Thursday, 20 November 2008

ELEPHANT GUN (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)

Made back to back with The Man Who Fell To Earth, Elephant Gun shares similarities with its sister film. Both have musicians as leads: David Bowie as the titular alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Elvis Presley as the washed-up actor travelling to Las Vegas to gamble his last money on a roulette wheel. What is astounding about Elephant Gun is that it manages to make Elvis, the most famous man on the planet, unknowable. Here he is a smudge, a sad hollow middle-aged man.

The ironies abound of course. And they are traps that Roeg avoids with his straight-faced delivery. We see inklings of Elvis impersonators in Vegas, but there is no face-off, no acknowledgement; Buddy (Presley) sadly heads for his table, ignoring the glitz around him, the glitz that in real-life he represented to it's fullest. It could be seen as Elvis' disavowal of his own present, that he plays a man burning out inside and gambling his life away in this city of hellish castles.

There is a dazzling sequence at the centre of the film, in which Buddy looks at a collection of photos of good times past, and we are treated to a flashback sequence of recreated stills that echo previous Presley films. We see him in Hawaii, in LA, and in poignantly happier times on a previous visit to Las Vegas with an unnamed blonde, who the Buddy keeps seeing around town, but cannot remember her name to call and get her attention. In Roeg's Don't Look Now, he manages to create a sickening sense of dread building up to the climax; here he creates a sense of loss and fear. Buddy sees suspicion everywhere. He wins money, only to find out he actually lost.

The narrative becomes eliptical and deliberately listless. What is apparent is the growing awareness that Buddy hasn't picked Las Vegas on a whim, or because it is the sin capital of the world. The presence of a double is somehow, made evident. Is Buddy haunted by a possible alternative path his life may have taken? Does Buddy know someone who has huge fame? The repeated allusions in background conversations to an unnamed successful actor who is in town irks Buddy; what is the story? We have more questions than answers. Buddy is weary, looking for answers and avoiding them. The film drifts into existential whodunnit territory, with no idea of what the crime might be, never mind the protagonist. Cynical exchanges with a bartender litter the narrative:

Bartender (Rip Torn):Hey are you..
Buddy (Presley): Thirsty. Yeah. Gimme another.
Bartender: No I mean, didn't you used to be... I mean, aren't you-
Buddy: No. I've never been no-one. Not ever.
Bartender: Hey. Everybody is someone. I'm someone. She's someone. You're someone.
Buddy: Well set the alarm for me. Maybe I'll wake up and find out who.

There are two Presley songs on an otherwise electronic and low-key jazz score: The haunting and lovely How Many Tears Can A Sad Man Cry?, a Hank Williams style confession, and the charging drunk-in-denial Loose Booze, Loose Blues, which shockingly for an Elvis song is largely instrumental except for his distinctive echoing grunts and desperate full-throated wails.

Contractual disputes over the exact details of Elvis' movie contract and fans' shock at this departure for the star caused a lot of press and a limited release for Elephant Gun. The film came out just four months before the death of Presley. His casting was seen as a folly at the time, as watching the most famous face on the planet distorted through cracked art lenses was absurd. But this absurdity is what makes the film work. Roeg explains his choice:

'I wanted to do a biopic of Superman; I wanted him trapped in an alternative universe living a life with no powers. He would be having dreams about Earth, which he had never been to. I liked the idea that Superman, a fictional character on Earth, actually exists in another world; and that in our stories, we are sending a message to him. I wanted this man to be haunted by a possible superhero alternative to his life that wasn't happening. Then Richard Donner announced he was making the Superman movie the world wanted; so I conceived of Elephant Gun. In real-life, Presley was Earth's fictional Superman; his tragedy was that he was also real.'1

Elephant Gun Directed by Nicolas Roeg Written by Nicolas Roeg Starring Elvis Presley Rip Torn Music by John Phillips/ Elvis Presley Columbia Pictures UK/US Release Date: April 1977 Running Time: 145 mins.

1 Sight and Sound, May 2003


  1. I like the sound of the soundtrack...It seems to have a Scorcese feel to the visuals, circa King of Comedy/New York, New York.

  2. I'm glad you said those things. Means I've evoked the movie somewhat.

    All of these soundtracks astound me. Wish I could hear them. 'Loose Booze/Loose Blues' is the Elvis song that never was, a bar-room Can krautrock rumble that sounds like a good-time Suicide number. Yes!

  3. How can you mention "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Elephant Gun", with out mentioning the two leading men's failed collaboration on the "Berlin, TN LP"? David Bowie, so struck with the powerful narrative Elvis provided, set out to help resurrect the aging stars career with a highly conceptual album recorded over a forty eight hour period in Berlin Tennessee. Unfortunately the collaboration fell apart when Lou Reed stormed into the studio, obviously drunk, and declared "you said that we would always have Berlin".

  4. I thought it would be poor journalism to comment on 'Berlin, TN' as I've only heard a dirty bootleg copy that I got from Camden Market and may not be the real thing (it sounds like The Cure's 'Pornography' if said LP had been thrown into the Mississippi with a block of cement tied to the ankles). In hindsight, it does seem like it was strange to not mention it, particularly given the opportunity to re-tell that famous old Lou Reed story. Lou of course, denies to this day that he said that line, and attributes it to Iggy; Iggy, naturally, says he can't remember. My real question: Did the ping-pong doubles of legend really take place? (Lou and Dave vs Jim and the King?) and if so, who won? I always imagined that Pop's energy would ruffle opponents, and that Reed was the MacEnroe of the table. Everybody knows about Bowie's languid backhand, but could the King play ping-pong? I can hear him now. 'Your serve, Jim mah friend. Now give him your backspin, Dave sure does like some pace on his ball'.

    Sigh. Perhaps we'll never know.

  5. My image of Iggy and Bowie's Berlin period is them playing ping-pong by day and going to drag bars in the evening. But if Elvis was there? Would they have done cabaret?

  6. I wonder. I like the image of Elvis walking round Berlin with his hair cut really short ( or left to grow very long), no dye, wearing a trenchcoat and smoking a cigarette. There's another potential Fictional Film Club entry: DER KONIG (I don't know, enter some offbeat director here, 2002) The story of Elvis' little known Berlin period.