American cinephiles know Alan Clarke best as the director of Elephant, the film that provided the title—not to mention the formal and emotional strategy—for Gus Van Sant’s ethereal meditation on Columbine. Clarke’s Elephant (1989), which depicts a series of sectarian killings in Northern Ireland with a provocative combination of suspense and affectlessness, in turn took its title from novelist Bernard MacLaverty’s characterization of the Troubles as “the elephant in our living room.” Elephant was Clarke’s final film; by the time of his death, at age 54 in 1990, he had been unleashing hordes of elephants into British living rooms for more than two decades. Working mostly for the BBC, he gravitated toward pugnacious characters and prickly subjects that his employers often found unpalatable. Van Sant has paid the most direct homage, but Clarke’s influence is extensive: Two of his stars, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, directed features that owe a lot to the man they call Clarkey, and you can detect his imprint in films as disparate as Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and Harmony Korine’s Gummo.
Taken together, Clarke’s work from the final decade or so of his life, a period that coincided with the Thatcher years, constitutes a bellicose postpunk yowl. Blue Underground’s essential boxed set compiles four of these pulverizing dramas, starting with Scum (1977), a juvie-prison scrum starring Ray Winstone, defiantly remade for theatrical release in 1979 after the Beeb banned it (both versions are included). Clarke famously muscled his male actors to animalistic extremes. Roth got his first break as a savagely articulate skinhead in Made in Britain (1982), and Oldman played a yuppie family man high on the fight-club thrills of football hooliganism in The Firm (1988). As eloquent as Clarke was with the argot of imploding masculinity, the 40-minute, near-Bressonian Elephant dispenses with all macho posturing. (Blue Underground’s box unfortunately omits the junkie-tedium classic Christine and the military-patrol quasi-doc Contact, both valuable companion pieces to Elephant.) Set in a grim, emptied-out Belfast of cavernous warehouses and expansive parking lots, Elephant stages, minus context and clarification, one killing after another. Almost wordless and purposefully numbing, the film alternates between queasy motion (someone walks, walks, walks, and the Steadicam follows) and sickening stillness (someone is shot, and the camera likewise stops dead in its tracks). Clarke’s masterpiece, Elephant is detached and diagrammatic to the point of abstraction—it pares a cycle of senseless violence down to cruel, anonymous geometry.