October 23rd, 2011
Watch this clip. Do so unaware and unshielded, and come back and read the rest of the post after the clip has made you a different person. For the full authentic experience, or as close as you’ll get without being me twenty odd years ago, watch the final execution only, from about 4.12.
It’s doubtful any reading this is too young to remember VHS video. You would record a show onto a thick black fat analogue tape, and watch it later, again and again. When you had seen a show enough times you would tape over it with another show. The contents of each cassette gradually became a patchwork palimpsest of overlapping programmes, the end of each show running into the start of the next, or cutting into a film half-way, a rolling scrapbook of missing beginnings and abrupt endings.
Between the joins of one show and the next was the all pervasive void of snow, empty space on the tape, blank matter, the nonsense noise of the TV and VCR saying nothing to each other. The snowstorms were phase-shifts in your viewing experience, synaptic pauses triggering unstable responses to unpredictable stimuli. Evil faces looming evanescent from the abyssal squalls.
I don’t remember what I was watching beforehand, but I remember the snow, and I remember the last final minutes of Elephant. I haven’t watched it again since, so if the details her are wrong in fact, that’s unavoidable but hardly important. The endlessly brief expanse of ghost-space coalesced int two men, a brutalist building of British municipal anonymity, a landscape instantly familiar and obscure. They walk in eerie silence, with ominous purpose. They come to a third man who awaits them in an enormous, evacuated warehouse space. Walking in wordless footsteps, the pair reach the third man, who raises a pistol and shoots one of them at point blank range in the head. The target falls away, cold and gone, while the camera peers, not flinching, or explaining or remarking, just showing, the oddly perfect star of blood and body on the curdled shining wall.
I sat agape, helpless, pulse and mind racing to come up with the appropriate physiological response, establish the right questions to make the right frame to understand this incredible eruption of quiet chaos into my pleasant little life. It was impossible to explain. I never mentioned this to a soul – what one thing was clear was that this was something I should not have seen, and could not be spoken of, even if I had wanted to brave the threat of explaining it to someone else, of fitting it into words. I rewound it of course, not too shocked for that, to convince myself it was real.
I was not the same person after that point that I had been before. I was the lone custodian of a precious terror that over the years I largely suppressed. It wasn’t until last year, and youtube of course, that the memory itself was unburied, that I learnt about Alan Clarke, and discovered what the elephant in the room really was.
Today, as then, the tellybox is a maligned feature of the household. It blasts idiocy daily into our domestic lives, provides an environmental niche where appalling things like X-Factor, adverts, and the 24hr news cycle may thrive. To admit to watching it is a shame, an admission of defeat. It breeds all kind of awful things.
But that glimpse of Elephant, that giant secret mystery of mine, those silent screaming strange minutes that still frighten me and are so precious and treasured, that was a product of the telly too. For me that moment has become an emblem of the cathode ray’s possibilities, its capacity to disturb instead of pacify, to entrance and enhance the viewer’s perception of the world, and to provoke instead of mollycoddle. The telly isn’t, or needn’t be, a mere transmission conduit for the flat consumerist imperatives of our teetering society. It can be something weird, and frightening, and magical, and uncanny – a really existing portal into impossible new territories. It can open up realms of fascinating and essential new potentialities.
As part of our Notes from the Borderland series (love that logo), we will be posting clips of telly that disturbed and detourned our minds. That shit us right up. The scariest, most toxic and wonderful moments of fear and strangeness we could find. You will not enjoy them, but they will make this most deliciously creepy time of the year yet more terrible and brilliant, sharp like a dead shark’s tooth. And teach you new respect for the baleful gaze of that odinic eye, that sits there, among you every day, flashing moments of bleakest wisdom from the corner to the heart of your living room.
Other posts in the Notes From the Borderland series: