from behind up until the point these characters are either violently murdered, or else disclosed as murderer themselves. These shocking, seemingly unstoppable acts of killing produce a sense of discomfort that is further accentuated through the film's indefatigable pace: the relentless forward movement of characters striding briskly within the frame is doubled up by that of an equally fast-paced camera and punctuated by the sound of marching shoes striking against the floor.

In 2003, Gus Van Sant released Elephant in a nod to Clarke's film, whose title alludes to the expression 'elephant in the room': a problem of gigantic proportions to which everyone turns a blind eye. A loose reenactment of the Columbine massacre, Van Sant's Elephant also borrows Clarke's shooting device, with cinematographer Harris Savides filming students from behind on a Steadicam as they traverse the doomed corridors of the school. Yet here characters walk without the firmness of purpose that we see in Clarke's film. They instead wander at leisure to the sound of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and hazy soundscapes, their unhurried gait accompanied by a gliding camera and at times arrested through slow motion. Structured around the same filming strategy, Clarke's and Van Sant's Elephant are miles apart in terms of the sense of speed they differently concoct. The former is unrelenting, pitiless in its urgency; the latter, heavy with a dreamy languour. In both cases, however, the resulting effect is a chilling one indeed thanks to the anticipation that these characters' movements - be it fast or slow - may turn at any moment into the terrifying stillness of death. 



Tiago, it's great to see these films alongside one another in your video. One of the things that emerges in the comparison is how the two films invoke the ideas of purpose and intent. Elephant (1989)'s relentlessly purposeful walking conveys a sense of inevitability, of dark intent, of routes leading definitively to particular ends. In Elephant (2003), the 'sauntering' pace connects one to the pleasures of walking and taking details in - of nature, of space, of the glimpsed interactions and glances of people you pass - pleasures of being, and of being in the moment (which make you hope for a different outcome to the one that history provided), and also a sense of wandering from the path (which seems to extend the possibility of a different outcome).

Thanks for a really insightful comment, Lisa. I agree, the idea of purpose is key here, and what most forcefully distinguishes the pace of each film as embodied by the pace of characters + camera. While both films are decidedly chilling, Elephant (2003) is certainly more poignant and I think that this poignancy is directly related to what you mentioned: the fact that these characters' sauntering pace and their 'being in moment' are about to be violently interrupted - a knowledge that most viewers will possess beforehand and which will, as you say, make you hope that history will take a different course here. In this respect, the use of slow motion in the film is also significant because it can also be seen as an attempt to 'extend the possibility of a different outcome' if only by delaying the inevitability of what is about to happen.

Thanks both for a really fascinating exchange. Picking up on your points about sound, I wondered if you can say more about the role of sounds -particularly the temporal layering of sound that we find in Elephant (2003)- in establishing a sense of pace in these films?

I think that the sound in Elephant (1989) reinforces its sense of speed in that there is only the repetitive sound of shoes striking against the floor, which rhythmically punctuates the fast pace with which characters walk. The use of soundscapes in Elephant (2003), on the other hand, arguably produces the opposite effect because many sounds cannot be even located within the diegetic universe, creating a disjunction between the visual and the aural track that lends the film a dreamy, airy quality and that contributes, I would argue, to a more lethargic sense of pace.

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